I remember the day I began to lose faith in journalism. Not in a drastic I’m-going-to-change-my-course-of-life way, but I called its integrity into question. I started to ask myself, “What does journalism today really mean? How much respect do journalists really get? Does it hold any real value?”
It was Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008. I was finally back in my room after three hours of Public Affairs Reporting, talking to my mom on the phone before dinner. Casual chit-chat about my brother and the cat—and then she dropped it on me, nonchalantly, so maybe I wouldn’t quite hear what she said.
“So, did you hear? They let Lydia Kulbida go, said her contract wouldn’t be renewed.”
No, I hadn’t heard. I usually check timesunion.com every day to keep up with life in Albany while I’m at school in New Paltz. But today I’d opted to pay attention during the last class of the semester. Now I wished I hadn’t.
“Wait, what?! No. Oh my god, that’s the stupidest thing ever. Are they crazy?”
My initial shock gave way to a sort of detached sadness; I didn’t know her personally, yet Lydia’s severance was personal to me. I grew up with her, Benita Zahn and a couple others on WNYT, the local NBC affiliate. When I was still too young to appreciate the news, I watched it, I was drawn to it—or maybe to them.
Before I fell in love with journalism because of what it meant to be a journalist, I think I fell in love with the idea. I was interested in the news itself but even more in how it was presented. I remember studying how newspaper articles were organized and the way they were written. At the time, television news had a bigger impact on me because it was entertaining and I had faces instead of bylines to envy and admire. I’d imitate that “reporter’s voice” in my head and imagine how the news scripts and even weather and traffic reports were written. I wanted to be those faces on the screen and eventually those words on the paper. I wanted the power to give people the information they craved each day.
Now I was confused. Almost every day there were articles about the “death of journalism.” Newspaper companies were going bankrupt left and right and some cities were on the brink of having no local print paper at all. Everyone thought the Web was the answer but were in the dark about how to make it financially lucrative. I was starting to think those hours spent learning basic skills and discussing the future of journalism were a waste of time. I’d use them to maybe get a job, work my butt off to reach the success I envisioned and then be cut down when times got bad.
Sure, the economy sucked, but now more than ever we needed somebody we trusted to deliver the news. Taking that person away from us just added to the uncertainty everyone was feeling.
“I’ve been here too long…three hair colors and two husbands,” she said, laughing.
Benita Zahn was even nicer in person than she seemed on air. Dressed in a light purple pantsuit Hill would be proud of and (seemingly) just as eager to speak to me as I was to talk to her, fear that I would be star struck vanished.
After she complimented my leggings and we bonded over a shared love for voice recorders, I almost forgot why I was sitting on the interview set of WNYT, talking to the woman I grew up listening to through my TV but never dreamed would be 2 feet away from me restoring the faith I’d begun to lose.
I had initially reached out to Benita to talk about Lydia Kulbida’s departure for an Advanced Literary Journalism assignment. I was annoyed by the whole situation and thought getting a first-hand look at how the station was struggling would be a sort of vindication—a chance to say, “Ha! Don’t you feel stupid now you bigwigs?! You screwed yourself.”
After talking to her for maybe 10 seconds I knew the whole angle of my story had changed. I no longer wanted to focus on journalism’s downward spiral. I wanted to highlight how Benita’s energy was the reason journalism will make a comeback.
“I backdoored it in college…a girlfriend of mine said ‘let’s take a broadcasting intro course. It’s Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 9:05 a.m. We’ll sit in the back of the room, have coffee and talk.’ It sounded good but for me, a light bulb went off in very big way,” Benita said.
She was originally a theater and Biology major, hoping to focus on immunological research. A bulb lit up because she realized she needed her writing skills, her observational and analytical skills from science and her performance skills for broadcast journalism. A new career was born.
And thank God it did. I felt corny thinking it, but Benita was exactly the journalist I so desperately want to be someday. Not to disregard my appreciation for Lydia, but the woman in front of me was speaking the words I think each day. In 20 minutes she gave me the gusto to finish my semester and jump into the job market. That’s quite a feat.
“I’m a one man band,” said Benita. “I come up with a story, contact people, find out where to get interviews and ask that I have visuals to complement it. I discuss with my photographer en route and I especially love when they are actively involved. I usually leave the editing process to them, but if I know there’s an image I want to see at this exact second, I’ll make sure they know.”
