The sixth-floor cubicle I sit in right now at The New York Times overlooks 8th Avenue and West 41st Street. On the mornings when I get here early, before anyone else has come in and it’s quiet, I like to stare out of the large windows at the taxicabs and people hustling down the street.
I stand there and almost have to pinch myself to know that it’s real.
Ten years ago this summer I was freshly graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Central Washington University, a small state college in a town that boasts the “horsiest parade around,” but I had no idea what it meant to really be a journalist. I knew the AP stylebook cover-to-cover, how to write a decent lede, fine-tune a nut graph and craft stories into inverted pyramid style exactly like the countless students who’d come before me. I pored over Tim Harrower’s venerable newspaper design book. I was taught the strict ethics of journalism — only to see them fall by the wayside during my first daily newspaper job. I read Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” highlighting passages but failed to truly understand it, and gulped down Walter Cronkite’s “A Reporter’s Life.”
I was told that in journalism, you start at the bottom and pay your dues. Through hard work, dogged reporting and several regional SPJ awards, you work your way up out of the trenches of small-town news to the big-city metro.
It sounds so bleak now, but at the time I was ecstatic. It seemed so romantic. But as anyone who’s actually had to yell, “Stop the presses!” — which I actually had to do once because of a glaring mistake — it’s not at all like the movies.
I spent more days crying in the bathroom than taking a lunch break at my first daily newspaper job. I often refer to it as “journalism boot-camp.” At the 10,000-circulation afternoon paper in rural Eastern Oregon I wrote stories, edited stories (sometimes editing my own stories), shot photos, typed up obits, paginated pages and counseled couples on which engagement photo would be best to run in the Lifestyles section. I worked 12-hour days, making sure to punch out after eight. I was told to write stories about advertisers and to take free meals.
I lived on Wal-Mart tuna helper and malt liquor. I couldn’t afford heat. I lived in a neighborhood where two dudes tried to break into my house at 8 a.m. on Saturday. I was in my early 20s and treated for high blood pressure (which might have had to do with the tuna helper and malt liquor as much as the stress). And I sacrificed a wonderful two-year relationship to follow my dream.
It was a dark time, but I learned a hell of a lot about myself: the kind of journalist I wanted to be and the kind of place I never wanted to work at again.
One day, I looked at the $100 I had to my name and decided it was enough to move my meager belongings back to my parents’ house and try again. I wasn’t ready to give up on journalism, just on this place.
That same day the Yakima Herald-Republic, at which I had been interviewing for a job as the arts writer, called and offered me the position. Owned by The Seattle Times, the Herald-Republic is a 38,000-circulation paper (40,000 back when I started) dedicated to being fiercely independent and to watchdog reporting. I was ecstatic and for the first time in a year and a half I cried out of happiness and relief.
At the Herald-Republic I got to be the journalist I had always hoped to be, thanks in large part to my editor John Taylor. He’s the kind of editor you hope to get at least once in your life — a brilliant writer in his own right who never edits over you but helps you find your voice — and I was lucky to have him as a young journalist.
It was sort of an accident the way I found newspapers, and that’s how I thought of it, as newspapers and journalism as some interchangeable word that meant the same thing. Here was a career with a strict set of ethics at its core, a rich legacy of democracy, the power to give voice to the voiceless and to hold the powerful accountable. And they were going to let me into the club. I was a journalist. It said so on my degree. I had a notebook. I had a beat. I had a byline. I worked at a newspaper.
I thought I would work at newspapers, climbing my way up to a big city metro, for the rest of my life. I’d found my calling.
That’s why it was so hard for me to let go of newspapers — or, to clarify, to let go of thinking of newspapers as synonymous with journalism. After six years at the Herald-Republic, during which I watched the newspaper business model torn to pieces, I did finally let go of print newspapers and went back to school.
This past spring I graduated with my master’s in online journalism from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which, to my knowledge, does not boast anything about the amount of horses in its parades.
In grad school I’d been writing snarky blog posts about the demise of legacy media for a good year and a half when The New York Times called to say I’d been accepted as its summer Web intern. I had applied in the fall (yes, yes, an entirely hypocritical move, I know) and then promptly forgot about it because, you know, it’s The New York Times, an institution that wasn’t even on my aspirations radar because it seemed like such an unobtainable goal.
I think in that brief one-minute phone call I experienced confusion/trepidation/panic/excitement and again confusion when I hung up the phone. Did that really happen? Also, there was a bit of sheepishness over all my anti-legacy media posturing, but that didn’t stop me from taking celebratory tequila shots that night.
Today is my last day with The Times. I like to call the experience “Web journalism fantasy camp,” which it has been. I was present when Jill Abramson was named the first woman executive editor and I watched “Page One” with the cast. I covered a baby red-tailed hawk’s first flight, attended a wizard rock house party and interviewed young adults about the legalization of gay marriage. I helped put the online pieces together for some incredibly fun and beautiful New York Times Magazine packages. Brian Stelter tweeted me a happy birthday message and Bill Cunningham once said to me, “good morning young lady.” And like with all camp experiences, I made some great friends (sadly minus the woven friendship bracelets) that I hope I’ll stay in touch with forever.
Mostly, I’ve had a glimpse of what it’s like to work at The Times, a place that is certainly legacy media and proud of it, but more importantly is a media company constantly re-inventing the way it reports and disseminates news online. The people that work on the backend — the programmers and self-described hacks — are mind-blowing geniuses.
So three months later I, and my snarky blog posts, stand corrected. The amount I have learned here is something I will be forever grateful for and has shaped the way I think about online journalism.
Not to say everyday was a joy. Even as an intern, working at The Times is a hard, stressful job. Somedays I wondered if it was just too big of a place for me, too many cooks in the kitchen. But the truly amazing thing about having all those skilled and relentlessly dedicated cooks is that at The Times no one ever says, “no, it can’t be done.” Maybe they say it can’t (or shouldn’t) be done that way, and then they find another, better, smarter way to make it happen. I’m ridiculously proud to have my name in some small way associated with the work here.
And I never once cried in the bathroom.
[Oh, and what’s next? On Tuesday I start as online producer at WQXR.]