As I sit down to write this, I have just spent an hour thinning seedlings in my modest greenhouse, the one I always wanted but never had time for while I was working. Before the thinning, I finished off an important press release for a friend who owns a small lumber company. Before that, I attended a meeting of a broadband task force. Two days ago, I had three meetings focused on the feasibility of developing a community wind project. I had to miss a monthly meeting of the community foundation board on which I sit.
Those community volunteer roles form the core of my life these days. I do not intend to brag. I feel privileged that members of this community wish me to share the talents and skills I accumulated in a 30-plus year career as a journalist. For all those active career years, my life was steeped in an eclectic study of public affairs, yet the ethical strictures of journalism, with which I very much agreed, meant I was prohibited from participating in most aspects of community life.
My community involvement caused me to wonder if other Niemans, put out of work early, as I was, might be experiencing something similar. Might this be a silver lining to the current convulsions in the media world—an unanticipated opportunity for still-vigorous Niemans to harness journalism skills in volunteer work? Thus my query to my fellow Nieman Fellows in late March asking for information on volunteer work in which they might be engaged.
I recognize how fortunate I was to be at the age I was when the convulsions hit. Many excellent journalists now find themselves out of work and still under obligations that require regular employment.
Roberta Baskin, NF ’02, is an example. This celebrated television journalist went from receiving a duPont-Columbia award one day to a pink slip the next. She wrote that she missed the deadline for this article because she “was doing nine panels (!) at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder last week. Today I’ve had two conference calls with journalism organizations I support. I’ve become the Queen of Pro Bono since losing my investigative reporting job in January. … I do enjoy serving the world for free. But I’m also in need of paying tuition for two daughters in college …. And there’s that pesky mortgage, too.” Unfortunately, Baskin has quite a lot of company.
Frequently, we take for granted the skills we acquired courtesy of our careers in journalism. The ability to write coherent sentences is one of those. Nothing I have ever written professionally will be mistaken for great literature, but my sturdy meat-and-potatoes approach, and the ability to execute quickly, makes me a rare specimen in this community. Most of us also have the ability, given half an hour, to find the nut graf in a 90-page document, which gives us the ability to cut through verbiage to the essence of an issue. Over the years, we have developed excellent BS detectors. We do not hesitate to ask the dumb question if we think it will elicit needed information. We know generally how to conduct a good meeting. We are excellent, quick-study generalists because we have had to be. Usually, we know a little about a lot of things. These skills, and others I have failed to note, have tangible value to our communities.
More than a handful of Niemans graciously wrote to say they were still working and couldn’t offer tales of volunteer experiences. Hearing from them was a treat. Those who did send information on their volunteer experiences wrote about situations that varied greatly, as did the form of their volunteer efforts. I found their e-mails touching, encouraging and very human, and I wish space had allowed me to include more from them. However, this is not meant to be the end of this conversation but a beginning. For members of the Nieman family, the new alumni section of the foundation’s Web site will make communication among us easier. And there will be a place to share your stories on this topic. My hope is that the dialogue I initiated by e-mail will continue through the foundation’s Web site.
H. Brandt Ayers, NF ’68, reminded me gently that journalists traditionally have had a selective sense of where the line against participation is drawn. “I have been deeply and constantly involved in community affairs. It has long been my belief that a sense of community has been missing in metro journalism and may have contributed to its steep decline.” Ayers’s participation started “with raising reward money for the arrest and conviction of a racial nightrider murderer and [ended] with the passing of the gavel to an energetic successor on a local education foundation serving at-risk students.”
Of course Ayers is right about journalists’ selectivity in drawing the line against participation. But for most of us, most of the time, most community activities were off limits. Ayers seems to believe that is a mistake. I offer his assertion in that regard for discussion on the Nieman Web site.
Bert Lindler, NF ’84, has the most unusual volunteer interest. When he didn’t like the direction new owners took his Montana newspaper, he quit and joined the U.S. Forest Service as a technical writer. He’s still working, but five years ago he “adopted an elk herd that winters near my home. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about fencing, weeds and population management through hunting.” Lindler proves my point about being excellent quick-study generalists.
One of the most poignant stories was offered by Dean Miller, NF ’08. He was fired “out of the blue” in February. He needs to work, but recognizes the job hunt will be long. Meanwhile, he has used his “newfound freedom from the need for official neutrality” to teach a journalism ethics seminar for the local branch of Drinking Liberally. The biggest change, he says, “is that I have time for something other than the needs of the newspaper. Last month, I got to spend five school-day mornings in my 9-year-old son’s class, helping them revise, edit, proofread and prepare for hardback publication their fairy tales.”
Jenny Lo, NF ’96, still has a job, but it is part time. “It’s great to be active and not a wage slave,” she writes from London. When she is not posted overseas, she volunteers as a literacy aid and an English tutor for adult Muslim men. She also is a school advocate for inner-city migrant communities. Lo volunteers as well for the National Trust and is active in “cultural heritage and environmental NGO activities in Malaysia.”