She has been thrust into the digital journalism world—she has her own Twitter, a Facebook fan page and a health blog. While this just adds more to her heaped plate, she values the interaction with viewers and the opportunity to provide even more information to the community. Unlike some who dapple in Web 2.0 and blur the line between news, opinion and compulsive social networking, Benita has a firm grasp of just how dangerous this unknown arena can be.
“What worries me is that the public thinks a blog is journalism; but unless it’s a journalist writing, it is no more than oftentimes an angry person with a chip on their shoulder, standing on the corner and hollering. Freedom of speech is great, but I truly don’t believe the general public can discern between real journalism and blogging. People are angry, frustrated and scared at this time in our history and everyone’s looking for an opportunity to vent,” Benita said. “Mainstream media has blurred the lines; we’ve contributed to our own problem. We haven’t done a good job of noting when it’s commentary and not news. There’s an important place for commentary but let’s not confuse it with reasoned, as unbiased as possible journalism.”
Benita said there is no such thing as truly objective reporting. Each reporter brings to a story the sum of their experiences; basic life circumstances allow the same story to be seen through different sets of eyes and therefore told a million different ways.
At this point, I started thinking she should have been the journalism department’s visiting professor this semester. She spoke with such precision, such assurance, that I started hatching a plan to lure her to New Paltz to revamp the program in time for the fall. I would have enough new classes to avoid graduating early and be able to complete my entitled fourth year of college.
Then she started talking about how with severances and budget cuts, the station has hired younger journalists to fill some holes. While they’re cheaper, a lot of time is spent instilling the values of quality journalism in them. I knew capturing her would be selfish; Albany needed her.
As she sat on the edge of her chair and explained why she loves what she does, I could again see myself. Her passion was as unbridled as mine. She hadn’t yet switched the conversation to me, but it was at this moment that I knew I had found someone who understood my affair with journalism—and I was comforted.
“Run for the hills, don’t do it. That’s really what I would tell everyone, it’s a dead business and I hate to say it,” Benita said. “You really have to look in the mirror and determine how resilient you are. You have to have a burning passion.”
I didn’t want to interject because not only had she found a way to read my mind, but listening to her talk was like watching Dateline without the murder—captivating. In my head I was screaming, “My resilience is what makes graduating to a jobless market even harder! Because I know I’m going to stick it out and this very devotion is what should qualify me for the few jobs out there.”
Since she could hear my inner most thoughts, she apparently knew I don’t like fake people and want the straight truth. So, she didn’t sugarcoat things.
“The odds of getting a full time job are slim, which means you won’t have benefits. Have a backup plan. Know where you can get your health insurance. Read, write, be adept, have a couple of irons in the fire,” Benita said. “The days of good salaries, not even killer ones, are gone and I don’t know when they’ll come back; I don’t know if they ever will.”
Great. My pink room with the creaky bed I’ve had since I was four was about to be seeing a lot of me. The days of my little brother throwing all his extra crap in my room were coming to an end and my cat was about to get his sleeping partner back. My fantasy to spontaneously move to New York City and walk into every media outlet until someone gave me a job was gone; I’d be homeless. The inspiration that had returned faded and my bipolar relationship with journalism was getting exhausting.
But, in what I was coming to realize was true Benita fashion, she managed to pick me right back up by turning the conversation to me and what I wanted to do. What I said seemed to impress her.
“See, that’s why I hate to say ‘absolutely don’t do this’ because it means some very bright, committed people won’t be in the wings to take the reigns and won’t be people I trust,” Benita said. “I hope your passion burns very brightly and if you really believe you’ve got that, then go for it. Look for a smaller market, cut your teeth there. Get yourself a blog. Find an area of expertise that speaks to you, that you can hone in on. Become valuable in that way, because the need for good journalism never ends.
We left the set and Benita sent me to sit in on the morning news meeting. Natasha Richardson was in a coma and as the health reporter, Benita was trying to set up a localized story about helmet safety. I watched Elaine Houston film the noon broadcast and was introduced to the man who does all the hiring. Always one to help, Benita told me the station was looking for associate producers and thought it could be an opportunity.
As she walked me to the door, Benita made me promise to keep in touch. She said to give her a call when I graduate and to send her my resume so we could try to get me in the very door I was exiting. As I drove through the pothole-ridden ghetto, I didn’t care that I almost busted my tires or hit every red light; I felt better about life than I had in months. I was still dreading graduation, but my future no longer seemed so dire. Benita had touched me in a very big way and someday, I hoped I could turn to her at the desk next to me (or at least over coffee) and tell her that.