A Chat with the Best High School Journalists of 2015: Or, What You, the Amish, Matisse and Fitzgerald are Teaching Me About the Future of Media
Good evening and thanks so much for having me. It’s an honor and a privilege to be here and I’ve had a blast chatting with you here in Washington. I was ready to give you some prepared remarks about my book, “The Monopolists,” but after talking to some of you over the last couple of days, I decided to toss those remarks in the trash.
Instead, I thought it would be more useful to head to the bar. I mean, not really, because no one here is over 21, but metaphorically. Because if I had to be honest, there’s where I’ve learned most of the more valuable lessons of my life as a journalist in the decade (gasp!) since high school. And your questions to me haven’t been about board games, they’ve been about life as a reporter. And my God, are you good with questions. If you want to hear about Monopoly, you can find me on YouTube. But, in the spirit of real newsgathering, let’s cut through the B.S. Grab a non-alcoholic beer. Let’s talk.
In 2004, I sat where you were. Seventeen-year-old Mary was delighted to be representing the state of Oregon. She had long red hair, some extra pounds and freckles full of insecurity. I remember my mother taking me to the mall in Eugene to buy a power suit beforehand because she “heard that’s what people wore in Washington.” I remember the two-hour drive to the airport. I remember being scared out of my mind about flying alone, listening to the Ramones on my Discman (remember those? no?) and freaking out about meeting up with dozens of geniuses who also vying for the same spots that I was on college campuses.
Back then, we didn’t have smart phones. I didn’t have high speed internet. We high school kids were plenty mean to each other even without the help of social media. We relied on an encyclopedia, not Wikipedia. In high school, I had spent two years working at my hometown paper, The Register-Guard and ingested a steady diet of Nancy Drew books and Superman comic books. I found myself more interested in Lois Lane and Clark Kent’s newsroom antics than the spandex action sequences. No one in my family was a journalist and it didn’t seem like a real job. Part of me still doesn’t think it is.
There’s no way I could have known then what was ahead of me, just as there’s no way any of you have any idea of the wild ride that will be the next decade of your life will bring. E.L. Doctorow once offered some advice on writing a novel that often gets repeated and for good reason. He said that writing a novel is “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.”
Like my teenage self, I still often feel like I can only see a couple of feet ahead of me. But since then, somehow by just using those headlights, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most brilliant people in the world. I’ve filed more than 500 bylines for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times as a staff reporter. I was a fly on the wall at Gawker Media during the heyday of this thing called blogging. I’ve interviewed presidents, chief executives during the financial crisis, gold medalists at two Olympics and last month after hiking a glacier in Iceland, I learned that my book, a five-year labor of investigative love that several people had told me was a waste of time, hit The New York Times bestseller list. In the last month alone, I’ve had the chance to interview people ranging in age from 8 to 89, all with fascinating tales to tell. I’ve been insanely, insanely fortunate. Period.
Journalism isn’t about how smart you are. It’s not about where you’re from. It’s not about who you know or how clever your questions are. And THANK GOD for that. It’s about your ability to embrace change and uncertainty. It’s about being fearless personally and professionally. It rewards those who do. It’s about focusing and doing the work — and LOVING it.
You show up. You have discipline. No one else will do it for you. In reporting, you will often be humbled by the courage others have in telling and trusting you with their tale, no two alike. You have an obligation to your readers — let’s call them your customers — to be fair, just and get things right. You will get loads of rejection both in and out of newsrooms. The prophet Taylor Swift is right. Shake it off.
Storytelling is an ancient craft and a critical one, making us part of a fascinating lineage. Carl Jung said that “the reason for evil in the world is that people are not able to tell their stories.” He’s right. Story makes us empathetic. Story connects us as humans. They add value to our lives. They give us compassion. They give us courage.
