Two stories suddenly came together this week—literally being published 13 minutes apart over at my old haunt, Cleveland Scene. I wrote one of them, about the survivor of a police shooting and how his life has changed in the past six years, and I helped another journalist work on the reporting for the second story, about how certain actors are hijacking Black families’ names and the Black Lives Matter movement to advance some… vaguely boosterish self-promotion? I think both stories speak to the present moment in America, but that’s not why I’m mentioning them.
I wrote a long essay last fall about the shifting ground in journalism. The news media market is falling apart (like so many other commercial businesses), and it’s causing a crisis of identity for journalists who care deeply about the work. For those who care about the careerist ladder-climbing, I guess there as many opportunities as ever. But, from vantage point, anyone else out there would do well to reconsider how and where to commit acts of journalism in America.
One of the main themes in my essay (something currently unpublished but planned as the first draft of an introduction to a book) is that anyone can do this work. Certain parts of the job require some training, in a way, but it’s more a matter of lived experience and professional communication skills. Can you hold a conversation? Can you probe for information? More importantly, can you hold the idea of an audience in mind while doing those things? Well, then, all you need next is the will.
I reached out to Kipp Holloway, the subject of my story, on Aug. 30, 2019. In fact, his story was meant to be the backbone of this essay I keep alluding to. His story fit into the broader situational context I wanted to write about (while writing about journalism). We talked for a few months, but Kipp wasn’t ready. I stepped back and figured we would catch up down the line. I wrote about another story.
Then the American streets cracked open with revolt and deeply rooted emotion.
Kipp reached out to me again and we got around to recording an interview about his life since a Cleveland police sergeant shot him in 2014. We also talked about what the collective audience in this country might be able to do in the present moment, how we all might be able to listen and learn.
My point in this is that it’s those basic interpersonal skills—listening, mostly—that allow us to hear others’ stories and, with a knack for healthy prose or clean audio editing, share them with the wider world. It took almost a year to write that story, when the writing itself took only a few days. (Part of that is the circumstances of this week: I wanted to publish the piece on Juneteenth. But the point remains.) Journalism is at once a patient and impatient game, but it can only be accomplished by listening. What I write is just a neat echo of what I’m hearing from others.
The other thing that happened is something that fulfills the basic thesis in my essay, I think. A friend of a friend reached out to me maybe two weeks ago, saying he had another friend who was working on a story about the origins of some recent organized protests in cities like Cleveland, Akron, Portland, etc. He wanted to know if I’d take a call and maybe talk through some of the early reporting work. Sure.
What this writer had was some good, in-depth internet-scoured research about the people behind some of these weird rallies. His starting point was that something about these events didn’t jibe with the direct action invoked by more grassroots outfits with somewhat longer histories among the people. Who were these cats trying to kneel alongside police officers, anyway? It was a good question and an astute prime mover for what he’d gathered.
But, from there, what’s the move?
This is part of the editorial training that does play a role in (some) newsrooms, even today. It’s an instinctual thing, though, and I don’t think a journalism degree confers much in the way of a good nose for truth. You learn along the way, or maybe you’re born with an innate distrust of power. Who knows? Either way, this writer, BZ, asked for some editing help as he assembled the piece. Whom should he contact? How should he structure this part? What’s missing from this section? Stuff like that. It felt good to provide a perspective—certainly nothing iron-clad or self-important, but a response to questions of ethics and attribution. The more that we can promote stories that illuminate the underbelly of the daily news, the better.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that independent journalism matters now more than ever. The Plain Dealer covered both of these stories, sort of, but the in-depth contextualization is something that takes time and a keen ear for thematic movement. It’s less about the power structure of a corporate news media ecosystem (that’s barely an option for most journalists working now) and more about the will to listen, to learn, to share.