By Will James
It’s funny how much war correspondence and business reporting overlap at the intern level. Before I began work at the New York Daily News business desk in February, I underestimated the physical demands of the riding the Long Island Rail Road and looking at a computer screen for five to eleven hours a day while not moving from a chair. I’d leave almost every shift with a concentrated headache that would begin in one of my eye sockets and spread like a cloud into the back of my brain. I would try to keep from buying food in the city because I gave up my part-time job for the internship, and the cost of commuting was ravaging, to say the least. When I’d catch a peak-hour train at the end of the day, usually after all the seats were taken, I’d hang onto a bar and slump against the door like a boxer at the end of the tenth round.
It was not how I imagined a reporting job. It was simultaneously enchanting and disenchanting. By no means does this mean it was bad. By April, I felt lean, like one of those journalists you could drop in Cambodia with a backpack and a satellite phone, the kind that would file from a hut and come home a year later, gravelly-voiced and silent about his tales from the jungle. On the few Fridays I went in, my schedule was like this: two-hour commute, 11-hour work day, two-hour commute. I stopped shaving. I started bringing nutrition bars and a utility-sized survival water bottle into work.
Sure, there were academic lessons to be learned. Once, I misspelled the name of a Caribbean-born restaurateur – the photographer caught it when he went to get a picture of the guy, and saved me from further embarrassment. I learned the amount of research it took to write just a 500-word article about something you didn’t understand. After writing about the rising costs of flour in New York, I think I will spend the rest of my life waiting with glee for someone to ask me about wheat. I have conducted hours of interviews about wheat, with people whose lives are devoted to the study of wheat. I have read pages and pages of wheat literature. I came to understand the nuances of the global wheat economy for an article that, after editing, seemed to be mostly about its effects on the local pizza economy. But it was a lesson, and I am not bitter. Constant learning is my favorite part of journalism, even if only a little of it gets written down.
I think the other reporters there – three ladies who sat with me around a workstation like a giant picnic table – would have liked to have known how much I learned just from listening to them talk on the phone. Like virtuoso musicians, they all had distinct styles. I picked up on their methods of getting subjects to spill the right financial details to piece together an article, tools ranging from tactful meekness to almost-domineering alpha-ness. I now think I am capable of both, although I wouldn’t have thought so three months ago.
But what stick out in my mind when I think of that internship are its existential ramifications. The war, which I am corresponding to you now, was over the gap between my perceptions of my life and the reality of this industry – between theory and practice. I think, in school, we think of ourselves as artists, poet-crusaders. We are the “talent” and our editors are the “agents” and our readers are the “fans.” But for the past three months, I found myself thinking of stories in terms of “inches,” not words – something to be “seen” as well as “read.” I found that every photo needs to be commissioned, and scheduled, and shot. That graphs need to be researched and built. That stories float and sink not only on their own objective merit, but on how useful, in practical terms, and relevant they are for readers (some of these things were exaggerated by the nature of “finance news,” I think). We are artists, serving our own creative drives and lust for adventure. But ultimately, we are also employees serving a constituency. And we are working within companies, inside an industry.
Stories have their own lives outside of Word files – they get printed on pages, and actually exist. And, furthermore, we need to work accordingly. Sometimes it means not getting outside the office for the entire day. Or it means staying late and catching the 10:16 train, or reporting on the weekends. Sometimes, I learned, the needs of the page require us to stand out on the corner of 8th and 33rd in the rain doing man-on-the-street interviews with people about their personal finances. Because people want to know things, but also, because inches need to be filled. I’m not sure why this was a surprise to me. But it was. And I’m glad I got this surprise now, rather than later.