The other day I decided to update my resume. First, I changed my title from journalist to content producer. Next, I went through and carefully deleted some entries then updated others.
That December 1988 Providence Journal Bulletin Sunday Magazine cover story on heroin addicts in Gloucester, Mass.? Buh-bye.
That 1988 summer internship on the features desk at The Philadelphia Daily News? Zap!
That 1987 Writer's Fellowship at The Village Voice? Hasta la vista.
To the descriptions of more recent jobs, I bumped up the descriptive flair: At National Public Radio, where I worked for much of last year developing Tell Me More, with Michel Martin, a multicultural talk program, I added more details describing my accomplishments, with an emphasis on everything webby and digital.
Then I sat back and considered my handiwork. I tried to look at it through the eyes of a potential employer. God forbid my on-paper avatar come off as too old school—or as too liberal. (At the suggestion of an editor friend, I deleted my birthdate, 1963, and the name of the city of my birth, San Francisco.) It occurred to me then, that this process of dispassionately examining one's work history requires a degree of disconnection that is not entirely unpleasant, even if it is instigated by a cold new reality: In order to remain relevant at a time when the news business is undergoing an identity crisis, I must bury a significant part of my professional identity. If that's the case—and here's a question I've asked myself a lot over 20 years—how much of the real me do I need to bury or obscure? How relevant am I—a black woman of a certain age—in this industry?
But that's getting ahead of myself. Back to a fresh assessment of the updated resume. The Me that exists on the resume, in neat lines of Times New Roman typeface, appears to be industrious, independent and capable of completing projects long- and-short-term. This Me is a team player, yet also capable of delivering "products"—what we used to call "stories" or "opinion pieces"—that are distinctively branded in her own voice. This Me has worked consistently since college, progressing from staff writing jobs at small newspapers, to staff writing at large newspapers, to writing opinion and criticism for magazines, to writing and editing nonfiction books. She has also, in recent years, even dipped into the world of Web publications and broadcasting…though, speaking of the Web, This Me doesn't have a personal Web site or blog. And there is a two-year gap between the end of that column-writing gig at Africana.com and the NPR job in '07.
What accounts for those two things—the lack of a personal Web site or blog and the two-year gap?
Ack. Still, I deserve to give myself a little pat on the back. I have worked fairly consistently during the past 20 years in a business—it used to be called journalism—that is hella hard on one's soul. (Especially the souls of black women: See Volunteer Slavery, by Jill Nelson.)
I know that the personal stuff that exists between those lines of typeface—the marriage, the deaths of family members, the cross-country moves, the child-births and child-raising, the waxing and waning friendships, the separation and divorce—is what truly constitutes the complete Me. The between-the-lines details inform and color the entries that make up the Professional Me, the journalist who once took great pride in being able to do journalism.
But the criteria for success are changing. Each job and every assignment that is updated or deleted carries a wealth of accompanying experiences and memories: the sights, smells, sounds, of cities, oceans and people who quite literally were my world during those respective periods. These collective experiences helped make me a good journalist. Yet the details seem to matter less now. The self-made, working-class reporter has about as much caché these days as a flight attendant. The tributes to Tim Russert, the NBC host of Meet the Press who died unexpectedly last week, are lamentations not only for the man, but for a from-the-ground-up brand of journalism that is falling by the wayside, for an egalitarian sensibility that once prevailed.
Journalists, trained in the tradition of shoe-leather reporting, rigorous fact-checking, careful cultivation of official sources, contacts and regular people on the street, are becoming a dying breed. And when it comes to old-school journalists of color, well, we were rare birds to begin with. Only after the tumultuous 1960s and the publication of the Kerner Commission Report on the urban riots of that era did big news outfits begin hiring blacks and Latinos in measurable numbers. Now, our ranks are shrinking faster and more dramatically than that of white journalists, amid the massive downsizing that is taking place in mainstream media.
You are reading this piece—and maybe even have read others that I've written in recent years—in a publication that exists only on the Internet.
This is, from at least one angle, a happy development. An emerging group of online-only publications are attempting to fill a void in coverage that has long been the dirty little secret of most traditional news organizations: the stubborn inability to consistently cover ethnic minorities, poor folk, gays, and other non-white, non-establishment communities and movements. Web publications like Slate, Salon and The Huffington Post seem to be carrying on the tradition. I love me some Arianna Huffington, but are Trey Ellis and Cornel West the only black writers she knows? Just asking!
Still, for all their welcomed analysis of black-oriented issues, the growing universe of smart, black-focused Web sites cannot fill one significant void that is widening by the day: The empty space once occupied by scores of smart, experienced journalists of color at places tasked, first and foremost, with reporting the news every day.
Not commenting on it. Not ranting about it. Reporting it.
My first dozen years in journalism were exciting, frustrating, harrowing, and for the most part, satisfying, in that I accomplished my early, somewhat naïve, mission of bringing light to people and experiences that didn't often get decent airing in the mainstream press. I engaged in creative, influential work that had the benefit of providing financial support, health care and a degree of respectability. (The "respectability" part seems especially quaint right about now.)
Anyone who has studied the history of labor in America knows that every 100 years or so, education advances, and market forces give rise to new forms of technology, which in turn affect entire industries. The current narrative of old media-morphing-to new media is being duly chronicled in journalism trade publications, and by news organizations themselves, in vivid, occasionally overwrought language. It is a worthy, if self-reverential, storyline, and it is being told by some of the very journalists who are experiencing wrenching losses at their own workplaces.
However, this meta-narrative has not, to date, included a serious discussion of an important, forward-looking question: As America's demographic face continues to become browner and poorer, who will lead and execute coverage of that evolution? How well will this particular zeitgeist be described and contextualized for consumers who are living it—and who are growing agitated by its gradual, relentless creep? Not to say that only journalists of color can write about people of color, but let's be real: Would the Rev. Jeremiah Wright story have consumed so much ink and airspace if more black journalists controlled the levers of power in big newsrooms?
When I stepped off the treadmill of daily journalism in the 1990s to freelance and build a family, I always assumed I'd get back on. These days, largely because of the presence and influence of my two kids, whose Web lives I bird-dog voraciously, I am as much a highly-attuned media consumer as I am a journalist. I see the evidence every day of other professionals selectively remaking their professional identities, carefully editing out the between-the-lines details of their lives and careers to fit the changing landscape. As a skilled journalist, I am as well-equipped to analyze and game out these changes for myself as I am to interpret them for others. I still have faith in the news business, however flawed, however panicked it is right now. I just know that all the retrenchment and remaking in the business must also include a commitment to meeting the race and class shift that is also taking place now.
So, "content producer" it is, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.
Content Producer Amy Alexander is the Alfred Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute. She is at work on a book about race and media.
Amy Alexander, an award-winning writer and editor in Silver Spring, Md., is the author of four nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention. She has produced stories for the National Journal/Atlantic, NPR, The Nation, The Root and other outlets.