My Toxic Relationship with the News

“Who would I tell if I came across a body now?” I wondered wistfully as I crossed the wooden bridge over the river, heading to yoga class as the warm summer sun started to slip below the row of picturesque brick storefronts in the downtown district.

The yoga classes were supposed to mask my distress over recently selling out on my dream job. My first purchase with my new obscenely large paycheck had been a high-end pink yoga mat and unlimited classes. Before, on my reporter’s salary, I scraped to afford drop-in classes a few times a year at this studio. 

The problem was every time I walked across the bridge to the downtown studio, I couldn’t help but think of a time months earlier when I was on my way to yoga class and saw first responders pulling a body from the river. I sent the tip to my coworkers in the newsroom as I walked into the yoga studio — after debating whether I should skip my class and start reporting on the scene myself. When I checked my phone after the closing “namaste,” my coworkers already had the story online. 

Now, there was no need to gather news tips. For the first time in a decade, it wasn’t my job to report the news. 

My dream job had become too heavy. The weight started to lift as I toured the campus building where I would begin my new job as a university “communications specialist,” a title that felt as foreign as the buttoned-up aura of academia. Between taking in the vaulted ceilings and art-lined hallways of my new workspace, I noticed the exterior doors were always unlocked and no one monitored who entered the building. Newsroom security had been tight, with locked doors and ID checks to enter. We went through active shooter training after the 2018 mass shooting at the Capital Gazette in Maryland shook the whole journalism industry. An armed guard arrived in the office any time the threats aimed at our staff reached a certain pitch, and warning flyers on the doors showed the mugshot of a man who had repeatedly shown up to aggressively complain about our news coverage. 

“Oh right, people don’t want to harm you for doing this work,” I commented to one of my new coworkers. 

But my lighter reality wasn’t necessarily easier. I felt like an outdoor cat abruptly allowed inside; while I was thankful to be out of survival mode, I didn’t fully understand the house rules. I didn’t know how to sit through a conversation without scribbling in a reporter’s notebook. The summer days in my new office passed slowly, calmly, absent the adrenaline rush of breaking news or battling for public information. I wasn’t sure how to tell what I’d accomplished without page views or bylines to count. Escaping the endless stream of online comments critiquing everything I created was a relief — and a quick way to feel irrelevant. Now that I had the freedom to show my bias about what was happening in the news, I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to say. 

I started taking walks after lunch to break up my workday, an impossible luxury when trying to finish a story on deadline. As I sat on a bench looking over the grassy campus quad, I kept thinking of lazy summer afternoons more than a decade ago, when my college roommate and I sprawled out on blankets in the patch of grass behind our apartment and talked for hours. Our conversations drifted to the careers and families and lives we might make for ourselves someday. I had always pictured myself as a journalist. 

At a loss for who I was supposed to be if not a reporter, I turned to my friends from my first newsroom. We gathered at the lakeside on hot weekends in July and August for countless bottles of wine, a sunburn or two, and marathon sessions of dancing and drinking through music festivals. In not so many words, I tried to ask the people who knew me when I fell for journalism whether I would be alright without it. They told me they still want to read what I write. They said contentment is more fulfilling than fleeting bursts of joy. They said I might always feel this way, and life would go on.

They had been through their own versions of this break-up. As recent college grads, we had landed together at the same small-town newspaper for a handful of years. We spent our days together reporting the news and our nights together at the bar next door. Then, one by one, we’d gone our separate ways — my coworker-turned-husband and I to another newspaper, everyone else to something else. At a time when one journalism job was hard enough to come by, Marty and I managed to work together at three different papers. But I was fully aware our path to new newsrooms would always be paved with layoffs and buyouts and “restructures.” Eventually, I lost sight of my way forward amid the rubble of the collapsing industry.  

For months after my departure to what journalists call the “dark side” of communications, I obsessed over parsing which parts of journalism I had loved and which parts made me leave. The conclusion I reached — after meditating on it through those many yoga classes — is the line between the two is incredibly thin. I watched my husband continue reporting, pitying his tether to the news cycle and envying the stories he wrote. I cheered on my reporter friends and wondered if they judged me for leaving, like I had judged the journalists who left before me. 

The summer wound down with a former coworker’s wedding, and I was surrounded by people from that world I was pretending not to miss. I caught up with my first editor Dave, who’s now a college newspaper adviser, and found myself asking if he felt conflicted sending the latest crop of college graduates into this industry. Like any good reporter, I noticed he skirted the question and instead said he teaches them to be storytellers, which will serve them well in many lines of work.

“It’s not like when I promised you if you gave me two or three years, there’d be a bigger opportunity in journalism waiting for you,” he said. “I can’t tell them that.” 

I remember him saying that when he hired me. I was 21, a month out of college and had no idea what I was doing. For some reason, Dave kept believing I could be a good journalist and so I kept trying to be. And his promise had borne out. When I cried myself to sleep the night of the wedding, I was mourning that we can’t make the same promises to the next generation of people like me, who think the thing they might be best at is reporting the news. I was mourning the disorienting trajectory that led something I once loved to become untenable.

My yoga membership reached the six-month mark, and I signed up for another one as the leaves changed color and fell from the trees. I sleep better these days, and my fingernails no longer peel and tear off like they used to when I was constantly stressed. I realized there are no “bonus points” for sacrificing personal peace for work, even when you attach to that work such lofty ideals as upholding a cornerstone of our country’s democracy. I’m learning to show up in my life as a whole person, rather than as a reporter whose value depends on her ability to deliver the next big headline and keep herself out of the story. And I’ll probably always miss the magic of strangers trusting me to share their stories and the gratifying challenge of deploying every analytical and creative instinct at my disposal to try to tell those stories well. Who wouldn’t miss the greatest job in the world?

My new job didn’t change my pre-pandemic commute, other than making it a half-mile shorter. So every morning, the familiar route accentuated my new destination. I used to check Twitter at stop lights to see what stories the other news outlets published or compose emails in my head, trying to figure out the right combination of words to get people to give me information they’d rather not. Driving by a school would remind me I needed to follow up on the FOIA request I’d filed with the district, and passing through the ring of businesses around campus prompted a fresh list of calls I needed to make about which restaurants were closing, which were opening, and which were being forced out by rising rents. Before I left the house, I would have sent my editor a list of headlines for the stories I planned to finish by the end of the day, and I knew I should have the first one filed by 10 a.m. if I wanted to deliver. 

After I left journalism, I took the bus to work and looked out the window at the trees. The news was something to consume with my morning coffee, and then I’d go about my day.