When I was young, I never pushed a red firetruck around and made siren noises. I never put on a blue uniform with a shiny badge and chased the bad guys down the sidewalk in front of my house. I never brandished a gun and tromped through the grassy back yard jungle tiptoeing to avoid fake land mines.
From as early as I can remember, I walked around with my grandpa’s antique camera taking pretend pictures of birds and butterflies. I banged away the events of the day on a typewriter with a threadbare ribbon and delivered these reports, rolled up with a rubber band around it, to my mother and father in the evening.
My heroes, in other words, have always been journalists.
For me, playing journalist continued on the high school paper and through my college major. Pretend even blossomed into a career when I made the exceptional decision to join an industry in peril in my early 20s. From cops and courts reporter, to a city beat, to a news editor spot at coastal weekly, a mountain bi-weekly and finally, a daily in the capital of Nevada — I watched my dream come true, quite literally, every day in print. I did not make enough money to swing rent every month. I did not have a pension. I was not in a union. And there was no overtime to be had.
But I did get to be a part of a community, of a human experience bigger than me. And that seemed payment enough. Sometimes this meant ducking the yellow tape to shoot photos as the fire trucks and crews took off from the scene to go grocery shopping. I waited patiently in a desert parking lot for sheriffs to show up at the Moonlight Bunny Ranch as two working girls rescued a pair of kids locked in a car while daddy went in for a quickie. That front-page picture you saw of a soldier returning home from Iraq, tear-streaked as he meets his baby girl for the first time, I was the one on the other side of that lens. That newly minted couple at Burning Man taking e together naked from the waist up but for butterfly wings, fusing hands and other body parts as they swirled in dust and arms — that moment was captured in my prose.
But it did not last. My full-time career as a journalist wound down in time to the industry itself. I watched the fourth estate crumble one pillar at a time. It is a story often told by the old marriageless and pensionless hacks in the backs of the kinds of bars empty enough to hear the sounds of shuffling feet over the charming clink of bottle and glass.
Craigslist came in and took the classifieds. Google claimed the smaller ads — both national and local. Amazon and eBay took out display. If someone figures out a business model for an obit-centric site, or when folks who currently read them (the 80-plus demographic) have all become the subject instead of the viewers, the last of newspapers’ revenue will have gone.
Your local- to mid-size daily will cease to exist. Even the stripped bare and burned-out chassis version of it that is up on blocks by the side of the road delivered to your doorstep today will soon be hauled away completely, forever forgotten.
Like many journalists I know, I didn’t die. I just went away. There is a difference.
I have a regular job at a desk where I earn a reasonable living making sure people who order shit online get their shit on time.
All of my playing journalism is now done from about 4 to 7 am or 8 pm to midnight.
This includes: researching and writing a bi-weekly column, pitching freelance stories, editing submissions when they’re rejected, working up and sending invoices, answering emails from editors or others in the profession, acting as IT guy for my own website, writing for permission for photos or video, answering query letters for submissions, cross-referencing everything on my weekly to-dos spreadsheet, creating and refining a budget for future columns or pitch ideas, collecting materials for an email blast and wondering if I’ll ever have enough budget to travel so I can actually see, first-hand, some of the events and places I write about while scraping together enough for hosting, domain, maintenance and advertising. I act as my own copy editor, bookkeeper, developer, designer, social media planner, pr guy, online marketing team and personal assistant. So, you’ll have to excuse me if I miss a comma or two from time to time.
The irony is, I consider myself lucky; mostly because I am still alive.
You see, there are journalists who die every day. Many of them. Yes, literally, dying. You probably don’t hear about it because there are not hundreds of peers being paid time-and-a-half to participate in a white-gloved/starch uniformed procession for them. No picture on the front page of the paper. No government pay out for their families. No pay out period. No flag draped over their coffin. Since they’re traveling and writing and shooting on their own dime, they won’t even get the money promised for the assignment.
Because, simply put — they perished prior to their work’s completion.
Here is a list of the journalists who gave their lives to be a part of this paywall-free profession — this week:
German photojournalist Anja Niedringhaus: Niedringhaus (pictured) spent two decades covering conflicts and being a part of near misses as a result: from Kosovo where she survived a grenade explosion in a car, to Albania where she was one of many journalists accidentally targeted by a NATO bomb. In 2005, she won a Pulitzer for her coverage of the Iraq war and on Thursday, while covering Afghanistan for the AP, she was shot while traveling with a convoy of election workers by an Afghani police man who yelled “God is Great” and opened fire on her car. She was killed instantly. Kathy Gannon, a reporter and frequent collaborator with Niedringhaus, was also critically wounded but is expected to survive.
Egyptian reporter Mayada Ashraf: At 23, Ashraf had already made a name for herself reporting turmoil in her home country for the past two years. As a woman doing so, she put herself in peril each day. She was killed Wednesday reporting protests by supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi in Cairo’s Ain Shams district. Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Muslim Brotherhood, the groups who ousted the president, one (or both) of which is responsible for her death, claimed responsibility. She was working for Egyptian newspaper Al-Dostor and the news site Masr al-Arabia.
Iraqi radio reporter Mohammed Bdaiwi: The Baghdad bureau chief of Radio Free Iraq, a branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was shot and killed last Saturday in Baghdad by a military guard who was watching the gate to the compound of his bureau. Bdaiwi was an author and professor at a university in Baghdad. He was one of 10 killed that day in Iraq and 48 killed last weekend.
Afghani writer Sardar Ahmad: Ahmad, a reporter for Agence France-Presse news agency, his wife and two of his three children were among nine civilians killed in an attack from four gunmen on the Serena Hotel in Kabul last Thursday. He specialized in covering security issues for his native Afghanistan. The gunmen were all under 18.
Swedish radio journalist Nils Horner: Horner was shot in the back of the head on a street near a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul last week. He was doing interviews in preparation for this month’s election for Swedish Radio. He’d previously covered the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the 2004 tsunami in Asia and the Iraq war.
There are others of note who have fallen in recent weeks including Mexican freelance journalist Gregorio Jimenez who was kidnapped and found dead last month, one of at least 10 reporters who has been killed in Vericruz over the last 36 months; along with the dozen or so others who have met their fate thus far this year as documented by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
It is not that I’m not proud of our soldiers or our first-responders. But my heroes, without a doubt, are those who chose to pick up a pen or a lens instead of a gun — who don’t just protect, but practice — those First Amendment rights.
And they give their livelihood if not their lives to do so …whether we notice or not.
Photo courtesy BBC