Leslie Dreyfous, NF ’95, believes there is something to this idea of “the community energy unleashed when reporters are sprung from their obligation to objectivity.” Dreyfous left journalism because she “had three children in four years.” She writes that she was “at first uncomfortable and then gradually unstoppable in my commitment to improving our community of Half Moon Bay (Calif.). Environmentalism, school board politics, downtown ‘smart growth,’ lobbying state legislators … chair of the parks and rec commission …. It was quite an experience to be on that side of things, particularly after having ‘studied’ community over the course of my career with the AP.” In fact, Dreyfous continues, she “wrote a book about citizenship and civic participation ….” It’s titled, “Getting a Life: America’s Challenge to Grow Up.”
Peg Simpson, NF ’79, writes that she isn’t retired, “just doing a lot of extra stuff.” That “stuff” includes being very active in an effort to build a “virtual community” in the DuPont Circle area of Washington, D.C.. The effort, she writes, is part “of the new national movement of ‘aging in community.’” Previously, she’d participated mostly in journalism groups, many with the aim of advancing the position of women and minorities.
Ralph Hancox, NF ’66, retired before the media economy got “cranky.” He “went into pro bono work at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., at the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing.” One of the fruits of that labor [“Managing the Publishing Process”] is described at www.abcbookworld.com/view_author.php?id=9671. He’s edited a couple of master’s theses and “done some promotion work on a women’s fashion accessories Web site.”
Graeme Beaton, NF ’79, is an Australian Nieman who settled in the United States after his year at Harvard. He is a tutor for the local literacy council and gets “as much out of it as the students I tutor.” He will do more as he “winds down” from his second vocation—raising thoroughbred horses.
John Strohmeyer, NF ’53, sold his interest in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1984 and moved to Alaska to teach, fish and write, but not necessarily in that order. Currently he is unpaid writer-in-residence at the University of Alaska, in Anchorage. He writes, “Being a Pulitzer Prize-winner and controversial journalist keeps me in demand for scores of unpaid appearances” as a speaker, panelist and academic adviser. “And thank you, Louis Lyons,” he adds.
Peter Almond, NF ’81, is closing in on retirement from his work as a freelance defense writer. But he is dabbling already in volunteer work. A letter he wrote to his local UK council was, he thought, “straightforward journalist writing.” But it was described to him by one council member as the “most powerful letter he’d seen in 25 years” and played a major role in getting the council to adopt the policy Almond favored. That and other small involvements, he said, opened his eyes “to what I could do.” But for the moment, “I still have to feed my mortgage and my family and not drive myself into the ground, broke and frustrated …. Save the world and get paid is my ideal plan .…”
Mike Pride, NF ’85, retired in 2008 from his position as editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor. He is moving “carefully” into the volunteer world, because he had so many requests to join community ventures, many of which were not a good fit. Plus, he wanted to reserve time for his passion, writing history. Pride did say “yes” to the N.H. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, speaks around the state on New Hampshire history, served as a local impresario, and occasionally works as an overnight volunteer, with his wife, at a winter homeless shelter.
Rui Araujo, NF ’91, writes that the perspective on civic participation is a bit different in Portugal. Although he is still working full-time for a Portuguese television station, he has been actively engaged for years, as a volunteer fireman, helping immigrants in France by writing and reading letters for them, and working in an organization that helped poor city kids get to summer camp.
Nick Daniloff, NF ’74, went into teaching (“a good fit”) after his famous 1986 arrest in Moscow on trumped-up charges of espionage. He “got hooked on help to the children wounded in Russia’s war against Chechnya.” That led to a book, “The Oath,” and to participation in the International Committee for the Children of Chechnya.
Beatriz Terrazas, NF ’99, had already chosen to serve on the board of a literary center before she took a buyout from The Dallas Morning News in 2006. She had one condition: that she would do nothing for the newspaper at all related to the center. For income, she still works as a freelance writer and photographer. She now is getting involved in a nature center and preserve near home but avoids anything related to promotion or marketing. She believes doing that would cross an important line that is very clear in her head. It would compromise her credibility, “And my credibility is all I have.”
Michael H.C. McDowell, NF ’79, went from journalism in Canada to work as a trustee and senior fellow at the Panos Institute in Washington, D.C.. His reasons bear on the thesis of this essay: “I left journalism mainly because I wanted to influence policy and write about public issues and not be a voyeur all my life.” He has served on several boards, played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process, advised the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and done other admirable work as well.
Bill Henson, NF ’78, writes that once he was freed “from the restraints of newsroom prohibitions,” he became a public library trustee, appointed by the school board. He’s also media adviser to a group that “works with children who have disabilities.” Finally, and near and dear to my heart, this fellow Vietnam vet serves as secretary to the 1,200-member 35th Infantry Regiment Association, where he helps write and edit the quarterly newsletter.
