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Go Home, Young Journalist

In a Friday interview [1] at Patrick Henry College, a Christian conservative institution, Mark Leibovich offered a rather bleak view of D.C. politics and journalism. But this is no surprise, considering the frank and disenchanting language of his book This Town: Two Parties and A Funeral [2]. Leibovich spoke of a city wallowing in “egregious” and “unsustainable” corruption, fixated on money and power.

However, the New York Times Magazine reporter did offer some hope for the young journalism and government majors gathered: he encouraged them to embrace “rootedness” and community, rather than seeking the popularity and charisma of Washington. “Being immersed in small communities gives one an exposure to how people interact, a more hands-on approach to things,” Leibovich said in response to an email on the subject. “Plus, I think it’s more interesting.”

While these statements may not be a full endorsement of localism per se, Leibovich offered important supports for the movement. First, he noted the importance of community-centric service. D.C. media and political leaders often become fixated on their own sphere of political bias, to the detriment of objectivity and even courtesy. Leibovich believes Washington’s reporters are often disdainful of their customers (Leibovich referenced a Politico story entitled “Are Voters Dumb? [3]” that appeared on their front page in 2012).

Journalists writing and living in community recognize their customers. They develop relationships with them, and learn to seek the good of those communities. Leibovich said that any reporter or politician who wants to come to D.C. should first develop this rich background—and added that they (politicians especially) should return to their homeland, and not remain in the noxious D.C. atmosphere.

My personal experience aligns with Leibovich’s statements. While writing for a local Idaho paper, I grew close to my readers and community. The work transcended mere reporting and writing: every article was intimately tied to the daily lives of my neighbors. Obituaries and high school senior profiles, while not glamorous, were incredibly important. Stories on a hot local topic meant hours on the phone with concerned or interested readers the next day. Though I did not fully realize it at the time, it was deeply meaningful work.

Unfortunately, these small bastions of journalism are suffering most in the current media climate. They haven’t the funds available to larger companies like the New York Times. Oftentimes, they lose young journalists to the glamor of big-city newspapers. Young writers eager for a future Pulitzer or book deal see little promise in writing for the local county.

It may seem disingenuous for Leibovich and myself to advocate for small-town journalism while writing in “This Town.” I cannot speak for Leibovich, but perhaps there will come a day when I return to that small-town Idaho community. It was a blessing to write for them. But writing for The American Conservative does feel much like writing for my small-town paper did: we have a very involved readership community, even if it is online. Our active and thoughtful commenters always offer interesting feedback. We do offer a service to an important ideological community, and many of our writers, including Rod Dreher, have combined their work here with a strong sense of place. The two work hand in hand.

Hopefully Leibovich’s comments will encourage other young writers to strongly examine their journalistic motives: are they seeking fame and fortune, or are they seeking to serve? Washington’s corruption, power-lust, and nearly inescapable partisanship are very real temptations. But those who remain rooted to their place and beliefs can offer hope—even in “This Town.”


Follow @gracyolmstead [4]

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#1 Comment By R. J. Stove On October 8, 2013 @ 7:41 am

A very interesting article.

On any localist criterion of literary output, I would score abysmally, since I write so little about my (Australian) homeland. Yet I should like to think that TAC, as well as showing how wrong Thomas Wolfe was when he said “you can’t go home again”, lets its contributors mount authorial exhibits in what André Malraux called “the imaginary museum”. Extremely few, if any, other present-day periodicals would have tolerated my profiling – at considerable length too – Phyllis McGinley, Herbert Butterfield, and A.J.P. Taylor, to name but three instances.

#2 Comment By TomB On October 8, 2013 @ 8:42 am

Gracy Olmsted wrote:

“Hopefully Leibovich’s comments will encourage other young writers to strongly examine their journalistic motives: are they seeking fame and fortune, or are they seeking to serve?”

While I understand what Olmsted meant here, as the desire to “serve” is in my view precisely the vehicle that has resulted in the gross corruption of the media that his book dances upon I think it needs some refinement.

Cut it anyway you like and the media culture in Washington, forcing much of same on the rest of Washington, is Left/liberal bias. And not only the major root of that but then what keeps it sustained is the idea that by being so biased one is “serving.” Serving, that is, this or that today’s-seen-as-deserving group or cause.

One sees it in young journalists’ responses as to why they want to go into the field: “To serve!” And then in how the promotions and accolades and etc. reinforce same, no matter how biased they may be handed out: “Given to those who have been of the most service!”

And thus, fresh from condemning the perfidious influence of money on, say, tax policy, one gets the oh-so lauding treatment when Bloomberg pumps tons of money into defending those anti-gun pols out in Colorado. Or of Bloomberg and Zuckerberg and all the rest now pumping tens of millions if not hundreds of same into amnesty for illegals and orders of magnitude increases in legal immigration. Or the beyond-gentle treatment given to the bailouts of all those oh-so-brilliant New York bankers who throw such dazzling parties and support all the right causes. Or the utter lack of remark upon so many supposedly unbiased former media Blobsters running off to join the Obama administration.

It’s *serving,* you see: To report on it negatively could only help the troglodytes who live in places that have trees and dirt and no tapas bars.

Or at least that’s what so many of the self-serving media individuals Liebovich talks about tell themselves. They are “servers!”

Unfortunately of course the last service they ever intend to render is to report on the media and themselves the way they report on everything and everyone else.

#3 Comment By Rod Dreher On October 8, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

This is great, Gracy. I wonder if Mark Leibovich would ever consider taking his own advice. If not, why not? I think he would have an interesting answer.

#4 Comment By Sam M On October 8, 2013 @ 2:51 pm

Great article. Well said.

I think that journalism would benefit if people cut their teeth in smaller venues. That’s where the stories are. The Pacific Northwest needed local journalists covering the timber industry before the spotted owl. Papers in Iowa ought to be great at covering agriculture. An enterprising young kid can get in and make a name for him or herself there. I think this is why so much great urban journalism comes from the alt-weeklies rather than the papers of record.

Problem: Credentialing. The ladder would take you from smaller daily up through progressively larger regional papers. And I guess that path might sstill exist. My experience led me out of journalism, though. I was at a really good weekly between DC and Baltimore in the late 1990s. I had good clips. Others before me had moved up to the Sun or the Post. That was the path. Except those papers started shedding jobs. There was no place to move. I got an offer from the Annapolis Capitol. It was a good paper in a capitol city. It paid about 30 percent less than my job at a weekly, and the editor admitted that things were about to get worse, not better.

So yeah. Consider going back to your homme community to write about it. But only if you love it so much that you are willing to live on $19,000 per year in perpetuity no matter how good they get.

I wish kids would do that. But I can see why they resist.

#5 Comment By KSS On October 8, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

I do love the thrust of this article. I lived it, more or less. I went home after college and started blogging about local politics. It’s a blast, and I get to actually meet and talk to the people I write about. It seems so much more real than the echo chambers of Washington, where I went to college.

So I tried applying to a couple of jobs at the local paper. I don’t really have a journalism background, but these were entry level positions, and I met the qualifications. At my interviews, I made it very clear that I’d be happy to stay at the local paper if I got the job, and would run with it as far as it would take me. I’d be happy to call this little Midwestern city home for the rest of my life.

I lost out to people with master’s degrees and many years of journalism experience. For a small-town, entry level job.

That made me very, very glad that my heart was not set on journalism.

#6 Comment By Rod Dreher On October 8, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

Yes, it’s hard to recommend journalism to young people these days, for the reasons you and Sam M say.