So here’s the short version of mine, which I haven’t really ever told a group like this before. A few weeks after winning the top prize here in Washington as a teenager, my mother died suddenly of cancer, a late diagnosis. It was devastating. I took a Greyhound across the country (NOT RECOMMENDED, BTW) to New York City where I attended New York University on a scholarship leaving my life in Oregon behind. I worked my way through school with an assortment of internships, odd jobs and nannying gigs.
I thought about going to law school, but decided that could wait because my internships in journalism were where I was losing track of time. Through the generosity of one of those gigs and a colleague who saw more in me than I saw in myself at the time, I landed an internship at The Wall Street Journal in June of 2008 and was told “summers are quiet” for the markets. Except the entire global financial system collapsed and I had a front row seat to the craziest show in town. I spent the next three and a half years writing about door-to-door stockbrokers, laid off workers, young adults struggling with student loans, traders who no longer felt at home on the trading floor. I had taken no classes in business ever, but it was absorbing, electric and nothing short of insane. I feel like I got an MBA in a matter of months. I lived in a tiny apartment in the Lower East Side with two friends and had no safety net.
Then in 2011, I got a call out of the blue from an editor at The New York Times. He wanted me to join the paper to write about sports. I recoiled. Sports? Gross. There were already enough sweaty dysfunctional dudes on Wall Street. Besides, I barely made it to the gym myself. But he described what turned out to be a visionary rethinking of the beat. One in which sports was a lens by which we looked at gender, race, politics, business, culture — things I WAS interested in. I took the job and two months later was on a plane to Africa to report a three part series about a runner. I fell in love with the job, my colleagues at The Times, the work. Bill Cunningham even complimented me once on my dress at the coffee machines upstairs, which I’m clearly still freaking out about.
Along the way, a factchecking question I tried to answer at The Wall Street Journal became a 300-page book. I had always heard that Monopoly was invented during the Great Depression by a man. I was going to mention this in passing in an unrelated story at The Journal. But believe it or not, I read things online that were contradictory, inaccurate and wrong. I was so frustrated.
I then came across a man who had been involved in litigation with Parker Brothers and reached out to him on a lark. Did he know anything about Monopoly? He got back to me quickly and said yes! But the game wasn’t from the Great Depression. It was invented by a left-wing woman here in Washington who was lost to history. It had a whole life for 30 years before Parker Brothers. The company tried to bury the truth and this man, Ralph Anspach, waged a legal battle that went to the steps of the Supreme Court for 10 years to prove what he called “the Monopoly lie.” Thus began a five-year-long investigative reporting project that consumed my nights and weekends. Maybe you’ve had this feeling. Well, we’ll call it a feeling, non-journalists would call it a disease. The feeling of having a story you just can’t let go. Let reporting accidents happen. Let stories take curves and turns. Let people surprise you.
It turns out, a lot of life happens while you’re reporting. I attended several funerals and weddings (eight weddings in 2014 alone). I ran three marathons and made some of the coolest friends on the planet. I adopted an upright piano, cut off more than a foot of hair in one sweep and bought a working typewriter. I became a coffee addict. Until a year ago, everything I owned fit in, at most, eight to 10 suitcases. In the last decade, I had lived in 13 apartments in three different continents. But I swear to God, this job is totally the best.
I sold the Monopoly book and continued to work on it while I was on staff at The Times. Last winter, the book galleys went out to reviewers and I was humming along on the sports desk when I walked into the Times newsroom one Tuesday morning in December and I was pulled into a conference room. I was told that on Friday, my job as a sports reporter at the paper would cease to exist, part of massive newsroom-wide layoffs.
I was stunned. How could this be happening? I loved my job. I loved the paper. I loved the people who made it every day. In fact, just last week I learned that my old group at The Wall Street Journal was hit with the layoff ax, too. I believe profoundly in the work of those two papers, their commitment to the First Amendment, their day-to-day work with fairness, accuracy and great journalism. I went from writing about laid off workers to becoming one myself, with plenty of friends to mope with.
