When David Cohn posted the latest topic for the Carnival of Journalism, I messaged him and said “interesting topic.”

His reply:  “Think it cuts too deep?”


What this topic requires is a certain amount of honest self-examination, a trait traditional journalists aren’t really known for when it comes to analyzing their chosen profession.   Points of failure are rarely owned up to by those in journalism.  Yes, we have lots of hand-wringing after plagiarism scandals or controversies surrounding certain coverage but rarely does the profession at large own up to its failures.

What’s nice to see with this new revolution in journalism is this notion that failure is accepted and, even, required.   I remember Cohn once saying that hundreds of journalism projects will be tried, but only a handful will succeed.  And, that’s a good thing.  We’re collectively throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.  And, we learn from our mistakes.  Failure is required in order for the revolution to continue.

Since I began teaching full-time, I’ve tried to embrace this notion of failure.  I’m not sure if I’m succeeding 🙂  Trying to to create an environment where students are willing to experiment and fail — and still get good grades — is a difficult balancing act.  But, if ever there was a place to fail, it’s in journalism schools.

Outside of academia, I’ve been a part of some citizen journalism projects that have failed and was a part of the failure of washingtonpost.com to operate as a separate entity.  But with the news this week of Osama bin Laden’s reported death, I thought back to my obsession with covering the 9/11 terror attacks during my time as an editor at The Post’s Web site and my failure to see beyond the story.

When the 9/11 attacks occurred, I was the national/political editor for the web operation.  I was part of a team of editors supervising coverage of the attacks and the aftermath but I took on coverage of this story as a mission.  I went to that place that all journalists go when covering tragedy and tried to partition off my emotions about the attacks in order to better focus on the story.  For about two years I stayed focused on the story and its aftermath.

At the time of the attacks, my wife and I had two young children, 3 and 1, and we lived in Montgomery County, one of the suburbs on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.  It was a key time in the lives of my kids but I feel it went by in a blur.

As the news broke that day, I struggled between my role as a father and husband and that as a journalist/editor.  Students often ask how best to handle covering tragedy and how I handled 9/11 and the weeks and months afterwards.  Journalists always try and compartmentalize their emotions.  It wasn’t easy that day.  And, I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have grabbed my family, jumped into a car and driven into the mountains somewhere.  It’s a question that continues to haunt me.

It was a weird time to be living in a place that  had come under attack.  At the time, I failed to see the implications of staying in the area and the possible impact on my family.  My failure, in a way, was my inability to see outside the job.  My sole focus was the story, then the anthrax attacks, the 2002 mid-term election cycle, the start of the war in Afghanistan, the start of the war in Iraq…..it was kind of easy to get caught up in the latest, biggest story.

For many, Monday, May 2 was a day of mixed emotions — a combination of celebration and reflection in light of the Bin Laden news.   It was also my youngest daughter’s eighth birthday — a reminder of what is truly important in life.

In the months and years after 9/11, I failed  to see what was truly important — family.  Instead, I put the story first.  It’s the inherent paradox many journalists confront.  As you rise within this profession you become part of bigger and bigger stories.   Finding that work/life balance rarely occurs since the news cycle never cooperates.

And it’s clear that an all-consuming focus is needed today more than ever to succeed in today’s driving 24-hour news cycle.  And, devotion to the mission is strongly recommended in today’s journalism world — the quest to know it all and to do it all remain strong.  POLITICO is one example of many — making a name for driving its reporters at all hours.   Burnout — always an issue in this business — seems to be even more of a concern these days.

I recently had a chance to sit down and talk with NPR’s Andy Carvin and he said he was worried about burnout and had plans to spend more time with his family.  As anyone can tell from his Twitter feed, he doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

So, the lesson from my failure?  My hope is to pass on to my students that in the end the job is the job.   It shouldn’t be the be all and end all.  Yes, journalism should be a part of your life, but not the ONLY part of your life.

There are lots of great ideas and projects happening out there with this ongoing revolution.  I’m trying to do my part and get students involved in various projects.  There is no doubt that such projects end up eating much of my time.  But, it’s also important to keep things in perspective.

A friend of mine who is an editor at espn.com once told my class to “take a moment to watch the sun rise over the mountains.”

It’s good advice.