Sunday, August 9, 2009

PULITZERS LOST, WHAT A COST - Seventh in a series on the impact of thousands of job cuts at America's newspapers

Today I interview Tamara Jones, a wonderful writer who left The Washington Post right after one of her stories was honored as part of an entry on the Virginia Tech shootings that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2008. In preparing many of these interviews for publication, I find myself wishing that I could have worked with the person whose story I'm sharing. That certainly was the case with Tamara.

It saddens me to see people of this caliber on the outside of the newspaper industry. Our newspapers are losing talent, experience and wisdom that's awfully difficult, if not impossible, to replace. This occasional series, "Pulitzers Lost, What a Cost," is an attempt to explore what it means for society, for journalism and for journalists that America's newspaper newsrooms are shrinking. It's a sign of how serious the times are that even people with this type of track record, people who have produced work recognized to be at the highest level, are now on the outside, without a newspaper to support their journalism.

Typically, I introduce each subject with a photograph. But when I asked Tamara, "Is there a picture available on the Web that you prefer?" here's how she responded.

"Yes, I would like Angelina Jolie's picture, please," she wrote.

"I don't think there is a picture of me, and if there is, I hate it and, being Irish and all, I would just get vindictive and probably make you an unspeakably horrid character in my novel. Can we use the Far Side cartoon, instead??"

I wish. But I don't have Gary Larsen's permission to use his cartoons, so I thought it best just to leave the photo space blank. Tamara's words speak volumes. No picture is necessary.

1. Name, age, final paper.

Tamara Jones, 51, The Washington Post

2. What work did you win Pulitzer for, when?

A feature I wrote on deadline, "Tragedy Beyond the Imagination," was one of 10 stories in the Post's winning package for coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre. We won the breaking news category in 2008.

3. Why did you leave your newspaper? When?

I left a couple of weeks after the Pulitzers, in May 2008. I took a buyout. As a narrative feature writer, I felt increasingly like the deer in that classic 'Far Side' cartoon -- the one with the red bulls-eye over its heart. ("Helluva birthmark, Hal," the other deer observes). I had dreamed of writing for the Style section since I was a baby reporter working overnight rewrite at the AP, and it took me nearly 15 years to get there. I loved Style too much to bear its death throes. And I didn't really fit in anywhere else at the paper.

4. What are you doing now? Any reflections on life after newspapers?

Most G.A. writers have the attention span of gerbils on Red Bull, and I'm no exception. We crave variety. I'm freelancing for a few national magazines and am under contract to write a crime novel. I've done some media-consulting for The Kaplan Thaler Group, the advertising powerhouse behind the Aflac duck, and they've opened my eyes about how to apply my journalistic skills to that wildly creative world. I also enjoy ghostwriting, but I'm too picky about my projects to depend on that full-time. I never imagined doing all that I'm doing. Before leaving the Post, I figured I'd just go to a smaller paper -- ideally, someplace where I could coach, edit and write. I fantasized about a nice little journalism boutique. But those hopes were quickly dashed when the industry took such a nosedive, along with the economy. Of course I miss the romanticism of working for a newspaper, but I have to admit at the same time that I feel liberated creatively. Writing, for me, has always been more of an emotional than intellectual exercise. My rush is that sense of connecting. There's so much I want to try. I've spent my entire adult life observing the world around me, chronicling it, and keeping it at the required arm's length. Now I want to engage it. This is such an exciting time to be involved in the field of communication no matter what the medium. I relish the collision of urgency and intimacy. (OK, that sounded way dirtier than I meant).

5. What do you hope to do going forward? Will you stay in journalism? How?

I hope to shift to fiction, but I'd like to keep one foot in journalism through magazine work. I want to explore other things, too. I'd love to make a living writing for humanitarian organizations. I also enjoy teaching and mentoring, but I don't have a Masters, and colleges seem more interested in the degree than experience in the field. Crisis-management communication also intrigues me, having covered more than my fair share of disasters, high-profile trials and crises.

6. What has the downsizing of your former newsroom or closing of your former paper meant to the quality of journalism in your community? For example, are there types of stories not being told? You could use your own experience to provide examples here.

The Post newsroom has been decimated, and the people left behind keep being told to do more, more, more with less, less, less. They're exhausted, they're anxious, they're beyond demoralized. And guess what? They're still committed 110% to serving a misguided public that considers them disposable. Has quality been impacted? Of course it has, especially in feature-writing. Voice is being replaced with attitude, and there are more and more 'lite' quickies. The lack of warm bodies and resources in the newsroom also results in less first-hand observation. Travel budgets have been slashed, which translates to a lot more reporting done by phone and surfing the web. You can get quotes and factoids that way, yes, but you won't get poetry. What's sacrificed is depth, nuance, layers. Steve Coll, when he was managing editor, used to call it "sitting still inside the story." I also notice a lot of promising reporters flatlining instead of flourishing, because editors and senior writers who served as coaches have either left or no longer have the luxury of time to mentor. When I wrote my first Style piece, Gene Weingarten was my editor, and we spent two entire days locked in his office, fine-tuning every single sentence of a 100-inch piece. It was about a miracle in Baltimore that had been used to canonize a saint. Gene told me I had "to prove whether or not God exists." Those heady days are gone for good. If I pitched the same idea today, I'd probably be told to just do a phoner with God and cobble together a 10-inch Q&A for tomorrow.

