Why We Write: From Bylines to Blue Streaks

Last year, a colleague of mine at the Future Journalism Project (a collective of reporters, editors and documentarians exploring “disruption, opportunity and innovation in journalism”) received a reader query that asked: “What is it about journalism that you love? Why did you become a journalist?”

The FJP’s brain-trust, Michael Cervieri, turned the question over to his various contributors, as well as to journalists on Twitter, which resulted in a panoply of answers that you can look up with the hash-tag #whyjournalism, and at futurejournalismproject.com. Most responses trended toward the heartfelt, expressing a desire to manifest change and better the world.

“I love journalism because, by design, it’s an exercise in sustained learning,” wrote Andrew Nusca of CBS. “Because to change the world, journalism is an immediate ‘short-term weapon,’” Jayel Aheram opined.

Another guy answered in French.

Now, to be clear, I don’t consider myself a journalist in the proper sense. I’m merely a writer who happens to write for newspapers (among other periodicals, online and beyond, like novelty toilet paper and insulting greeting cards).

When I’m feeling sentimental (usually around the second glass), I’ll sometimes call myself a “newspaperman.” To me, this conjures images of fedoras, flash bulbs and the “big scoop.” The non-nostalgic just assume I’m the guy who cruises by their house at 5 a.m. and chucks a log of ink-stained wood pulp from a car window. Newspapermen are what paperboys grow into.

If anyone had told me I’d be making my living penning personal screeds filed under “humor,” I’d have balked. Because I was 12 and I balked at everything. This didn’t stop the old route manager for us Petaluma Argus-Courier paperboys, circa 1984. The grizzled, old gent, yellowed like parchment paper from a permanent cloud of a cigar smoke, used to slip motivational messages into our bundles. Frequently, the mimeographed notes were lists of famous former paperboys, none of whom I can recall, but all apparently developed estimable “grit” while throwing printed-matter against the wind.

In the intervening decades, I’ve kept the grit, added professionalism and continue to enjoy the inspiration that comes with my work. How pious, eh?

So, this is what I wrote to Cervieri:

After I dropped out of my university’s creative writing department, my girlfriend at-the-time encouraged me to answer a classified ad that read, “Seeking reporter.” This is interesting for a couple of reasons: 1) The ad was in the same rag I delivered during my brief tenure as a paperboy and 2) There used to be this form of advertising called “classifieds.” For those unfamiliar with the term “paperboy,” they were a kind of child-sized matador that smelled of printers’ ink.

I applied for the gig and was offered the lifestyle editor’s job. I excelled immediately. It was the same feeling I suppose those with a genetic disposition toward alcoholism experience when they get their first taste of booze. Journalism was the thing I’d been thirsting for but didn’t know it. Well, I should clarify – the arts and entertainment beat was what I was craving (I eventually got that job too).

Fifteen years later, I have more published bylines than brain cells. I’ve also witnessed remarkable change in the industry (does anyone remember pica poles or Blue Streak pens?) and have great hope for its future. Just spell my name right in my obit, kids, and I’ll be happy. None of these “Dead-at-last” jokes either …

Admittedly, I’m not manifesting change or bettering the world like the work of my colleagues. That’s their job. Mine is to slip these little messages into the bundle.