Journalist went where “nobody else wanted to go”

|

At 9:30 a.m. Tuesday during Flagler College’s annual Communication Week, journalist Roy Gutman will speak to students in the Gamache-Koger Theatre at Ringhaver Student Center. Gutman has worked as a journalist for Newsday, McClatchy, and is now a freelancer covering foreign affairs. His coverage of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, as well as the George Polk Award for foreign reporting. He is the author of several books, including “Banana Diplomacy,” “A Witness to Genocide,” and “How We Missed the Story: Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan.”

We discussed the state of journalism and advice for young journalists ahead of his appearance at Flagler College.

Q: How did you get your start in journalism?

Gutman: I was on the campus newspaper, which I joined as a reporter  writing essays and think pieces. I decided I liked the look of it, and thought maybe journalism was a field I could try out. It was a time when journalism wasn’t the most popular of fields. I worked summers at the hometown newspaper in Hartford, Connecticut.

After getting a taste of that and doing a lot of local reporting in various towns, I really enjoyed trying to style my stories and tell stories. By my senior year I decided this was my field. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to work in places where nobody else wanted to go. And I thought that I could do it because I was interested in international events. This was the time of the Cold War, so this meant trying to go to the communist world as a reporter. In about five years, I was able to do that.

Q: What is the most pressing issue in the journalism industry today?

Gutman: Survival. In college, it was tough catching on at these organizations. It wasn’t easy, they weren’t out there on the streets begging you to join them. But you could do it as an intern or cub reporter. Today, the newspaper industry has really shrunk to a fraction of what it was. It was the dominant news medium. There is TV news, but it is not what it used to be. There is national cable news, which sometimes is very, very good, but on the whole it is a much, much less vigorous industry than we had.

And the reason why, is because of the digital revolution. What that has done is it’s allowed people to self publish – publish blogs and websites and so on. But at the expense of having editors. People who self publish usually don’t get edited. And what journalism is is reporting the news, getting thrown into reporting the news. But then, getting your product past editors, and even copy editors. And to do investigative work, it’s costly and certainly is a commitment that takes days, weeks, and months. It has to be with editors, and your editors must be devoted to challenging you at every point, and then promoting the product if it’s solid. That element of the process is greatly weakened by the weakening of the industry as a whole. The area that I chose to go into, foreign news, is really the shadow of what it was in my earlier days. Major organizations that used to brag that they had six or seven correspondents now have next to nothing.

In the old days, you could be a freelancer. Nowadays, [foreign news] freelancers get so badly paid and their work is in such little demand because the American public is really mesmerized by the Trump story that I think it’s a much harder slog than it ever used to be.

Q: What advice do you have for young journalists entering the field?

Gutman: Be of strong courage. Have a plan B. Don’t give up, we need you. But beware of the hill you have to climb. And we need you at your best. If you want to do the foreign news route – because I still think it’s vital to have original, fresh, hard researched reporting – learn languages. You have to master other cultures, you have to convince people you’re serious. 

But the need is there, the audience will be there, even if they’re not there at the moment. The question is, how is it going to be distributed? We don’t know the journalistic business model, because I don’t think there is one yet. But the function of journalism is something vital to a free society, for a democracy and the American public. If you write a good article about what’s happening in the local city council and you define and you explain things, it actually changes things. It actually changes perception and people get active and then they demand their representative do something different.

I wrote about terrible things happening in Bosnia, and members of Congress took interest and they demanded changes of policy. So in other words, it’s a unique thing in our system that journalism can make a difference. So this is why we really need people to stay in journalism. But unfortunately, the business model is a question mark right now, so maybe someone can come up with a business model. I would give you every salute in the world.

Q: What do you enjoy most about being a journalist?

Gutman: I enjoy going in search of a story and being a bit confounded by it. Maybe sometimes things don’t work out as I was expecting them to, and I have to try to find my way out. And try to figure out what the hell is really going on, and then if I do it, there’s great satisfaction. It’s taking on the challenge of reality that I thought I could understand by doing good reporting, but it turns out it’s more complex. So one example of a story that I thought was pretty good at the time, was a story about Syria where everyone was expecting an invasion and it didn’t happen. I traveled to Turkey to cover that story because as a freelancer, I thought I could sell it easily. A horrible thing to contemplate what would happen, but the interesting thing was it didn’t happen. You go in with one expectation, and you go in and report and see actually the facts add up to something different. And there’s a satisfaction you get when you get it right and it’s different form what you expected and it actually matters. So that’s what you can do in journalism.

Leave a Comment