7. What, if anything, do you think your newspaper should have done differently to prevent the downsizing or closure that cost you your job?

The Washington Post has been spared the corporate greed and buffoonery that has systematically sucked the lifeblood out of so many great newspapers -- the LA Times, the Miami Herald, the Philly Inquirer. If something could have been done to prevent jobs lost at the Post, I know with utter conviction that Don Graham would have done it. He cherishes that paper. The Washington Post will be the last family-owned paper standing. That said, I think we all wish we hadn't been so complacent. There's always been this disparity between the way we perceive ourselves and how society views us. As journalists, we genuinely believe that we are doing noble work, but opinion polls consistently rank us among the least-trustworthy, right down there with ambulance-chasers, grave robbers and mercenaries. Maybe we should have been less indignant and more curious about why we weren't valued.

8. What would you advise young people wanting to pursue a life in journalism today?

Be flexible about the medium, and become as savvy as you can about all the different platforms. Journalism isn't about ink and newsprint; it's about bearing witness. Storytelling existed before language did, and I'm sure the people who drew on cave walls never imagined computer screens. There will always be a hunger for a story well-told.

Editor's note: If you know of other people I should approach for this series, please let me know.
To read previous installments: Deborah Nelson, Andrew Schneider, Kim Komenich, Janet Reeves, Jerry Kammer and Paul Giblin.


  1. There's plenty of food for thought here, but much not in the way Jones intended. The know-it-all attitude so common to journos permeates her words.

    (1) "They're still committed 110% to serving a misguided public that considers them disposable."

    Such self-serving righteousness discourages introspection about why the public considers journos disposable. Maybe the public is right, and it's the journalists who are misguided. And that brings me to . . .

    (2)"When I wrote my first Style piece, Gene Weingarten was my editor, and we spent two entire days locked in his office, fine-tuning every single sentence of a 100-inch piece. It was about a miracle in Baltimore that had been used to canonize a saint. Gene told me I had 'to prove whether or not God exists.' "

    Proving whether or not God exists has been the subject of thousands of years of scholarship and philosophical debate, without a definitive resolution. Attempting to it in one story, (no matter how excruciatingly lengthy), demonstrates such breathtaking hubris it defies description.

    To be sure, Jones does appear to be dimly aware of the corrosive harm such a know-it-all attitude does toward public trust:

    "Maybe we should have been less indignant and more curious about why we weren't valued."

    Indeed. Let's have more curiosity from journalists and less self-important preening. Show us, don't tell us, why you're so vital to democracy, civilization and all that.

  2. I was asked to post the following comment from a journalist anonymously.

    Tamara, thanks. You've been a role model to me, a narrative writer at a mid-size daily. Narrative (storytelling) plays well here online. I've kept track of my stories. Most rise to the top position on "Most Read." I've kept a spreadsheet on this, so that when my head gets targeted by editors, I can say, "Look at this, man. The readers don't lie." ... People love stories, well told, the kind you told. (I once read one of your stories, a deadline narrative, aloud to a group of journalists.) Editors often don't get it, and fads change, and newsroom leadership right now seems to be acting out of fear, not common sense. But people will always love great stories.
    You wrote great stories. I'm surprised the Washington Post let you get away.

  3. Dear Anonymous via Temple:

    I'm surprised that you're surprised the WaPo let her get away. It's letting lots of us great writers get away. Or did you suppose only the detritus and crappy journalists are all the ones getting booted out of newsrooms?

  4. The following is a comment by Dan Zak, a reporter at The Washington Post.

    I'm a younger Washington Post reporter, and I just spent two months "sitting still inside a story." The topic couldn't be farther from the profundity of God's existence, but it's a long, scene-drive piece that tries to divine a deeper meaning from something curious that's happening in the city. I filed it at 78 inches and -- after two days of sit-down editing with an attentive, inspiring editor who challenged me to re-examine every section, every line -- it came out 77 inches and whole lot better. It may still suck, but hey, they allowed me to run with it, write as long as I thought it deserved, and then they devoted time to refining it.

    I try to keep my eyes and ears closed to treatises about How It Used to Be and What No Longer Is. The only way to do good work is to believe good work is doable. Until some manager shows up at my desk and tells me otherwise, I'm going to believe.


    Dan Zak
    The Washington Post

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