Five months after retiring from daily journalism, I’m sitting on the sidelines as my former colleagues hurl themselves into the story of a lifetime.
Journalists in Houston and elsewhere — co-workers and competitors, reporters and photographers, artists and editors and web producers — are performing heroically as the new coronavirus throws lives around the world into upheaval. From my perch on my living-room sofa, I’m cheering them on.
It’s hard to get a handle on the magnitude of this story. It’s bigger than Hurricane Harvey, which prompted the Houston Chronicle’s managing editor to mobilize the paper’s entire staff in August 2017. It’s bigger than either of the two other hurricanes, Ike and Alicia, that struck the Houston area during my career. It’s bigger than space shuttle explosions, oil industry booms and busts, police and political scandals, same-sex marriages.
Is it bigger than 9/11? Too soon to say. But it might be.
This virus is not just an important story; it’s the only story. It has all but obliterated attention paid to a presidential election, a mere seven months away, that some were calling the most consequential in decades. The Chronicle, where I worked for 40-plus years, has published only a handful of articles on other topics on its front page since early March. And this singular focus seems entirely appropriate.
Friends have asked if I regret the timing of my retirement — if I’m itching to throw myself into this story. The answer is no; I did my bit for 43 years, and my friends are doing just fine without me. I have a lot of time to read the coverage; I’m in virtual quarantine because my age and health issues put me at high risk. And because of the years I spent in newsrooms, I have some insight into the challenges of covering an all-consuming story like this, day after day, week after week.
I’ve known hundreds of journalists, and — scoff if you will — most of them operate out of a conviction that they are performing a public service. This idealism coexists uneasily with the cynicism, or at least skepticism, that’s endemic to the profession (“If your mother says she loves you,” a favorite newsroom saying goes, “check it out.”)
A story like the coronavirus tends to supercharge a journalist’s sense of mission. As the story grinds on, workdays grow longer and more intense. Luxuries like meals and sleep are forsaken. There’s always one more call to make, one more frame to shoot. Lives depend on the public getting accurate, relevant information — for example, primers on how people can reduce the risks to themselves and their loved ones. Public officials and institutions must be held accountable, because so much is at stake. And compelling personal stories are strewn around the community like Easter eggs. To ignore even one of them seems wrong.
The irony, of course, is that the resources that enable journalists to do this vital work are among the pandemic’s casualties. Newspapers and many online outlets have been struggling for years, and the business closures required to keep people safe are draining the advertising revenues that continue to be the lifeblood of many media companies, even as they work to transition to a subscription-based business model. Several news organizations, most recently the Austin American-Statesman, have announced plans to furlough journalists to remain solvent. The implications are dire. A fund has been established to help these journalists continue their work.
One aspect of coronavirus coverage that I never experienced is that it has turned newsrooms, like all public gathering places, into hazardous zones. Technology makes it possible for most reporters and editors to work from home, but journalists still have to go out into the community to report their stories. Photographers are at particular risk; you can do an interview over the phone, but photographs must be shot in person. Fortunately, they’re taking appropriate precautions.
Or course, the coverage of this story hasn’t been perfect. National news organizations cling to conventions of “balance” while reporting the utterances of a fact-challenged president. Sometimes they don’t get it right, and it’s appropriate to point this out. But overall, my friends at the Chronicle and their counterparts around the country are performing a vital public service every day under extraordinarily difficult conditions. And now, some of them will be paid less for doing a job that’s become much harder.
My prediction: It won’t stop them.