When the Beat Does Not Go On
A longtime journalist reflects on reinventing her life outside of a newsroom.
My last day at The Philadelphia Inquirer is something of a blur now, but one image is embedded in my brain: Susan FitzGerald, my friend and colleague of 17 years, standing on the loading dock and waving goodbye as I packed my beat-up Toyota station wagon with the files and memorabilia of a long and distinguished reporting career and drove off to an unknown future.
I left on a steamy day at the end of July 2001. It was by choice—sort of. Like scores of other reporters and editors who left the Inquirer in successive waves of buyouts, I could not bear to watch the paper I loved eviscerated by the bean counters at Knight Ridder, Inc., its parent company. In the interest of ever-higher profit margins, the ascendant Ridder side of the corporation embarked on a slash-and-burn strategy that eventually stripped the Inky of its foreign bureaus, closed most of its national bureaus, shrunk the news hole and reduced the physical size of the paper, giving it the look of a tabloid.
The writing was on the wall: No longer would my colleagues and I be given the time and space to pursue the news in depth wherever it led. And what was happening at the Inquirer was happening almost everywhere in American journalism: Profit was now the driving force, not public service.
My departure from the Inquirer marked the end of a 30-year career in print journalism—first at The Oregon Times, a scrappy magazine of investigative reporting; then at The Oregonian, where my reporting played a key role in overturning a one-way desegregation plan, and finally at the Inky, where I had the adventures of a lifetime. Among them were reconstructing a 46-day strike at my newspaper; witnessing the devastation of the AIDS pandemic in inner- city American and in the developing world, and trekking by camel into a tiny village in the desert of northwestern India to cover the global campaign to eradicate polio virus.
All was a labor of love. But with American journalism going south, it was time to get out before I became another one of those defeated souls who were all around me—once fine reporters who were now simply putting in their time before they could collect a pension.
I was at once terrified about the future— and excited about taking a risk and putting my professional passion to work in another arena. Still, there was a mourning period—actually, many moments of mourning—as I shed a professional identity that spanned three decades. I’ll never forget the emptiness I felt as an immigration official in Nairobi demanded to know my profession. Consultant? No, too bureaucratic. Teacher? Well, I was helping to train journalists in developing countries, but teacher was something of a stretch. Writer? Pompous, but I went with it anyway.
I am now four years out on “the other side.” Ironically, the more work I do in the nonprofit arena, the more I realize just how special is the role of the journalist in a free society.
Take the philanthropic world. For a time, I worked for a large, public-spirited foundation doing excellent work in both the United States and abroad. I will not name the foundation, because I don’t want to generate public controversy that would undermine its mission. But suffice it to say that even foundations have their limits. What I discovered was an intolerance of internal criticism, the kind of critique that news editors do of their newspapers every day.
Next came a couple years working for a small nonprofit organization with all the right values. But when it came to the fundamental value that I most care about—an unwavering dedication to the truth—I discovered a curious reluctance to present the unvarnished facts for fear of hurting “the larger cause.”
Finally, I had a short stint in academia, working for a distinguished president at a prestigious university. Wasn’t truthseeking what it was all about in the academy? Maybe among the students and faculty, but not at the top. At the pinnacle, it’s all about raising money, lots of money. For a good cause, mind you. A cause that will rebound to the good of all society if the next capital campaign is successful. But along the way, there are compromises to be made, trustees to please, image to maintain, and rhetoric to spin. At what point does the center not hold? I don’t know—and I didn’t want to stick around to find out.
If I were a rich woman, I would renovate an old warehouse, call in the Inquirer diaspora, and put out the best damn newspaper in America. Alas, it is not to be. In May, I began a new job overseeing communications for an award-winning public-private partnership that provides mental health services to poor people in Philadelphia. I have hopes of building a public education campaign that enables people to seek help before a crisis occurs. We have too many children getting killed in the crossfire of drug wars, too many homeless mentally ill freezing to death on city streets, too many young gay men getting infected with HIV because they don’t care enough about themselves or their future to wear a condom.
Once again, I am reinventing myself. This time, it feels right. But deep inside the journalist is still alive and well and wanting to use the power of words to change the world.
Huntly Collins is a 1983 Nieman Fellow.