For many journalists, the bonds formed in the newsroom remain long after they leave

Many journalists who have spent time working in a newsroom forge there — in that sometimes chaotic and stressful environment — some of the deepest and most enduring friendships of their lives, even as thousands of us have been laid off, quit or bought out.

“We are a family full of passion and character, one I’m deeply sad to leave,” Michelle Hiskey wrote in 2008 for the Columbia Journalism Review as she took a buyout after 22 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “From my colleagues, I learned how to make a feather-light piecrust, quilt, find the best flea markets. They taught me how to camp, hike, and paddle. One work friend saved me from hypothermia after my canoe capsized in a freezing river.”

As a veteran of three dailies — the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, I’ve stayed in touch with several former colleagues, like the Globe’s one remaining staff photographer, Fred Lum.

Our old newsroom, a low, white-brick building, was torn down a few years ago for yet another downtown Toronto condo tower, but Lum thoughtfully snagged a brick for me. When we met at a Toronto diner this spring, (with my husband, Jose R. Lopez, a 31-year former New York Times photographer and photo editor), the handover was complete, giving me a physical piece of my newspaper past.

I asked a few other newspaper veterans to talk about these powerful bonds.

Caitlin Kelly and Fred Lum with a brick from the Globe and Mail's old newsroom. (Submitted photo)

Maryn McKenna, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, now a three-time non-fiction author, freelance writer and Wired columnist

McKenna joined the Journal-Constitution from the Boston Herald, and spent much of her time in Atlanta on longform stories of CDC projects and deployments, “including the start of West Nile virus, the worldwide epidemic of SARS, Hurricane Katrina, and the Indian Ocean tsunami,” she said. “I also embedded for a year with their rapid-reaction disease detectives, the Epidemic Intelligence Service, and wrote my first book about them, "Beating Back the Devil."

McKenna left the AJC in 2006. As layoffs began, and things changed within the newsroom, she said, so did her friendships.

“Who knew when your deskmate might want to take your job away? So my closest friends ended up being people in other departments — among them, a tech writer, a food writer, a features editor, a columnist — who had the same shared experience of the place but weren’t on adjacent beats. A decade later, we’re still close.”

McKenna thinks that’s, in part, because of Foxhole camaraderie. Journalists work weekends and holidays and have to deal daily with sources who don’t want them there.

“That all tends to build a gestalt of: ‘The outside world doesn’t understand us, so it is up to us to appreciate each other.’ There’s definitely a journalistic personality — we’re simultaneously deeply cynical and utterly committed to old-fashioned virtues of truthfulness and accuracy and grinding hard work — and the stresses of journalistic practice make it clear pretty quickly who in the newsroom shares those values and who doesn’t. Once you find people who do share them, you cling to them.”

Even decades later, those friendships continue, McKenna said.

“It’s kind of remarkable to me, and I’m utterly grateful for it, that my groups of newspaper friends have endured as long as they have, even though some of them have retired from journalism or moved to new fields. One group is women who have dinner together every month in the same place, and the other is women and men, (and spouses and partners) who have periodic dinner parties and do an out-of-town weekend once a year. Each of those groups keeps going because of the efforts of one or two people who just won’t let the connection drop, dammit, and I’m so grateful to them. They’re a bulwark against tough times.”

John J. Edwards III, former Wall Street Journal editor, now with Bloomberg in Geneva

Edwards started at the WSJ in 2000 and stayed there until 2017. Many of the people he was closest to he’d worked with in other newsrooms. The worst day for so many journalists — reporting 9/11 — helped cement those relationships.

"It was an extreme example of duress bringing a newsroom closer together,” he said. “A lot of that day is a blur — I don't remember at all which stories I edited — but it was good to have friends around to get through it with. Obviously we were all horrified and grief-stricken, but we pulled together because we had a job to do, and we felt fortunate to have such a remarkable team to do it with. We were lucky not to lose any colleagues that day, although a few were injured. I think often of the resilience of newsrooms that have been tragically unlucky, as at Charlie Hebdo and at the Capital Gazette of Annapolis.

"We have an extraordinary worldwide fraternity/sorority in journalism, brothers and sisters of the pen, the lens, the screen. Even when we're not being tested by war or attacks, there's something special about the blend of cynicism and idealism you find in newspeople. From my first job at BNA in Washington to my current job at Bloomberg, I have loved the camaraderie in every newsroom I've had the privilege to work in," he said. "I might not always get to work in journalism, but I'll always cherish that."

Cary L. Tyler, English and journalism teacher at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, former reporter at the Albuquerque Tribune

Tyler started at the Albuquerque Tribune as an intern in 1986 and has stayed in touch with many colleagues over the years.

“That bond of the newsroom, working through elections, deadline chaos, and the loss of colleagues too soon due to cancer and illness, is indescribable unless experienced. Tim Gallagher, the editor at the time, remains someone I can contact as a friend and for advice.

“More than half the guests to our wedding were ‘Tribunistas,’ the nickname we gave ourselves in the 80s, and we still call ourselves even though the paper has been gone for ten years. We have mourned the loss of friends over the years.”

Tyler still misses the newsroom and the lessons colleagues provided.

“I think we run even deeper nostalgic in light of so many newspapers that have been lost, including the Tribune, and how much more important the need to hold on to a free press is today. Recent events in our country may have reunited us more than we might have, despite literally being spread out across the globe. We are pained over the loss of so many papers, the loss of local coverage, the loss of veteran voices and quality writers at a time we desperately need them.”

Celeste Altus, former Contra Costa Times reporter, now works in content marketing

Altus spent seven years at the newspaper and left in 2002. She’s stayed in touch with fellow reporters Kristi Belcamino and Claire Booth, reporters she worked with on breaking news and court cases.  

“I think it was the urgency of the work, the crazy murder cases, the gnarly things we saw and dealt with in the field that bonded us forever. I mean, when you're reporting a story about body parts in duffel bags popping up in the Delta, you lean on each other to say: ‘Did I just see that?’

“There is a collective feel in a newsroom that you're doing good work and you're all together on a mission.”

Matt Wald, former New York Times reporter, now a spokesman for The Nuclear Energy Institute

Wald, who started at the Times as a copy boy in 1976, started the Times alumni Facebook group in 2014.

“The Facebook group was originally for newsroom people and alumni, but people on the business side asked to join in and they've added a lot to the discussion. One of the oddities of the Times is that you could work there for decades and meet hardly anybody outside the news operation, but for us retired types, there are no restrictions.”

Since leaving three years ago, Wald stays in close touch with a few reporters and editors he worked with during his time there.

“Some of them are still at the paper, most aren't. The Times has had very rapid turnover in the last few years. Only a handful of reporters and editors have tenure of more than 20 years, and the average is less than 10. In addition, the newsroom population hasn't dropped much but the number of reporters and editors is down pretty steeply, now supplemented by video journalists, web producers, etc. Going forward, the next generation isn't going to have lifelong colleagues because people’s paths will cross more briefly.”

Karin Klein, former Los Angeles Times editorial writer, now freelances for the Los Angeles Times

“My friendships in journalism go back decades, to the late 1970s, when I worked in the Bay area at a small paper there. I worked at the Sacramento Bee for 1.5 years as a copy editor and then as a reporter and assistant city editor in Berkeley. In the ’80s I worked at the Orange County Register and in 1989 came to the LA Times.”

Staying for decades within the state also helped her find and maintain friendships, she said. “California journalists don’t tend to leave California a lot.”

“The thing that’s always kept me in journalism is the people. Over time, socializing with people in other fields, I came to see that journalists are quick-witted, sharp, smart, funny — people who all love to read and are on top of what’s going on. Where else do you find them?”

“I never really thought about it, but they’re my compadres. It just takes the best of me to keep up with them.”

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Karin Klein's first name. It has been corrected. 

  • Caitlin Kelly

    Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning freelance journalist, teaches writing at the New York School of Interior Design and coaches other writers, worldwide, by phone, Skype and in person.

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