A journalist laughs at the thought that his layoff anniversary is worth a story, but…

September 1, 2010
Category: Uncategorized

by Michael Goldfarb

London – For Michael Goldfarb each day begins as it always did up until July 2005. He wakes up an hour before his family, goes into his home office and reads his way through a minimum of five papers online making notes about possible stories to follow-up.

In other ways it is different. There is rarely a daily deadline to gear up for and no travel to a war zone to set up. There is work to do but it must be conjured up out of discipline or as the former public radio reporter puts it, “Routine is what gets people through prison, kidnapping, and rehabilitation from life threatening illness,” he said in an interview with himself for this article. “It is the only thing that can get a person through being laid off.”

We are walking in Springfield Park at the eastern edge of inner London near where he has made his home for almost twenty years. The park slopes steeply down to the River Lee, a narrow, embanked tributary of the Thames. Canal boats, canoes and sculls vie for space along the placid surface with a staggering variety of waterfowl. It is a slice of the English countryside that somehow has survived in the heart of the city.

The setting takes the edge off some painful reminiscences of what happened late one Friday evening exactly five years ago. Fifth anniversary look backs are a trope of journalism. The last one Michael Goldfarb did was in 2008 when he returned to northern Iraq to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the war there. He laughs at the thought that his own anniversary is worth a story. But he is willing to tell it if it helps any of the thousands of other journalists who have been forced out of the business during the last few years.

The phone call came on a Friday, at the end of a grueling 24 hours when the reporter had been on the air at WBUR, the Boston NPR station, almost non-stop. A coordinated series of suicide bombing attacks on London’s public transport system had left more than 50 people dead. Goldfarb covered the breaking news. A prescient documentary on Britain’s jihadist groups he had done the year before – for which he won an Overseas Press Club Award – was being re-aired around the public radio system and he was doing interviews for other member stations.

When WBUR’s news director got on the phone, Goldfarb admits he thought he was going to give him a pat on the back for a good day’s work. Instead it was to tell him that after five years his position was being eliminated. That his job was under threat was not a surprise. The station had run up a $13 million dollar deficit, consultants Grant Thornton had been called in. But the announcement still provoked a visceral outburst.

“Blind rage. After more than a decade of miscarriages and IVF treatments my wife was two weeks from carrying our first baby to full term. The guys in Boston knew that. I was enraged that they would jeopardize the prospect of a healthy delivery with the kind of shock to the system that losing a job entails.”

Goldfarb adds that other emotions that come with job loss – fear and bitterness – came later. “I imagine my story in outline is similar to thousands of others: I hired a lawyer, got a decent settlement and didn’t think I had to rush into another situation. I wanted to consider other options. I got offered a job in LA, but the situation there wasn’t quite what it seemed and it didn’t pan out.”

He spent time looking for teaching work. “I got asked whether I have a masters degree. I don’t. When I suggested that in lieu of an MA they substitute 20 years of experience in which my work had won most of the major broadcast awards, plus a book that had just been named a New York Times Notable Book in lieu of an MA, I found that was not good enough.”

By the time, the settlement money ran out he found himself in the riptide of journalism’s Great Depression. “One by one foreign desks shut down. Today you can’t get a minyan together for lunch at the American Association of Correspondents in London.”

He rebuilt the freelance existence he had before going to work full-time with NPR in 1992. A contract to write a book titled “Emancipation” about the Jews coming out of the ghetto in 19th century Europe came with a decent advance and that provided a foundation. Making radio documentaries plus writing and reading essays for the BBC, work for Globalpost.com and the occasional voice-over filled in the rest.

“Emancipation” came out last autumn to good reviews but New York publishers are cutting back on serious non-fiction and no one has made an offer for his next proposal. “I feel like a cavalry officer who has had two horses shot out from under him in the same battle. Serious reporting, serious writing: where is the audience for it in America anymore? I know It’s there, but the people who manage the news and book business have given up trying to serve it.”

He writes every morning, regardless of having a book contract, but admits that there’s a bit too much time to think about his career choice. The journalist confesses to occasionally second-guessing himself about whether he stayed in the business too long. He refers to two colleagues, “women I got to know covering the Balkans,” who moved on from observation of events to participation in them one works for the Obama Administration. The other set up a kind of NGO.

“I understand what motivated them. Anyone who has covered our new world of war in which civilians, not enemy soldiers, are the main target has to be frustrated by the professional requirements of objective reporting. You often want to do something to help rather than just bear witness. I stayed with the job because I believe firmly in the educational function of journalism. I thought there was a profound social value in the work I did.”

Goldfarb adds, “The questions Americans have had about the world since September 11th can’t be answered by leaving the world uncovered.”

He signed up with Globalpost.com before it launched because even if it didn’t offer full-time employment, it offered an online platform to continue to educate Americans about the world.

Like everyone else connected to journalism Goldfarb spends a lot of time thinking about the changes brought by the Web. The reporter believes that on balance papers should be free online. “I do a BBC TV news discussion show once a month. If I know we’re talking about Pakistan, which we do frequently, I can google ‘Pakistan Newspapers’ and up comes a page with links to 70 odd newspapers in that country and a note on which ones are written in English. They are all free. I read them to prepare for the show. Second example: while researching Emancipation I wanted to find out about Marcel Proust’s role in the Dreyfus Affair – significant, by the way – and I came across something in the New York Times archive from, I think, 1897, which is almost certainly the earliest mention of Proust in America. This makes me a devotee of free and open access.”

But that sort of thing does cost someone something. Surely, free is unsustainable. Goldfarb reminds a reporter that he spent most of his career in public radio. “Home of the free,” as he calls it. Only about 15 percent of NPR’s regular listeners actually answer the pledge drive call and it hasn’t stopped NPR growing. He wonders why newspapers didn’t implement a strategy years ago to make advertisers carry the freight for expansion onto the web.

“15 years ago, if the head of NBC had told the network’s advertisers, new technology has created a platform that will increase our audience by a factor of ten and we will be adjusting our rate card appropriately, do you think he would have faced a rebellion? By a factor of how many has the New York Times’ readership gone up? Surely, there should have been a way to increase rates and find new advertisers for on-line.”

Goldfarb accepts that some form of charging is inevitable now but hopes that the powers that be remember how important archive access is. He suggests that if a paywall is put up at the New York Times it only be secure around news content for 72 hours – roughly the time it takes for a paper to go from immediacy to fish-wrapping – before free, open access to all.

Our walk has come to an end on a little pedestrian bridge arcing over the tranquil river scene. The reminiscences have stirred up feelings that are not so peaceful. “Although I try to fight it, I am bitter for all the personal reasons you can imagine. But I’m angry too, and that has nothing to do with my sense of personal loss.

“When I read about another philanthropist endowing a chair of journalism, I get very angry. The money would be better spent hiring laid off journalists to go into high schools to teach kids how to read newspapers because the big challenge to the future of journalism isn’t the web, it’s that more and more people reach adulthood without the habit of reading or listening to the news.”

Why not do what so many others have done. Make a change in mid-career, get over it, move on. It’s the American way, right?

“No, I’m stuck with it. I just believe in the redeeming social value of journalism. I am certain there are millions of people in the U.S. who are incredibly curious about the world and are underserved by existing news outlets – I mean how many full-time American foreign correspondents are left? Somewhere between one and two hundred? You can’t inform American society about the world with so few. People based overseas look at the U.S. today and are simply aghast at the ignorance of the world which is displayed there daily, from the upper echelons of government down to the street. So I carry on. I commit as much journalism today as I ever did, I just earn 50 percent less doing it.”

He pauses and anger, bitterness and perplexed pride bubble up. “I wonder about the consultants at McKinsey or Grant Thornton, what is their metric for that? How do they assign a numerical value to a person’s profound dedication to the practice of journalism?”

The reporter intends to carry on, despite the economic absurdity. “I’m reading about Confucius for the new book I’m researching. He, too, at the age of 50 was forced out of work. Confucius told his pupils later, ‘When employed, practice your way. When set aside, treasure your way.'”

The Interview over Goldfarb says to himself, “Think I’ll use that for my kicker.”

– 30 –

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