Why I’m quitting journalism

Today’s my last day in journalism. On Monday I begin a new career as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. State Department.

That will surprise some because just six months ago I quit The Courier-Journal after more than two decades there to work for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

My seemingly sudden departure from KyCIR isn’t because I’m unhappy with the center, a nonprofit startup that’s part of the public radio stations in Louisville. The truth is, I feel guilty because the center has been good to me and I’m abandoning it before it’s fully up and running.

The roots of my decision go way back. I first thought about the Foreign Service in college, but put the idea aside and became a reporter instead after spending a good part of my 20s backpacking around the world. I had vague hopes of one day becoming a foreign correspondent, but marriage and family took precedence and I stayed in Kentucky, where my wife is from and my children were born.

I began thinking about the Foreign Service again five years ago, long before KyCIR had been conceived, after reading an anonymous comment on the Gannett Blog during one of the chain’s many downsizings. The comment was by someone who described himself as a former reporter and editor who had been in his mid-50s in the early 1990s when he took early retirement and joined the Foreign Service.

"It’s not too late," he wrote.

I was in my late 40s then. A few years later, as the newspaper business continued to wither away, I began studying for the Foreign Service test, the first step in a long process to be hired as a Foreign Service officer.

In August I joined KyCIR because I was sickened by the decline and dysfunction at the CJ and wanted to move on to an organization whose only mission is to do the best possible journalism and whose founders believe that’s still the most important thing — whatever the prophets of click bait may say.

At the time, my candidacy for the Foreign Service was still pending, and there was no guarantee I would ever be offered a job. I had fallen short on my first try, failing what’s called the “oral assessment,” and with the sequester and endless Congressional squabbling over the federal budget, the Foreign Service wasn’t something I could count on. I joined KyCIR assuming there was a good chance I would still be there a decade from now.

Then, on Christmas Eve, an offer from the State Department came. I was asked to join the Jan. 13 class for new recruits, to be an economics officer and eventually posted to any of 265 embassies, consulates or missions overseas.

It’s hard to conceive when you’re young, but you feel disturbingly vulnerable when you’re in your early 50s and the profession you have thought about obsessively for years collapses around you, and colleagues with decades of experience are shoved out the door or forced to take drastic pay cuts to keep their jobs, with little hope of finding equivalent work elsewhere.

As much as I liked the center, I took a pay cut of more than $10,000 a year to work there, and I had no idea if its non-profit model would succeed, and if it failed before I reached retirement age, what would I do then?

When I was a teenager my family lived in Singapore and in college I had studied economics and political science, and here was an opportunity go abroad again, to be engaged in important issues in foreign lands, and — assuming I proved myself capable — to have something like job security too.

So I accepted.

I still believe in the importance of KyCIR and its mission. I want it to succeed, and if you’re a talented data journalist with a strong interest in investigative journalism, send your resume to the managing editor, Brendan McCarthy. I’ve loved working with him and with R.G. Dunlop, a friend from my days at the CJ who reluctantly took one of Gannett’s buyouts and is now with KyCIR. I think you would too.

But as much as I value journalism, the last decade, with its endless series of budget cuts, layoffs, buy outs and furloughs and the decimation of many once-great newspapers, including the CJ, has finally driven me away.

-30-

“In abandoning newspapers, the broadcasting-centric Tribune is wisely exiting a business that is already sunsetting. Although no almanac predicts the precise date and time that sunset will arrive, almost nobody thinks metropolitan dailies like the Los Angeles Times have more than a decade (or two, if you’re an optimist) of life left in them. Henry Waxman can request all the documents he wants from Tribune, but not even he can roll back the Internet, smartphones, and BuzzFeed.”

Naturally

Kelly and Wildstein communicated mostly through personal e-mail accounts rather than their official government accounts.

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