Let’s pause here for a moment. This business is full of Eeyores. People who will tell you that journalism is dying. That all of this is a tremendous waste of time. That we’re pecking at cadavers. Because you know what? Journalism is ALWAYS changing. LIFE is always changing. That’s what makes it life. If things stayed the same, we’d be bored and have nothing to write about.
Happiness is a choice and the time we spend whining about it is time we’re NOT spending building and making things. Worrying and angst are the enemies of innovation. One of my friends says that “a breakup is just the start of a rom com” and I couldn’t agree more. A layoff is no different and hell — you can even buy some ice cream and watch some reruns if you feel so compelled. In some ways, journalism is more like the entertainment industry. A lot of people will try to do well, but at the top levels, it’s cutthroat, competitive and takes an ungodly love of the craft to stick with it.
So there I was, at 28, holding a pink slip from The New York Times. It all happened far more quickly than I had anticipated. The first thing I did when I stepped out of the newsroom in a daze was not actually head to a bar, but I walked over to the Museum of Modern Art. It turns out, and take note if you ever get laid off, a museum is the perfect place to be. You’re in public so you can cry a little bit, but not totally lose it. You’re around a lot of people, but likely no one you know. You’re supporting the arts.
And more importantly for me, the Matisse cutouts were on display. I needed to see evidence of people doing their art in spite of all odds. The cutouts are brilliant in their brightness and exude this sense of optimism. Yet Matisse struggled to make them in the last moments of his life. He and his wife of 40 years had separated and he had been diagnosed with cancer. During World War II, he fled to Nice thinking he had found safety. Except the city was under siege. I walked among them, dozens of them, but thinking “My layoff from The Times is bad. But Matisse, man, now that, THAT SUCKS.”
But to me, the important part is that in spite of it all, Matisse — he made those damn cutouts. He didn’t listen to “no.”
I realized that I went straight from one institution — college — to another — the Journal — to another — The Times. I had been incredibly lucky, but it was time to take some risks I was going to report out the story of Mary Pilon 2.0 and the world of storytelling in 2015. Writing can be hell, but not writing is worse. I was determined to be Beyoncé of layoffs.
Except I had no idea what to do with my life or what was The Future of Journalism. My headlights were barely on. It was time to take a cue from the Amish.
In Amish culture, there’s idea of rumpsringa. Basically, the Amish send their teenage children out and away from the farm and tell them to go see the real world. If they like what they see, they can leave the Amish world behind. If they don’t, they can return to the farm. (There’s a show on TLC about it, so you know it’s real.)
My first contact as part of my rumpsringa reporting was consult with David Carr, a colleague of mine from The Times. For those who don’t know, David was more of a force of nature than a mere mortal. He wrote the media column at the paper and “The Night of the Gun,” a memoir of his crack addiction. We had met when I was a college-aged intern at Gawker and he was kind to me early on. You should never forget those people, your early advocates, your early cheerleaders. When he heard about my layoff, he sent me a tremendously kind, swear word-filled email about it. Soon, we would regroup.
But that never happened. On February 12, Carr collapsed in the newsroom. He died that night. I reunited with several Times people at his memorial and watched as one by one, people took the microphone. Carr was one hell of a journalist, but most of the comments were from alcoholics and recovering drug addicts he had counseled, reporters he mentored, friends and family. His legacy was not just manifested in the words he gave us, but in the generosity he showed to those he encountered along the way.
The next day my book came out, a day I had waited years and years for. But to be honest, I couldn’t have cared less. David had gave me what turned out to be the best advice. “Have some fun with it.” He was right. Because one day, the jig is up and you can’t wait to write the stories you want to see in the world. You can’t wait to start being the reporter — or the person — you want to be. One minute you’re the teenager at the Freedom Forum, the next you’re the woman in the black dress that people call “Ms. Pilon.” I still look over my shoulder wondering if they’re addressing my grandma. This life thing, it’s cliché to say this, but man it goes fast.
Through this lens, I’ve continued my rumspringa, over the last six months. I’ve met with editors, journalists and executives from well over 30 different companies. