Feeding that damn goat

I’ve been thinking a lot about “The Goat Must Be Fed” since the report came out a few weeks ago. I’m a little more than two months into my first newspaper job and so much of what’s said in the piece resonates with what goes on at the six-day-a-week publication.

We’re a fairly small paper–circulation is just 7,000–and a very small staff: three full-time news reporters, one (and a half) features reporters, one sports reporter, one sports editor, an assistant editor and managing editor. The scale is tipped (heavily, in my opinion) toward advertising and circulation, who round out the rest of the newsroom. It’s a pretty old-school operation, like many of the outlets mentioned in the report. We cover police reports, trials, city council meetings, school board meetings, construction updates, breaking news across a number of counties. It’s “legacy news,” writes the Duke Reporters’ Lab:

With limited resources, the first goal is to fill airtime or newsprint or stock the website. The goat must be fed, and the easiest feed is the diet it’s been fed for years.

We’re tripping over ourselves as it is to keep up with the daily news cycle; as lovely as the idea sounds, none of us can take time away from our regularly schedule programming to experiment with digital tools, restructure how we cover certain beats, or devote much energy to any large-scale digital projects.

Our situation is often frustrating, but it isn’t unique — in fact, we’re in the majority, as half of daily newspapers in the U.S. have a circulation of fewer than 10,000 and an average staff size of fewer than nine people. The paper I work for is probably never going to have its own iPhone app, or a data news tab, or a staff devoted entirely to building new tools for our newsroom. We’re not the Washington Post. We’re not even the Amarillo Globe-News. And that’s okay.

Digital news doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. The report ends by listing some free or low-cost tools that smaller newsrooms can incorporate pretty easily into their reporting, if they put some extra energy toward it (it’s a question of resources and of priorities, the report finds). Small papers are not going to be the ones driving traditional news into the digital era, but we shouldn’t be the ones left behind when it goes, either.

Starting Over, Yet Again

Miles upon miles upon miles.

Miles upon miles upon miles.

Well, I officially made it a year in D.C. Saturday was the one-year anniversary of the day two friends and I left Chicago at our backs and drove down to Washington. I thought I’d only be here three months.

Four sublets and three jobs later, it was another March 22, different year. So of course it would happen that on Friday I was offered a job out of town. Out of the state, even. Out of the time zone — in North Dakota. Because the universe and perhaps my own subconscious have decided that I can’t stay too long in one place, I accepted a city reporter position with The Dickinson Press, the premiere (ok, only) newspaper in fair Dickinson, North Dakota.

Giving my two weeks’ notice at work also meant giving my two weeks’ notice to D.C. I got comfortable, I guess, riding the same bus to work each day, or getting off at the same metro stop. Shopping at the same grocery store, visiting the same few bars each weekend. Seeing the same people. It’s funny how quickly we get used to things, especially since I came here kicking and screaming and vowing to leave as soon as I could.

But I did get used to it. More than that, I ended up loving it. Not all of it; I’d prefer not to live in a group house for more than I paid for a studio in Denver, or spend $40 a week on groceries. I still think the majority of people here are entitled assholes who go out of their way to walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk and force their way onto crowded metros when people are trying to get off. But there is always something to do in the city: a new art exhibit, live music, pub trivia, an impromptu BYOB happy hour in the NPR cafeteria.

I wish I could stay. It seemed possible. I’m lucky to have gotten to intern at NPR an extra semester, but it made the illusion of permanence that much stronger. I could imagine myself coming to the building every morning, eating my banana with peanut butter and drinking Peet’s coffee, checking the celeb blogs before starting work, making small talk with coworkers across cubicle walls and going home at six every night to eat eggs for dinner and watch Netflix. It would have been a good life. It would have been a simple life.

