ITHACA, N.Y. – Nobody ever says that journalism is going to be easy.
Journalism professors tell fresh-faced, college students that the pay will be horrible, the job hunting will be difficult, and that layoffs are probable while our industry continues to shrink. There’s a certain kind of person who thinks that sounds glamorous — like earning one’s right to be a journalist.
The few people who stick with journalism as professionals are later hit with the hard truth of what those anecdotes about being a reporter actually mean.
Vigil for slain Annapolis reporters, sales assistant
• Time: 5:30 – 6:30 p.m.
• Date: Friday, July 6
• Place: Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons
What to expect: Speakers and a chance to write postcards, letters of support to reporters at the Capital Gazette
For me and other reporters in Ithaca, it means standing outside when it is so cold the ink from pens freeze (hello, pencils), working overtime on birthdays, missing Thanksgiving dinner, and having to duct tape parts of our cars together until payday.
But none of that matters when it comes to getting the news out. Whether it’s a simple news-you-can-use story about a roadway being closed due to construction or a massive scoop about the misdeeds of a public official, we want to be there to cover it. That is, unfortunately, harder for us to do nowadays.
Not a single paper in the county has even half-a-dozen full-time reporters left to cover an area that was once covered by dozens of reporters.
But that does not mean we are able to make excuses. It means we work harder and smarter. We cultivate sources, we still knock on doors, and we write — we write very quickly.
A seldom talked about task is how journalists everywhere also field hate mail, threats of violence, angry phone calls, profanity laden-confrontations in public, and disparaging remarks on our personal character. If you are a minority in a newsroom — a person of color, a woman, a member of LGBTQ community, etc. — the threats pile up in additional racist, sexist, bigoted ways.
In big city newsrooms, those kinds of hateful incidents have the possibility of feeling far away. There’s a little bit of anonymity for reporters in cities. In small communities like Ithaca, though, threats and hateful comments feel different. Local reporters are likely to run into the very people who hate them at grocery stores, bars and on the Commons. It’s a well-known and under-reported part of our profession because reporters don’t want to be the story. We want to write the story.
Reporters in Ithaca, like in the rest of the country, just shake it off. We tell ourselves that it is just part of the profession, but it is a part of the profession that’s gotten increasingly worse in the past few years, and that’s not a partisan statement.
Since 9/11, each President of the United States and their administration has cracked down on journalists’ sources and people’s ability to talk the press without retribution. For instance, former President Barack Obama supported putting a record number of sources in jail, totaling eight over the course of his administration. And President Donald Trump has leveraged that toxicity toward journalists to an all-out verbal war against the press, one that his supporters are happy to join in on.
So when the news broke that five people were killed in the Capital Gazette newsroom last week by a man who held a grudge against the paper, I thought a lot about how we would have handled a similarly disgruntled reader at The Voice.
I thought that maybe we should start locking the newsroom door while we’re in there. Maybe we should get our mail sent to a post office box. Maybe we should save the rent money and go back to working out of coffee shops.
But then I remembered that most journalists don’t actually live in fear. To be honest, we complain to our co-workers and read the worst emails or comments aloud to each other and commiserate. We even laughed at the absurdity of those “crazy commenters” saying obnoxious and hateful things.
I’ve imagined reporters at the Capital Gazette doing the same thing — saying, “That creepy guy emailed again … wanna hear it?”
With a population of about 39,000 people in Annapolis, I’ve imagined that it feels as intimate as Ithaca does. I think that the reporters must have run into their mayor at the local comic book shop and wondered if someone on the city council does landscaping and if they have a big parade every year celebrating the authentic weirdness of the city.
When I heard about the shooting, it felt like it happened to people I would have known and admired.
So we’re going to do what people do when something tragic happens.
We’re having a vigil for editors Rob Hiaasen, Wendy Winters, John McNamara, Gerald Fischman, and for sales assistant, Rebecca Smith, whose job to keep advertisers engaged with the paper is just as important as any article that is published.
It’s happening Friday evening from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. at the Bernie Milton Pavilion in the Ithaca Commons.
Local reporters, myself included, are going to share a few words about the free press. We’ll set up a few tables so that anyone who comes out can write a postcard or letters of encouragement to the staff at the Capital Gazette. We’ll collect them and The Voice will send it to Annapolis this weekend.
We hope you join us.
Featured image: By Roger H. Goun from Brentwood, NH, USA (Reporter’s notebook) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons