Life Lessons from Retired Journalists

Reflections on four years of interviews with highly successful newspaper people

I’ve been interviewing retired journalists for just over four years now: some active ones, a few who now teach in university journalism departments, but mostly retired journalists. The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, NPR, PBS, but mostly the International Herald Tribune.

I was in Paris in 2013 when the IHT’s name was changed to the International New York Times. Then three years after one of the world’s most beloved newspaper brands ceased to exist, they also closed the Paris newsroom, where in one form or another since 1887, an American paper had been produced in Europe. (Except for the Nazi occupation of Paris. They closed the newsroom in those years for some reason. But 126 years of mostly uninterrupted publication…)

The Trib, as people call it, was only a shadow of its former self when I arrived in Paris a decade ago. But I kept hearing stories. About the wonderful, glamorous, top-notch paper that it used to be. These comments came from old fogey types, people who had been in Paris for over half a century. But there was a chorus. It wasn’t just one or two. Everyone said it.

My curiosity was piqued. I started asking questions. And one thing led to another.

I’m now coming up on my 100th interview in the oral history project that resulted from that curiosity. Many of the individuals I’ve interviewed reached the top of their profession. Some ran papers that won dozens of Pulitzer Prizes. Others owned the newspapers themselves, which they, say, then sold to Jeff Bezos. Some reporters contradicted American presidents. Other editors or columnists were sued by governments (the US and Singapore, among others, are repeat offenders). A few were prominent war journalists, now all but forgotten, but after whom legal precedents in the International Criminal Court were named. Others cooked with Julia Child or had 6-hour lunches with James Baldwin.

All had interesting stories to tell.

They were abroad during the most interesting years of the American Century (or whatever we want to call the period stretching from World War II to the 2003 invasion of Iraq). In the days before the internet and Twitter and smartphones with cameras, foreign correspondents were Americans’ eyes and ears in the world. They were the conduit for information about the world back to citizens of the most powerful country in the world. And, perhaps more importantly as newspaper distribution expanded, to other English-speakers—expatriates or businessmen or world leaders—throughout the world.

Journalists are not blank slates. And their curation and mediation of information, however objective they sought to be, was not neutral or comprehensive.

This fact struck me as very important. Overlooked even. So many books treat newspaper articles as transparent accounts of the world, without realizing what all goes into the production of a newspaper.

So that’s what my academic research is all about. That’s what I’m interested in.

But as I look back at the last 15 months and what has happened in my life and my family, the choices I’ve made, it’s not the professoinal choices these journalists make that interests me most. Instead, it’s the personal choices that they made.

Professionally and socially, they did things I can only dream about. They lived the kind of life I wanted. (I mean, I ended up in Paris for a reason, right?)

But as I got to know many of them on a personal level, I started to notice a few trends.

In many cases, their family lives had broken apart. A good number of them hadn’t invested enough time in their husband or wife (let’s be honest, though, almost all of the time it was the man who was too distant). Divorce resulted. Sometimes the second or third or fourth marriage was an improvement. But not always. And some were estranged from their children. I stumbled across a few letters in my research I feel like I shouldn’t have read. It just made me sad.

Success requires time, and time is a limited resource. Professional success naturally takes time away from other valuable things in life. These successful journalists made a sacrifice. By leaning into their work, they were also leaning away from those they were closest to.

It wasn’t just that, though.

Journalism—and all the more journalism in Paris—was glamorous. Several chose to live a life beyond their means. Columnists and reporters and editors were never paid that much, even in the best decades. A few pulled it off, they used their prominent position to supplement their income and pulled it off. But not all did.

Some spent the hundreds of thousands a year to keep up with a set to which they did not properly belong. They made financial decisions that perhaps brought them an enviable lifestyle and access to people they needed or at least wanted.

But there were consequences to living beyond their means in a sector in decline. There was a remarkable correlation between this type of financial decision and estrangement from children. When I tried to track down papers or information from deceased journalists, I learned a lot from their children’s responses.

Another thing I noticed was how difficult it was for that older generation to recognize very clear trends.

So many of the people I interviewed came of age in the late 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s. The postwar boom established their frame of reference. They could sort of make space for computers and other contraptions in their lives, but they couldn’t fully comprehend the changes the world—and journalism—were undergoing. They failed to adjust. They expected salaries and syndication and circulation to bounce back.

