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Archive for December, 2009

Back Road Gonzo

Driving the country highways and rural routes in the Rocky Mountain states, especially in Montana or Wyoming, means eventually stumbling across a roadside bar. These provide food, gas, and booze, and, generally, good company on a nearby bar stool.

At one of these bars, I met Mister. Over the course of two hours, Mister told me three stories: he recounted his years building the railroad; he told me about driving from Idaho Falls to Salt Lake City for the birth of his first grandchild; and he told me about his wife’s slow, heartbreaking death.  While he talked, he sipped whiskey through a straw. After each sip—one every five minutes or so—he switched to another story. He kept them sequential, and he picked up the story where he left it, three sips previous.

These stories came organically, and without a hint of self-pity or congratulation. I prompted all of them because I told him I was from Utah, was driving to a friend’s wedding in Montana, and did not have a job because I wanted to spend my last summer before college graduation fishing, drinking, and writing.

Mister sold me on a journalism career. That summer, I really did live in a cabin, fishing, drinking, and writing (I also worked, part-time, at a convenience store, so I half-lied to Mister). I had left Logan, Utah, where I had a job as a full-time correspondent for The Salt Lake Tribune, to escape to the woods.

That was the second time I burned out on journalism and left the profession. Mister brought me back, because I realized that I wanted to tell his story, and the stories of many others like him. Hunter Thompson also brought me back, because that summer I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I finished college, and being a drunk writer with some journalistic talent (especially for my age), became a full staff writer at another daily newspaper. Since that time, more than a decade ago, I have burned out at least a dozen times. I’ve looked at becoming a farmer, a PR hack, a novelist, a politician, a teacher (I even went to a year of additional schooling a few years ago for a license), a nonprofit development director, a bookstore owner, a professional brewer, a chef. Some of those ideas never went beyond wistful dreams, others I aggressively pursued. Through it all, I remained a journalist, and despite my best attempts to derail it, I kept climbing the goddamn ladder.

Sadly, I’m a rare beast. Very few journalists in my age range have survived. Good for them. This is a rotten profession, and one I would almost never recommend to any sane or sober person. The hours are longer and getting longer, the pay shitty and getting worse, the professional respect tanked and sinking. People make jokes about lawyers because, even if they despise them, they envy their power and money. Nobody makes jokes about journalists, because they simply despise them or, at best, pity them.

Why stay with it, you ask?  I have no idea. There is the thrill of the chase, the triumph of a great story, the ability to make powerful people stop and talk to you (sometimes). But all of that is idealism, and idealism is a well that only runs so deep.

That’s a question asked of many, many journalists, especially anyone under 40. And all of them will have, basically, an identical response. The collective we, that batch of journalists who started in the late ’90s that Zombie Journalism calls “the lost generation,” are flailing for a purpose. As she points out, most of us were educated as old school journalists and now work as Web 2.0 multiplatform personalities. We are tech-savvy, but no matter how much we embrace Twitter, Facebook, blogging, et al it still feels … uncomfortable.

Sure, some are better at it than others. Personally, I understand social media and blogging. I don’t fear it, and at times, I really enjoy it. Kinda like techno music. I’m an acoustic musician in a digital world, a pen-and-paper scribe who cannot break the habit of editing something 5+ times before publication, who struggles to write a blog (which always feels like a column) under 950 words, who needs to source of all his facts to other people, who wants original quotes instead of hyperlinking to somebody else’s work. I started at a college newspaper that still used Xacto knives and wax to lay-out the paper, at a time when e-mail was so novel I actually wrote an entire (rough) novel draft based on this “unique” form of communication.

We have, for the most part, lost the hyper-idealism that drives 20-somethings into the profession (for their take on journalism’s current state, read this great post at Endemic—yes, he has limited journalism experience, but sounds like a grizzled veteran). Our dreams of riches as novelists have faded. We realize that Hunter Thompson would probably never get published these days, and that nobody really cares about the “Misters” of the world. Yet we still believe, deeply, that something in journalism will work again, and that we may even lead the revolution. At the same time, we fear said revolution, which (we fear) means the loss of basic news writing skill (anecdotal leads, anyone?), the degradation of ethical standards (reporter, meet our best advertiser), and entertainment value replacing civic duty (what’s a city council).

Maybe that’s what keeps the remaining few of us in this work: We are the bridge from journalism’s Golden Age to its rebirth. Or, alternatively, we are the roadblock. Hopefully, we are not its pall bearers.

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