June 1, 2021

When an ace reporter leaves a news organization, the remnant left behind goes into a kind of mourning. How long they sit shiva depends upon the destination of the nearly departed.

If the reporter winds up at a bigger, more profitable, more prestigious shop, old colleagues may feel a hopeful joy. Maybe the same thing will happen to them.

More often, the ace reporter leaves the newspaper for a different kind of job, if not better then at least more secure.

The talents of ace reporters turn out to be in high demand. Choose your field: marketing, public relations, advertising, public information, education, technology, the vast world of nonprofits, health care, law, fundraising, government at every level.

If you have news judgment, if you are capable of critical thinking, if you are adept at in-depth research, if you can inhabit social networks. … Hey, I am making this too complicated: If you can read, think, write and talk, you may not wind up in the job you thought you wanted, but it may well be the job you now need, one that hints at a happier life.

I recently followed a Twitter conversation, in which an ace reporter announced her departure from a news organization. She loved her job and her colleagues but thought that her struggling newspaper was no longer capable of sustaining a productive work environment. Feeling overworked and underpaid was part of a larger sentiment: that the world and the work you once loved were wasting away.

This sense of atrophy is one way that individuals experience the larger existential crises facing journalism. As an enterprise, journalism has suffered the devastating loss of resources from the collapse of its business model — money from advertising — magnified by the disruption of the internet and the growth of social media.

Who will pay for quality journalism in the future? Many experiments are underway, but no one has the answer. The loss of news and editorial power has left communities — whole states — under-covered, depriving citizens of the information they need to make good decisions about their lives. Some locations are so depleted they have been tagged as news deserts.

But that is just the half of it. The other half of the existential crisis involves vicious attempts to decertify the press, to dismiss it as biased and unethical, to transform its reputation from that of responsible watchdog to enemy of the people. The act of blaming the messenger for the delivery of bad news is ancient, but in the modern world its effect has been to make the practice of journalism more disheartening and at times dangerous.

So off goes reporter Sam to law school. And off goes reporter Sally to work in the public information office of the local college. And off goes reporter Buffy to become a vampire slayer. The discourse on Twitter about these moves is full of regret, and, in a way, regrettable. It is as if the journalist has abandoned a priesthood, is no longer a member of the tribe, has gone over to the Dark Side. Often, that judgment is expressed, half-jokingly, by the journalist who is about to walk out the door.

When I left the academy in 1977 and entered the newsroom, such stories were expressed as a kind of morality play. Journalists portrayed themselves as champions of the public good, keeping corrupt power in check, exposing secrets that citizens needed to know. The obstacles to achieving that good work, in the eyes of the journalists, were public relations or public information officers. In the words of the old city editor, they were flacks.

The history of this term is telling, if a bit speculative.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “flack” as “a press agent, a publicist,” someone who back in the day might promote a Hollywood movie. Sometimes flacks created “publicity stunts” to shine a light on a project or celebrity. (I’ve learned this from watching countless episodes of “I Love Lucy.”)

But “flack” is also a variant spelling of “flak,” defined as “the bursting shells fired from anti-aircraft artillery.” The word developed a secondary, informal meaning: “excessive or abusive criticism.” Even today we might say, “I am catching so much flak from that email I sent.”

The connection seems logical and lexical: It is the job of the public relations officer to catch the flak, that is, to protect the interests of the company and its executives from criticism, and to mitigate the effects of bad news, where a so-called hatchet job gets rebuffed by a PR job.

If that is your vision of public relations, no wonder Jedi journalists might wonder if they have crossed over to the Dark Side.

How sad, how narrow, how counterproductive. It’s the story that we continue to tell ourselves, and if we told it to a shrink, the good doctor would help us understand that it is a narrative that is keeping us sick and hurting the public good.

What if we changed the story? What if we imagined that the journalist, the mayor’s speechwriter, the grant writer for the public schools, the public information officer for the hospital, were actually members of the same tribe?

Let me give that tribe a name: Public Writers.

What do all public writers do? They gather important information. They check it out. They decide what is most important or interesting. They report it out. Along the way they tell compelling stories. They write purposefully for particular audiences.

Ah, I hear the cynics gnashing their teeth down in the valley of the shadow of death: But the PR folks do it for different reasons from journalists, and to protect different interests!

In their autobiographies, journalists see themselves as having their primary loyalty to the public. A common story of courage is when a reporter, stymied by an editor or publisher, will share a damning report with a rival news organization. This is supposed to be different from the PR person, whose primary loyalty, it is said, is not to the public but to the employer.

But the motives of many individual journalists are less pure than they would admit. Reporters want scoops and kick-ass investigations that will advance their careers. They work for businesses that will keep lots of secrets when it is in their corporate interests.

Here is what I see: The curse is a blessing in disguise. The migration of good journalists into other fields expands interest in the well-being of important institutions. I know many of these “former journalists,” and they have not left their skills and values behind. They use them every day for the public good.

I want you to imagine how many writing workshops I have conducted for journalists over the last four decades, and how much I have learned from them. I honor these reporters and editors every day as champions of community and democracy. I have worked with news organizations in 40 states and on five continents.

Because the skills of journalists are widely valued, I have been asked to share writing tools with many non-journalism organizations. These include schools at every level of education. But they also include businesses, nonprofits, law firms and government agencies. The list includes the World Bank, Microsoft, Hilton, NOAA, Disney, IBM, HHS, AAA, the United Nations, just to name a few of the most prominent.

Never once did a workshop participant ask me: How can I hide stuff from journalists? Or how can I say this without really saying it? Or how can I divert blame from our company?

No, they asked me the same questions that trusty journalists ask: How can I tell better stories? How can I make harder facts easier to read? How can I make important things sound interesting? Can I still use semicolons?

Let me offer perhaps a crude analogy. During the 1960s and beyond, many Catholic men and women in religious life — priests, brothers, nuns — left their holy orders, some to marry, others to pursue professions in the secular world. There was talk about the “loss” of these people who had “abandoned” their vocations.

But they didn’t. They went on to serve the Church in countless ways, to help drag it into the modern world, and to infuse professions — including journalism — with a sense of mission and purpose.

What would happen if we created a new organization — call it XJ (for so-called ex-journalists). We would lend those pilgrims the moral support and continuing craft training they need to fulfill their mission — not as flack catchers — but as proponents of the public good.

How do we get people vaccinated? We need to get the message out about the safety of vaccines, their availability and their effects. Who is responsible for getting that message out? Journalists and other media leaders, to be sure. But also government officials at every level, epidemiologists and other scientists, pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies, churches and civic organizations, also the supermarket chains that are making vaccines available.

In other words, not a small tribe of journalists. But a large tribe of public writers, of which journalists are essential members.

Want to read more about public writing? Check out Roy Peter Clark’s latest book, “Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing,” available April 11 from Little, Brown.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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  • Amen. And thank you. I left the journalism field a long time ago and have never stopped being one.

  • When I left my last newspaper job and then attended a conference of the American Copy Editors Society, its president, Chris Weinandt of the Dallas Morning News, asked at the opening session, “How many here are not journalists?” I felt a chill, and my right hand twitched, not knowing what to do. It was clear to me that despite not having a news affiliation, I remained a journalist, and I always would. Not a daily practitioner, exactly, but we all do our bit, don’t we? The ideals of journalism — informing our neighbors, sharing the truth — remain. I consider myself a journalist, even if where I do journalism is more vague than it was when I could point to the local newspaper. When I’m hired to edit, I worry about honest conveyance of information. When I worked at a newspaper, I gave little thought to the publisher’s view or the owner’s reaction. A journalist works for the reader, no matter where the paycheck is coming from.