August 18, 2022

When the sky was clear, I could see black plumes of smoke spiraling out from the airstrikes we called on locations in the distance.

As a U.S. military advisor to the Afghan National Police Force in 2017, I worked on a small remote police outpost just south of Lashkar Gah, a southern city in danger of falling back into the hands of the Taliban. Our compound was surrounded on one side by fields of corn and sorghum and on the other side by an expanse of desert shrubs and empty shells of burned out cars.

I was growing tired of my life in the military, the constant packing and moving, the stress it was having on my personal relationships. Meanwhile, I wrote every day – in the morning before my shift, after my shift, at meetings – I had so many questions I wanted to explore. I read The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and I didn’t feel like I ever got enough.

I resigned from the Marine Corps in the fall of 2017. By the time I left the service in April 2018, I had been on active duty for 11 years.

My colleagues said I was crazy. By leaving the military I was giving up my eligibility to obtain a sizable pension — along with full retirement and medical benefits— at age 42, which was nine years away. In addition, I had been recently promoted to major and this seemed like a betrayal. In their view, I was throwing away an opportunity that was increasingly hard to come by: a chance to climb the chain of command.

Moreover, many of my peers said they felt that I would be simply throwing away all the specialized skills and knowledge I had developed during my time in the military. If I was leaving the service, they strongly advised me to forego journalism and writing and pursue another government job — preferably, within the Defense Department — where my expertise would not go to complete waste.

When I finished an MFA in creative writing three years later, I was filled with anxiety. I was heading into the job market in the middle of a pandemic. Many newsrooms shifted to remote work and people had long stopped meeting in person. I spent most of my days confined to my room at home staring at my computer screen. To make matters worse, no one, it seemed, wanted to take a chance on hiring me.

Employers would offer me lots of hearty “Thank you for your service and sacrifice” affirmations during Zoom interviews. But it appeared that hiring an older transitioning military veteran who studied creative writing collided with their expectations. A few employers would drop hints in our conversations alluding to my age and past military experience. One employer flat out told me that I was too old for the entry-level reporter jobs I wanted. Another took time to tell me that they didn’t have a specific veterans reporting beat. In these moments, I could see the foreboding faces of my past colleagues.

Then, one day, I received an unexpected email. I had been accepted into the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship.

Through the program, I found my first full-time journalism job working as an accountability reporter with Street Sense Media, a small nonprofit news outlet based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to raise awareness on issues related to homelessness and poverty.

How serving in the military prepared me for journalism

The author boards a helicopter on his last day in Afghanistan in 2018. (Courtesy of Will Schick)

Even though I was excited to be finally working as a journalist in a service-oriented newsroom, I was also self-conscious about my own skills. I felt pressured to make up for lost time. I kept thinking about all those conversations I had with potential employers, all the explaining I had to do over why I left the military and wanted a new career.

Every week, I tuned in to virtual training sessions – staffed by industry experts – where I received my first-ever formal training in the craft of journalism. I learned the ins and outs of reporting, editing, managing and tracking sources and ethics. The best part of the fellowship training, however, were the small session groups where we had the chance to meet with our mentors.

I learned about the challenges the other fellows were facing in their newsrooms, from managing difficult relationships with editors to better pitching a story. I became more and more confident with every session, knowing that I was not alone in my feelings about my perceived inadequacies. I felt the ache of imposter syndrome. And so did many of my peers.

Over time, I felt more assured in my skills. I started to find connections between my past career as a Marine and my role as reporter. I had my fair share of run-ins with difficult people in the military. A former intelligence officer, I was also familiar with the dangers of conflating correlation with causation when presenting information. While the specifics of my work as a journalist were unique, there were so many areas I found that overlapped with my past work experience.

Interns coming across barriers in their reporting – unable to find a certain public record or convince someone to agree to an interview – would frequently approach me to ask for advice on what to do. More often than not, I knew how to approach the issue. It turns out that during my time in the military, I developed a set of valuable skills that had become instinctual. I always met my deadlines and I almost always found the information I needed for stories.

The value of mentorship

But then, as I searched for other jobs, I received another offer I hadn’t expected. It was two weeks before Christmas. My editor was leaving Street Sense Media and wanted me to take his place. He said he felt I had the right set of skills to lead the newsroom. My mentor advised me through the process of negotiating my salary and assuming a new leadership role.

If it wasn’t for the support I was receiving from the fellowship, I don’t know how I would have survived the first few months. I had to recruit and hire a whole new staff, learn how to design a newspaper and navigate a slew of ethical situations. I dealt with everything from plagiarism to fact-checking and disputes over editorial payments.

In the position to make change

Man with face mask sitting behind a computer in a small office.

The author works at his desk in the editorial office of Street Sense Media. (Courtesy Will Schick)

During my fellowship, our advisors encouraged us to develop an innovation project – to improve some aspect of our work in our newsrooms. For some time, I had been engrossed in my project idea: to develop a guide to help journalists improve the way they reported on homelessness.

Our newsroom specialized in this kind of reporting. But I couldn’t help but notice that there were plenty of newsrooms who did not know the first thing about reporting on homelessness. They would print stories that would conflate the experience of homelessness with substance use, or incorrectly characterize all homeless people as mentally ill or dangerous. While I saw that there were guides for reporting on everything from businesses to the military, no one had yet produced a guide for reporting on homelessness.

As editor, I now had the authority to make this happen.

This fall, our newsroom will be debuting a set of ethical considerations for a weeklong reporting project which will take place from Oct.10-14. And I will continue working on the guide with support from the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Solutions Journalism Network.

I left the military five years ago hoping to become a journalist. Now, thanks to the instincts I developed as a Marine and the training and mentorship I received from the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, I am leading a nonprofit newsroom that aims to improve the way homelessness is covered in American journalism.

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Will has an MFA in creative writing from American University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in journalism at New York University. He was…
Will Schick

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