Jon Larsen, NF ’80, got an early start on nonprofit work “for various reasons” and “engaged in such while practicing journalism. I even voted throughout my career.” Larsen was an early, active participant in development of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He served as an unpaid consultant for the start-up of the NRDC magazine, The Amicus Journal, which “morphed into OnEarth, and at present I am the chairman of the magazine’s editorial board. I am still on the NRDC board as an honorary member.” Larsen also served on the board of Nuclear Times and the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now president of the board of Cambridge College, which focuses on providing college education to working adults. “In the next year or two,” he hopes “to turn my attention to more local boards in Vermont.”
Ned Cline, NF ’74, “chose to leave newspapers early, not the other way around.” Because he did, he “has been able to serve as president of the Friends of the Library at the local university campus” and as president of the local historical museum. He also has written six biographies “of significant philanthropists in my state [North Carolina] who deserved recognition for good works but never received it.” Ned also has taught editing courses at the local university. “It has all been worthwhile to me and others. I could have done none of this if I had remained in the newsroom.”
Tim Giago, NF ’91, retired “for a couple of years.” But when the newspaper he had published folded, leaving no Native American press “to cover the Indian reservations of the Northern Plains,” he started a new one, the Native Sun News. “Now I am busy as hell and the paper is rolling right along.” Giago reinforces a good point: Simply doing good, honest journalism is a public service.
Like Cline, Daniloff and some others, Douglas Cumming, NF ’87, left journalism rather than the reverse. Thanks to a Freedom Forum fellowship, he earned a PhD in mass communications, now teaches at Washington and Lee University, and is awaiting publication of his first book, “Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity.” He also enjoys being active in civic life, although “I still feel funny showing partisan bias or being active in a cause—so I guess I’ll always be a journalist in recovery.”
Laura Eggertson, NF ’96, is still working as a freelancer, but also finds “that my journalism skills are valuable and in some demand from the volunteer community. I am very active … with the Adoption Council of Canada, helping to write grant proposals, doing some advocacy training, and helping craft long-term strategies.” She also uses her journalistic skills to help other organizations, including the North American Council on Adoptable Children, “to get their message across and to raise their profile with legislators and policymakers.”
To my reading, Dan Rapoport, NF ’71, is the quintessential hyperactive volunteer. After a long and varied journalistic career in Washington, D.C., Dan and his wife, Maxine, made a break for Canaan, in upstate New York. He’s writing a history of Canaan for its 250th anniversary; doing press releases for The Chatham Synagogue; involved in the annual book festival at the Spencertown Academy Arts Center; occasionally researches a story that needs telling and then bugs the editor of the Chatham Courier to follow up; sits on the Canaan Board of Assessment Review, and picks up highway trash. Dan has discovered that when you are open to volunteering “you don’t really get a chance to specialize.” The result, he writes, “is that I am busier than I’ve been in years and loving almost every minute of it.”
Gerald Jordan, NF ’82, also moved from practicing journalism to teaching it, in 1995. Once he was “freed from my ethical obligations as a daily working journalist,” he writes, “I was tabbed first for a lot of campus committees and subsequent community boards.” Jordan also is active in a number of “community-based nonprofits that serve at-risk youth and persons in similarly dire circumstances. …” Then there is a “laundry-length list of organizations that support scholarships and related programs.” Jordan is careful because he still works summers as an editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer; if he “encounters a story that loosely connects to my advocacy back home, I defer editing it.”
Nancy Rhoda, NF ’81, retired early from The Tennessean. She’d spent the last half of her career as a photo editor and “desperately missed photographing life in the real world.” Rhoda found what she sought as a volunteer photographer for the Land Trust for Tennessee. Over the years, she has photographed “about 35 Tennessee landowners, and their farms, through the seasons of the year.” Rhoda also trained her dog, Sandy, to work as a therapy dog. She and Sandy work with brain-injured adults and help children who have difficulty reading. When the kids read to Sandy, they make “amazing changes in their self-confidence and progress in their reading skills.”
Last, but far from least, is Arnold Markowitz, NF ’76, who writes that it “isn’t a big deal” (but it is) that he provides his skills to a fly fishing club, primarily as a volunteer at kids’ fishing clinics. He also demonstrates fly tying and serves as an observer in sailfish tournaments. “I wouldn’t have touched any of that during my reporting career,” he writes, “even though I didn’t work for the sports section.” Markowitz also keeps his hand in journalism with a monthly fishing column for a local paper. Getting “mixed up in community life” is a great way to spend retirement, Markowitz writes, as long as you have something you love. “If you have no life or interests outside the news biz … you’d better stay in it, or you’re liable to go up the wall and not be able to come down.”
Of the 999 living journalists who have participated in the Nieman program, I heard from a very small sample. Are those who responded exceptional in their desire to put their talents to community use? Probably a little. But their stories do demonstrate powerfully the ways that journalistic skills can enrich community life when they are put to such use. A Nieman Fellowship is an awesome gift, one that I believe requires years of giving back. Volunteer work like that described here is proof that the giving back can continue even after Niemans move out or move on from journalism. Let’s keep talking about our journeys.
Jim Boyd, a 1980 Nieman Fellow, is former deputy editorial page editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, Minnesota.