By Marcus Lavergne
In 2003, among the hustle and bustle of New York City’s busy streets, a towering skyscraper representative of a refreshing new era of journalism began rising up out of the ground. The 1.6- million-square-foot edifice created from the vision of renowned Italian architect and engineer Renzo Piano opened in 2007, and took its prominent position in Midtown Manhattan.
It’s fitting for one of NYC’s most notable new structures to belong to a longtime, award-winning journalistic powerhouse. Throughout its 162-year history, The New York Times has been awarded 117 Pulitzer prizes and has released around 58,000 issues. Within each, pieces of national and world history, along with the controversy, backlash, opinions and feelings surrounding them, have been preserved for years to come.
The Times, a constantly expanding news company, has served as a model at the highest tier of journalism for well over a century, and for many young, aspiring storytellers, it’s the endgame. But for some, the publication and its staff served a different purpose — to reaffirm what journalism really is.
Hearing from current Times’ associate managing editor and former foreign correspondent Marc Lacey was a wake-up call. He began with an article that mentioned the top worst jobs in America, and journalist was sitting on the list.
“I had black hair when I started,” Lacey said. “This is stressful; you can make more money doing other things. But it is not one of the worst occupations on the face of the earth. I actually think it may be one of the better ones, the reason I can say that is I’m many years out of college and I am still having fun doing what I’m doing.”
Lacey, who covered the White House during the Clinton administration and worked in East Africa doing international coverage as the Times’ bureau chief of that region, makes his friends jealous when he discusses the things he’s done and gets to do — friends that he says have “fatter 401(k)s, and drive amazing vehicles.”
One notable experience the journalist talked about involved a coup d’etat in Chad. The airport was packed with people attempting to leave the country as military personnel rode in, and his plane held nothing but journalists.
“So, that’s sort of the definition for a foreign correspondent,” Lacey told the large group of journalism students. “You’re going into a place where the people are running for their lives out of that place.”
Although Reno may sometimes seem like a town with little going on to the inattentive eye, the city is a bottomless barrel of endless stories to the trained eye. There’s no coup happening in Carson City, but it did become increasingly evident that more of those adventurous tales could come with experience.
The esteem that comes with working for large, well-known news organization also comes with more readers, more watchers, more listeners and more responsibility. When credibility is at stake on a national-to-international scale, does journalism become something different than what the instructors teach in entry level J-school classes? The question has always concerned me, and it might intimidate others, but the Times’ “In the Times” workshop served as a much-needed eye-opener.
A journalist is a storyteller, a public figure, a voice for those who need one and much more, when it all comes down to it. Experience is essential and can only be gained by stepping out into the volunteer writer, staff writer and eventually editor positions. The word “amateur” doesn’t mean much in this world, because once the words are on the page and the page is in the hand of a reader, a writer’s or reporter’s reputation is already in firing range.
Although the criticism and feedback can get arduous, there is a silver lining according to another workshop speaker, NYT Student Journalism Institute Director Richard Jones. During an interview with Jones, he spoke on the benefits of still learning as a student journalist.
“[School] involves doing research, understanding information, synthesizing information, being able to explain it to others,” Jones said. “A research paper is like a story in a lot of ways. I want to encourage students to really think about it as a way to become better professionals.”
Jones woke up the room with an energetic lecture and Q&A session on journalism ethics, technical writing and editing. He made it clear that the job of a journalist is societally necessary and challenged students with difficult questions, placing them in the shoes of former Lawrence Eagle- Tribune photographer Marcus Halevi, who once photographed a woman’s last moments during a flood.
The woman was swept away by the waters, and in the “This American Life: Still Life” documentary, Halevi ponders if he should have dropped everything to save the woman. Depressing experiences with photojournalism forced him to change course, and to this day he only photographs happy moments.
When Jones asked students what they would do, there were several different responses. Some would’ve taken the photo out of a sense of duty, while some said they would’ve tried to save the woman first because it was the human thing to do. Others suggested that they would have tried to do both. The bottom line was that Jones forced the group to think about the trials and sometimes galling encounters journalists face throughout their careers.
Ironically, the discussion came after Editorial Page Editor Andy Rosenthal spoke to the group on making stories about the stories, rather than the writer. He discussed the differences between news and editorials. In both regards, he made it clear that the content is supposed to represent the truth, or an accurate account of what happened. Although he dislikes the word “objectivity,” it’s a basic lesson for all news reporters.
“We’re journalists,” Rosenthal said. “Even though it’s opinion journalism you can’t say the budget is $12 trillion if it’s not. You can’t misquote somebody, and you shouldn’t say things counter to what you know the facts to, what the reality is.”
Although the lesson was basic, prominent journalists have been condemned for dishonesty in recent years, notably Brian Williams who was suspended for six months last year for lying about riding on a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2003 by an RPG.
The Times’ workshop provided proof that the rules stay the same, even in the big leagues. They’re continuously recycled in a field where there’s an infinite capacity for a multitude of stories, big and small.
Marcus Lavergne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mlavergne21.