How ‘Spotlight’ helped me say goodbye to newsrooms

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When I finally felt ready to say goodbye to a career in a newsroom, I went to see “Spotlight.”

One of the first (and most depressing) things you hear when you’re out of a job is, “Don’t bother responding to a bunch of online job listings. Most of them are about fulfilling a legal obligation to advertise, and in many cases, the position has already been filled.”

After spending soul-punishing hours updating your resume and LinkedIn page, and writing cover letters, and scouting job sites, this truth-slap makes you want to frisbee your laptop right through the second-floor window.

You’re told repeatedly that getting a job comes down to networking. So I’ve packed my schedule with dozens of coffee and lunch dates, and I’m regularly pitching (and receiving) free-lance assignments; but I’ve otherwise found myself, three months into this layoff, flying in holding pattern circles, desperate for clearance to land.

I have applied to a few jobs – including a features reporter position at a big-market paper that sounded like a perfect fit – but the silence that’s followed has indicated that the journalism world’s just not that into me.

So getting my hair cut and colored a few days after losing my arts reporter job, in hopes of looking more “together” (and, who are we kidding, younger) for the interviews I’d surely be lining up, now seems naively foolish, and childishly optimistic. I might as well have stood on the curb in front of our house, waiting for a unicorn to pick me up. The struggling-to-survive journalism industry is having a dark night of the soul just now, so jobs are scarce, and the ones that are out there usually go to reporters in the early years of their career.

That’s not me, obviously.

And I feel like I’m just now getting past the initial shock of my layoff and absorbing a hard truth: there’s probably no longer a place for me in journalism. I may write stories and articles for various publications as a free-lancer, but I’ll likely never be a staff reporter again.

Strangely, this come-to-Jesus moment of clarity led me to drop everything and head to a multiplex on Friday afternoon to see “Spotlight.” (My husband and I have been angling to see it together for months, but when we finally had the opportunity, the movie had vanished from theaters; apparently, though, the film’s big, recent Oscar win sparked its temporary return to theaters for additional screenings.)

I’d heard from several people that “Spotlight” was one of the few that really gets journalism right. And because I’d been steadily chewing on the idea that I’d probably never again work within the heady, fun, pulsing atmosphere of a newsroom, the film seemed to offer an easy way to briefly re-visit, and perhaps say goodbye to, a world I’d desperately loved; and a profession that had provided an introverted, somewhat insecure young woman with both confidence and a public voice.

“Spotlight,” of course, focuses on a team of investigative journalists, which is far removed from anything I ever did. (To wit: I’ve never once filed a FOIA.) In the course of my career, I critiqued a broad variety of live performances/events, interviewed local and visiting artists, wrote features and columns, reported arts-related news, etc. These posts often acted as a daily counterweight to the dark, hard-edged stuff we ran about heroin epidemics, corrupt judges, and unsolved murders; so I knew – while nonetheless feeling frustrated at times about being the redheaded stepchild of the newsroom – that I had always been more of a straight-up “writer” than a traditional “journalist.” But despite my status as a lightweight in my field, “Spotlight”’s details made me wax nostalgic.

The look of the Boston Globe’s sprawling newsroom, with its ugly fluorescent lighting and low-partition cubicles, took me back in the early days of my career (in the old Ann Arbor News building at Division and Huron), as did the Windsor-knotted ties worn by male reporters and editors, and the size (and varied ages) of the staff that gathered to commemorate a co-worker’s retirement.

That scene in particular reminded me of the moment when The Ann Arbor News’ staffers solemnly gathered around a TV monitor to watch John Kerry’s 2004 concession speech; how a kind copyeditor threw a baby shower for me early in 2008, when I was pregnant with my first daughter, Lily, and how staffers also rushed to comfort me when my mom died; how we all took turns playing video games – on a giant, wall-mounted TV – with each other on the daily newspaper’s last day of business (July 9, 2009); and how, when meeting up at a local bar for drinks later that day, staffers applauded each person as he/she arrived, as a final show of love and support.

At that time, I was in my 30s – one of the “kids” of the newsroom. But that quickly reversed when I began work at a more online-oriented news organization. Suddenly, I was one of the oldest folks in the room, and because I had young kiddos at home, I was also less nimble, and less capable of hanging out and socializing. But I tried my level best to keep adapting, do good work, be a team player, and support my young co-workers as they won awards and moved on to bigger media markets.

