Notes from the Green Couch

nonfiction homecoming, 2006

Alumni nonfiction writers speak the Writers House.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

When Jean Chatzky, Lisa DePaulo, Buzz Bissinger, and Stephen Fried attended Penn more than twenty years ago, there was no Kelly Writers House. Nevertheless, on Homecoming weekend 2006, the quartet convened at 3805 Locust Walk to lead what has become an annual tradition - the Homecoming Celebration of Alumni Nonfiction Writers.

Disciples of renowned professor Nora Magid, the four Penn alumni honored their mentor by transforming the Writers House into an exclusively nonfiction venue for a late afternoon discussion on the life of a nonfiction writer. Fried, a local author and columnist, led the proceedings, first introducing the Nora Magid Mentorship Prize, then guiding the informal conversation.

Notes from the Green Couch

Each writer's testimony was revealing - and discouraging to any aspiring journalists with illusions of high profile features right out of college. DePaulo, now a political correspondent at GQ, found herself unemployed out of college; she proceeded to write for Atlantic City Magazine for the slave wage of $50 per week, bartending on the side, before getting hired fulltime.

Only through dogged persistence and a bit of chance did the aspiring writers catch a break. While working for a public relations office at Penn, Fried concocted a fake project giving him a legitimate excuse to contact countless editors to compile a database of freelance requirements for each publication. Bissinger, now an accomplished author and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, got his first job at a Norfolk, Virginia newspaper after sending out over 300 applications.

As continues to be the case, newspapers and magazines often hired people for the wrong reasons. Chatzky's dreams of writing for Forbes soon after college were thwarted because she lacked an MBA. Bissinger bemoaned publications hiring based on past experience rather than recognizing a fresh eagerness to uncover a story; DePaulo inserted her displeasure with the public's newfound enthrallment with blogs and spin reporting - and the media's determinedness to appease that non-journalistic practice.

While studies have indeed shown that readers are becoming increasingly lazy and the need for immediate reporting is insatiable, the panel of writers placed more blame on the editors for the imminent extinction of quality long form reporting. Lengthier articles with more intellectual and literary substance hardly stand a fighting chance on an editor's desk any longer out of a paranoia that they will not be marketable. Bissinger reflected on the bittersweet fact that while he was lucky enough to live his dream of working for a newspaper, as he is dying, so is his beloved print journalism.

With such universal access and coverage for every story, the chance to compose a truly unique piece of reporting seems unrealistic. However, Fried points out the possibility still exists today, highlighting the recent Vanity Fair exclusive revealing the identity of Deep Throat from the Watergate case - the very incident that glorified the journalism profession thirty years ago. That being said, while the story was memorable, the article was one to forget. Poorly written and reported ("Deep Throat" was quoted just once the entire article), what could have been a masterful piece of journalism was merely a marketable scoop. This failure to deliver quality journalism to the reader is why Fried emphasized the need to elevate subject matter through writing to make a story good, not just hot.

For the better part of 90 minutes, the panel's lamenting of quality print journalism's imminent extinction dominated. I for one, however, did not walk away from their conversation discouraged. True, the four panelists emphasized repeatedly that the pay is terrible - in the beginning, you are paid as little as possible; by the end, you are never paid enough for your time. And it was noted that The Philadelphia Inquirer has passed the point of no return because its employees are so utterly dejected. So if it is not about money or work environment, there must be some other powerful reasons.

There must be a powerful reason to be a journalist because even Bissinger, who habitually "demeans everything that is journalistic," continues to write. For one, he took advantage of the opportunity to "take chances and do things and be in places very different than" the privileged life he grew up in. He worked grunt journalism for over 15 years, but by working at small newspapers he learned how to truly report and interact with people different than himself - traits essential not just to journalism, but to life. Moreover, as a freelance writer, he gets to make his own schedule, allowing him quality family time.

Does it prove that money can't buy you happiness, and the intangibles are more important in life? Not necessarily, but it seems undeniable that if you have a calling to be a journalist, you need to answer it - and will answer it despite the financial hurdles and logistical obstacles.