And, well, it never did…

I realize that these observations have actually fed into my own life. When the pandemic struck, I decided any professional success I could churn out of my current situation simply wasn’t worth it. The financial and social and familial costs of success just didn’t seem worth the time and effort.

So I spent a couple hours every day with my kids doing school. I created my own activites to teach them things I thought they should know. I tried to remedy holes in the curriculum. To broaden their horizons beyond Paw Patrol and Octonauts, I made them watch Miyazaki movies (Ponyo is now a family favorite). I took walks or kicked a ball around with them on an almost daily basis. I taught them how to play pool in the college’s common room. There was a lot of just being there and listening (for both family and for friends) as succeeding waves of anxiety or confusion or anger about the pandemic (and other people in the pandemic) rolled past, one after another.

I had been elected the CR President of my college the month before the pandemic came to Cambridge. During the first lockdown, our college had by far the largest number of students still living on site. And so this volunteer position became a full-time job to be quite honest. It didn’t need to be. No one told me to volunteer 50-60 hours every week to the tasks that came up. But I, and several other officers, chose to allow it to be that. Our college was understaffed to begin with and when most of the staff stopped coming in or got busy with other unexpected obligations, there was a lot left to be done. Students were freaking out. They were confused. Information was contradictory or unhelpful. No one had thought through the consequences of new rules and regulations. Inconsistencies abounded.

So my team sought to address all those problems. And we did. By and large.

I’m proud of our work. I’m proud that I chose to be there for my family and for my community.

But, of course, there was a cost to that decision as well.

When you decide to prioritize—whatever the priority might be—there’s always a short end of the stick. Something always gets left behind. I made the opposite choice of many of the journalists I had come to know. And now I’m facing the opposite set of consequences. I’m very behind on my academic project. I’m not sure what my professional future holds. And let’s not even talk about the financial situation of a self-funded PhD student like myself…

Sometimes, it feels like I overlearned the lesson somehow.

But it’s not all negative I suppose. The successes I had as CR President of my college also came from my observations of those journalists. There was some sort of professional development—not anything I can easily articulate on my CV or even in an interview, but I know how I rose to meet the occasion. I know what kind of leader I am now.

During my interviews with journalists, one name kept recurring. I realized that everyone kept mentioning this one managing editor as the best manager they had ever had. And a lot of these people worked for the paper for two or three decades. This managing editor was only there for two years, but those who worked under him were unanimous in their praise. For a little context, let me be clear: journalists love to grumble. They carry grudges, let me tell you. So when you hear something positive AND it’s unanimous, well then your ears better perk up. Something is going on there.

At a certain point, I started to ask why this managing editor was so great. What did he do to earn this level of respect.

I took notes. Detailed notes. And then when I was elected President, I imitated him as best as possible. At first, it was just a few small things—having coffee with everyone first, making myself available, truly listening. But then a few weeks into my term, the pandemic hit. And we started doing things that a paid staff member should have been doing. At that point, I began to draw from the depths of this managing editor’s toolkit.

And it seems to have worked.

Our college weathered the pandemic better than almost any other. Students compare notes with their coursemates from other colleges, and the results came back to me. The comparisons almost always seemed to favor our college. Earlier this year, as I finished my term, dozens of students and staff approached me to thank me and to compliment the work I had done. To compliment what we did as a committee. And it wasn’t just rote one-liners. We’re talking about paragraph-long compliments.

It felt good. For a few weeks…

But that’s over and done with now. We’ve all moved on. The pandemic is still here, in both the US and UK, if significantly improved. We all have moved forward. I’m in a different country now. I’m trying to address different issues. I’m trying to find a path forward academically and professionally.

I don’t want to ignore obvious trendlines and work myself into a professional dead end. I want to learn to adapt and recognize the world as it is. In my case, things don’t look great for the academic humanities or for the cultural and literary sector—the two areas I care most about, where I’ve invested most of my professional time and energy.

So, what is there to be learned about the way forward?

Can you even tell right now, with everything in flux?

What is the right way to adapt to the new normal?

I’ve learned from these journalists that these are the questions I need to be asking.

But I still don’t have any answers.