A weekend of celebration, fear and self-loathing

David Sirota
February 18th, 2014

IMG_2074The above photo is what most of my weekend looked like. For self-evident reasons, I was beat after all the events that went down last week in our “Wolf of Sesame Street” investigation. For me personally, it was at once exhilarating, exhausting and a bit depressing.

The exhilarating and exhausting parts should be fairly obvious, especially when you appreciate what it takes to dig out and ultimately report a story like this.

This story developed the way most do – from a tip. Late in the week before last, a researcher friend that I’ve worked with before emailed me to let me know he had heard that the Arnold Foundation may be funding the new “Pension Peril” series airing within PBS NewsHour. I clicked around a bit to look into the story and found one reference to Arnold funding the series, but I then got pulled away on something else. Only later in the weekend did I go back to the story and notice that the WNET press release announcing the series didn’t even mention Arnold (and amazing, still does not mention him). That’s when I suddenly got the sense that this was a much bigger story, and the next three days were a blur of frantic phone calls, transcript searches, interviews, document dives – all the stuff that investigative journalism is all about.

The night before we published, I was spent, and the fatigue started talking when I dejectedly told my wife I wasn’t sure anyone would care about the piece, or read it. That wasn’t the point in reporting it, of course. However, any reporter who tells you with  straight face that they don’t care at all if anyone actually reads their work is lying.

Within eight hours, of course, our scoop was atop the Huffington Post and both the Arnold Foundation and WNET were responding with statements chock full of bluster, but no proof that we had gotten a single fact wrong. Clearly, we had struck a nerve and over the next three days, we reported the hell out of the story. Those three days, in fact, are a good lesson on the advantages of the blog/online format – since we were able to publish more than once a day, we were able to stay on top of every twist and turn of the story.

When Friday afternoon came, I was already starting to wind down. I happen to be finishing up an interview with a source on another story when my email box started going crazy with a wave of messages from friends and professional colleagues. It was a blur of congratulatory subject lines, but I still didn’t know what was going on, until I clicked a New York Times link and learned about WNET and PBS officials reversing course, admitting wrongdoing and sending the $3.5 million back to John Arnold. I told the source I would have to call him back, and he understood.

As I noted on Twitter, I felt like I was having an out of body experience, not from self-satisfaction, but from disbelief. I’ve worked so many years in politics and journalism and seen so many stories simply come and go without any response at all, I was genuinely shocked that our reporting had compelled a powerful institution to say no to a billionaire financier.

Most of my weekend, as noted above, was spent trying to get some rest. I had been on the journalistic equivalent of a sugar high for a whole week, and I crashed hard. And truth be told that crash eventually included some trepidation and gloom.

Journalism is a business of “what have you done for me lately” – a business which, if you take the profession seriously (granted a big “if”) your value is defined by your ability to find and report out real news or connect dots that haven’t been put together; generate attention for that work; and then make that work relevant to the larger conversation. Trying to accomplish that feat – and fearing you can’t – is a daily stress for most of us who do this work.

I say “most” because if you happen to be one of the few who works on television or in a legacy media outlet, much of your success is already built in for you. If, say, you have a cable talk show, or if you are a reporter at the New York Times, you don’t have to be ahead of the news, you don’t have to worry about your story getting attention, and you don’t have to think about relevance. You get to go on TV and simply repeat talking points or write a “news analysis” article summing up those same talking points, and with no effort on your part, you already have an audience and relevance even if you are late to a story. You have it because your position inherently provides you that almighty thing called “platform” no matter what you do.

That’s great for you, but that’s not the way it works for most of us, which was on my mind all weekend. I had about 24 hours of good feeling, and then the next few days of dread that the week’s big scoop and even bigger result set the bar impossibly high for me and for Pando. Is the expectation now that most or even many of our stories will have such impact? Is that my expectation of myself in my own work? And if it is the expectation, can I meet it?

The answers are scary, because while part of me will expect that of myself, most of me knows that there’s no way every week can be like last week. Many reporters go through most of their careers without a story and attendant impact like the one Pando was at the center of last week. So I know it’s not possible, and that bummed me out. Yet the aspiration is still there – the aspiration to keep investigating more big stories, breaking more news and finding the signal in all the noise. That aspiration is stressful because you just never know whether you will be able to fulfill it.

After breaking a big story, you tend to get a lot of new leads from folks who see you as a person who can break news. That’s fantastic, but also another stress. In the last few days, sources have sent me scores of unreported stories, each of them better than the next. Do I have the bandwidth or even the time to report them out? Am I up to the task? Not knowing the answer to that is a cause of anxiety – a cause to pull the sheets over the head and not get out of that bed.

Of course, I (and my dog Monty) did get out of bed – and I did so because I had a long talk with my editor, Paul, who reassured me that there’s a difference between aspiration and expectation. We can aspire to do great journalism, and we will do great journalism, but a lot of days that involves just grinding out base hits, rather than hitting towering home runs. It means following up big stories with iterative reports that only push the news ahead a few proverbial inches. It means spending a lot of time wading through all the information sources give us to find the tiny newsy nugget. It also means a lot of waiting around – which conflicts with the need to keep producing.

That balance between regularly producing stories and taking the time needed to report out deeper stories is something I and so many others struggle with. As journalist Erik Vance summarizes in a terrific essay about his recent reporting trip to Mexico:

Our trip makes me a little sad. In the amount of time Dominic sat around, another journalist could have churned out 40, maybe 60, mindless, forgettable news hits. Good journalism takes time, it takes patience, and it take a lot of time on your butt.  And in today’s underpaid, high speed media world, who has the time to do that kind of work?

I’ve discussed this constantly with Paul and there is no one right answer about how to create balance that allows for both deep reporting and regular content production. Pando has given me all the freedoms I need to report out the deep stories like the “Wolf of Sesame Street” investigation, but like any publication, it also needs content on a regular basis. Balancing that will always be a stress – and I think looking back at my work over the last few months, I’ve found a decent balance. It’s not perfect, and my eight-months-pregnant wife will certainly attest that it has come with some of the negative work-life balance issues most recently highlighted in this new Pew study. But it’s been OK, all things considered.

I’m back at work now, and done with this particular post-sugar-high crash. I’m onto another series of stories that I’m excited about, but I’m sure when we break those, I’ll go through the same manic cycle and same stress about balance.

My guess is that’s a pervasive occupational hazard in this line of work because ultimately, if you aren’t regularly struggling with that stress between the demands of doing deep reporting and the demands of day-to-day iterative reporting, then journalism may not be your calling. You may want to look like a journalist, but not actually be one, with all the shit that entails. In short, you probably want to be a TV host and not a reporter.

That said, if reporting, researching and writing is your true calling – if it that thing you just have to do – then perhaps it is best to simply accept the curse that comes with that. Accept that there will inherently be highs and then post-climactic lows right after that. It’s OK. Reporting real news,  breaking serious stories, going deep on longer reports, and finding the signal in the noise – doing all of that is well worth a weekend of fear and self-loathing.