The tribe meets — what journalism is really about

By Caitlin Kelly

 

Cathaleen Curtis church

St. Mary’s Episcopal church, Arlington, Virginia, where the memorial service was held for Wallace McNamee, his childhood church.

Photo by Cathaleen Curtis, director of photography, the Buffalo News.

 

I’ve been a journalist since my first year at University of Toronto, and published in national magazines and newspapers since my third year there.

It’s my life — if you’re curious, here’s some of my work.

It’s a life that makes intellectual, physical and emotional demands specific to the business.

We, at our best, share a clear (rarely explicitly discussed) set of values that resonate for those working in nations with a free press — albeit also under the heavy hand of free-market capitalism that makes even the very best job temporary.

If you’ve worked in any form of hard news journalism especially, whether photo, video, digital, print, television or broadcast, you share with thousands of colleagues worldwide the same challenges and experiences:

— balancing the need for speed, to beat every possible competitor, with the need to be 100% accurate

— discerning the many lies and omissions and distortions fed to us by the powerful into a report that, we hope, will help our audiences better make sense of their world, whether climate change, new legislation, economic issues

— working with very few resources (low pay, no assistants or secretaries or researchers)

— entering a cut-throat world where there’s always someone younger and cheaper ready to grab our hard-won spot

— knowing your value is only as great as your last story, not the prizes, awards and fellowships you’ve also collected

— having to persuade scared, dubious, wary sources to share with us their data and images to help us tell our stories thoroughly

— sometimes working in conditions that are dangerous, or merely extremely uncomfortable (heat/rain/conflict zones/war zones/the aftermath of natural disasters)

It all creates a bond that runs deep and strong, knowing that everyone in the same room gets it.

 

We recognize it immediately in one another, members of a far-flung tribe. 

 

We tend to share characteristics: we’re self-reliant, funny, wary of draaaaaama, able to put strangers at ease quickly, brave, badasses, typically pretty humble, (because we all know someone who’s done similar work much better/sooner than we have!), willing to challenge any form of authority to get the story — and incessantly curious about the world, even after decades of examining it closely.

That can make meeting someone new, even one much younger or older, staff or freelance, editor or shooter or writer, as comfortable as meeting a familiar friend.

I’m the veteran of three major daily newspapers, the Globe & Mail (Canada’s national daily), the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News, and have written television news and thousands of articles for everyone from Reuters and bbc.com to Marie Claire.

And every day, like my colleagues, I now watch in dismay as our industry keeps firing people like me — people who know what we’re doing, people readers and viewers rely on.

In the past few weeks alone, Ontario towns lost 33 regional newspapers as they were closed down for good, and new owners fired the entire staff of the L.A. Weekly, a respected newspaper — instead asking its readers to offer unpaid work.

Seriously?

 

Wally by David Humer Kennerly

Wallace McNamee; photo by David Hume Kennerly

 

Last weekend, more than 200 veterans of our business, many of them white-haired, gathered in a church in Arlington, Virginia, for a memorial service for Wallace McNamee, one of American photojournalism’s greats.

If you’ve been looking at news photos, in any medium, you’ve seen his work; his, like many of them, were the eyes recording history: elections, assassinations, pop culture, war.

My husband, a career photographer and photo editor at The New York Times for 31 years, knew and worked alongside McNamee in D.C., as did many of the men and women there — some editors, some competitors, all of us gathered to share their love and respect.

Colleagues and friends arrived, as we did, from far away, former awed interns now running the nation’s largest photo agencies and choosing images for its most influential publications.

Two photographers I’d never met both told me the same thing about Wally: “I was the new kid in town. I didn’t know anything and he showed me the ropes.”

Not the typical image of the sharp-elbowed, conscience-free “journalist” you may be more accustomed to.

If you maintain the skewed, ignorant and toxic notion that “all news is fake”, I wish you’d been there in that small white church, sharing the crowded pews, to witness what, at its best, our business really is about.