Thursday, November 11, 2004

What makes a "real" journalist?

Al, one of my trade mag editors, congratulates me the other day. "You've gotten your first piece of hate mail," he says. "You're officially a real journalist."

I'd been accused of failing in my ethical duty to provide balance. Not, ironically, for the recently-published piece about the controversial body armor manufacturer Second Chance and its use of the controversial fiber Zylon. (In fact, many readers congratulated me for my fair treatment of all the players in that story.) No, this was for the magazine's annual Body Armor Update, to which the major body armor manufacturers in North America contribute their news. One company's notable absence drew the ire of several of its stockholders, one of whom was my hate mailer.

Long story short, I did a search of the mailer's username, found a stockholder forum on which he posted, and found the original postings encouraging a different member to email me expressing their collective unhappiness. As a member of the larger community in which the forum was hosted, I posted several messages explaining our editorial decisions (namely, the fact that their own company had no news for us), and after several back-and-forths, the stockholders finally decided to lay blame where it belonged: with the company's marketing staff.

Epilogue to happy ending: my hate mailer IM'd me with profuse apologies and gratitude for my point of view.

Which brings me to the subject. What makes a "real" journalist? I suspect it's not so much the milestones - first piece of fan mail, first piece of hate mail - as what they represent: the ongoing struggle we all go through to improve ourselves and our writing. In reality, this email and my reaction to it were direct results of other events that happened this year: a source rudely refusing to talk to me. Joining the esteemed Deciding to start these blogs, as well as my own website. Finally, realizing that I'd better find alternate, better sources of income or else face having to give up freelancing altogether. And that I'd have to stop thinking of myself as "just a writer" and start calling myself a "journalist" if I expected to make it into bigger and better markets.

Poynter's Roy Peter Clark wrote in a recent column about how to write an ending, "Some journalists think of themselves as reporters, while others aspire to the title of writer. While these labels more often refer to self-image than exercise of craft, the idea of an ending often divides the reporter from the writer. The writer wants to craft an ending. The reporter just wants to stop."

As an aspiring novelist and short story writer, I was struck by Clark's insight. Over the last few months, reflecting on my struggles and the fact that my job working for trade magazines often involves more PR work than journalism, I'd wondered whether my writing was suffering, whether I could stand to make it more creative, whether it was possible to be more creative. Reflecting on Clark's column, which included different types of endings, I realized that 1) I'd already put his ideas to use in my work and 2) even PR work - describing to law enforcement administrators how vendors' products can be put to use in their agencies - leaves room for creativity, in terms of describing successful case outcomes or progressive policies that this one product helped facilitate.

It's not New York Times material, but it's a start. What matters is that I'm thinking about it and ready to put my creative side to use - even for PR. That is what makes a real journalist.


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