It’s strangely telling that, while watching Michael Keaton and John Slattery walk through The Boston Globe’s newsroom in “Spotlight,” my gaze briefly locked onto an extra. She’s working at a computer, and we only see her back, her braided hair. She’s only on the screen for an instant, but I thought, “That’s me” – or my 2001 Boston Globe equivalent, anyway. I was never going to break stories that would significantly change people’s lives, or bring corrupt leaders or organizations to justice. I was just the girl quietly plugging away at the computer, hoping to spark conversations related to art and those who make it.

It’s like we lived in very different neighborhoods of the same city.

Yet even so, I loved working in an atmosphere where important work was happening around me, and where sense was being made of big, meaningful stories as they unfolded. It’s exciting. And I know I will always miss that dynamic atmosphere, as well as the people who did that kind of big-picture, high-impact work.

There’s a reason the final scene of “Spotlight” – which features the reporters frantically answering calls from hundreds of abuse victims – packs such a powerful punch. You feel the relief of a city’s citizens at finally being able to talk about what has so profoundly damaged them; and you feel grateful to those few courageous journalists who worked so hard, and overcame lots of roadblocks and obstacles, to reveal a pattern of prolonged, rampant, systemic abuse.

I cried at this demonstration of journalism’s greatest potential to do good; but the tears were also about me finally, truly accepting my banishment from a profession I’d adored and, for more than a decade, thought of as a home.

6 thoughts on “How ‘Spotlight’ helped me say goodbye to newsrooms

  1. teacherpatti says:

    I’m going to do that narcissist thing where I compare situations. So I apologize in advance. I feel the same way about teaching. I used to be in school where I had students I absolutely loved. I won’t say I was beloved by all or the “stand and deliver” savior, but I fit in with the kids and could relate to many of them. Those days are over, and they aren’t coming back. I can’t even read FB posts from friends who are still in classrooms or watch things on TV that relate to my days in one school, one classroom. It is too heartbreaking. So I applaud you seeing the movie.

    I was in the same boat–never going to win teacher of the year, never going to be the one who teaches the class to master chess and win the national tournament–just wanted to do some educating and give the kids good experiences to draw on later on in life. Thanks to the change of job duties, I can’t even connect with most of the kids I “see” on a weekly or monthly basis. I should probably let myself shed some tears.

  2. Well written epilogue to what seems to be your career as well as mine. I was in a similar situation at a small weekly newspaper, thoroughly enjoyed my time there and the kinds of stories (mostly features, along with local city council coverage) I was writing. Like you, not the earth-shattering kinds of stories, but ones the community wanted to read and appreciated reading. I’m still trying to say goodbye after more than a year and move on. But like you, I’ll always treasure the memories and experiences that seem to be fading into obscurity and even obsolescence. Just so sad…

  3. donmooradianblog says:

    Thank you for sharing. Whether we worked at small weeklies or large dailies, it is the same responsibility to provide communities with news and information they need or want. Arts, lifestyles, sports were an important part of the mix which was needed to keep the papers in front of people so when the big stories broke they knew where to turn. But anyone who typed ANY story for a paper knew what we were doing — contributing to the defense of the First Amendment. That included every Little League game, every high school play, every secret recipe for Christmas fruitcake. Those things might not be earth-shattering stories but they helped build the friendship between the paper and the community and that relationship translated into trust when the big stories came. I mourn the demise of the industry. In a decade or two, people will view movies like Spotlight et al as quaint reminders of bygone days, like traversing the ocean in sailing ships. At its best, journalism was and is a noble profession. Those who remain must strive to keep it so.

  4. Good stuff Jenn. After working 38 years in sports media that included 17 years at USA TODAY, I identify.

  5. Thanks for this. Although I received a reprieve from the death of my journalism career, you have told the story of many of my compatriots from days gone by to the recent past. It’s too easy to say I hate the direction journalism is heading, but it is easy to mourn what once was, and will never be again – not for me, at least, and it seems, not for you. Good luck with all your new endeavors – and great blog, too.

  6. juliaspahn says:

    You got this very right.

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