But as my gruff editor pointed out, that’s not what I went to school for. I studied journalism because I want to be a journalist. This opportunity in a town so small and foreign and far away is exactly what I’ve wanted to do for years: write, report, explore. I’ve never gotten to work for a real newspaper before; it seems like such a rite of passage for young journalists that I should have done years ago. At such a small production, I’ll have more responsibility, and more impact.

It would be limiting to take a marketing or PR or web producer position just so I can stay in D.C. I could try to freelance, but I know myself; I’m not cut out for that life that so many of my friends and old colleagues have, hustling from assignment to assignment. Pitching stories every day? Buying my own insurance? Filing quarterly taxes? It’s a miracle I filed taxes once this year. I’ll just barely recover in time for next April 15.

Professionally, Dickinson is a good move. Personally, it’s a terrifying one. I have friends here, and favorite haunts, and cute boys a few desks away. I’m scared to give all of that up. My boss pointed out, optimistically, I think, that I can go anywhere right now: I’m young and single, without the burden of kids or a relationship to worry about in a job search. He’s right (but how did he know I was single?), but part of me wishes I did have something, or someone, holding me down. Would it be such a burden to have a reason to stay, to say, without compromise, that I have no choice but to find a job here because this is where my life is?

Right now, I have to put career first. I can’t putz around as a failing freelancer or reluctant administrative assistant somewhere just so I can stay in D.C. because my friends are here, and I never did get to try the bread at Le Diplomat, and maybe things will work out with that one guy if we give ourselves enough time. D.C. will be here if I need to come back, but for now, I think the best thing I can do is go to Dickinson and play Cracker Jane Reporter for a while. Anyway, it’s not like I’ll be there long — the universe gives it a year at most.

If you want to make God laugh

Yes, that Georgia.

Yes, that Georgia.

I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of truly thoughtless, sometimes intentionally cruel things spewed forth from the mouths of manchildren, but perhaps the most cutting remark came absentmindedly from a man I’ve been “seeing” (can you call it that if he doesn’t know your last name?) since October. He’s set to go to Russia this summer for work, and since I’ve been to Georgia and have been considering going back for quite a while, we often talk about the region and he asks for updates on when I think I’ll actually go strike off as a freelancer in Tbilisi.

I should have known better than to tell anyone I was thinking about moving back to Georgia, if for no other reason than this proverb: “Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.” Because once I even hinted that I wanted to try to support myself as a journalist there, I was setting myself up to fail. It’s been more than a year since I started talking to Georgian nationals, other journalists and editors about how I can make my dream work, and still, I’m no closer to taking action than I was when I was a student.

But back to this man, whom I made the mistake of telling my  deepest hopes, tricking myself into believing that if I say them aloud and to enough people, surely they’ll pan out. One night after we had gone over my reservations yet again — I don’t know any editors who want my work, I am broke as it is, I owe the government and my parents thousands upon thousands of dollars, I have no insurance — he said, in some roundabout way, “We both know you’re not going to Georgia.” (We? Who’s this we?)

It’s stayed with me since then. I should know better: that he doesn’t matter, that he has no right to tell me what I will and won’t do, that he’s wrong. But he might not be. So instead of getting on my feisty high horse and laughing in the face of his misguided doubt — I’ll show you, you irrelevant maroon! — while trotting off to Georgia with a reporter’s notebook in hand, I wonder if he’s right. I wonder if I should have told anyone my ‘plan,’ and more than that, I wonder if I should have even considered it in the first place.

And the reason his irrelevant opinion hit the nerve it did, possibly as much as if my sister or parents or editor had said it (which they haven’t because they get me, okay??), is because I might just agree with what he said. Might. The discussion never really came up again; he asks now and then if I’m still considering Georgia, and I say, Yes, but not for a while. Not until I can. Not until I’m ready.

All the while, I’m secretly plotting the day I do go abroad and write an article and get paid for it — voila! instant foreign correspondent, if only fleetingly. He’ll be the first person I tell. And whether it’s next month or next year or twenty years from now, I can’t wait for that day to come. It might end up being the only reason I go at all.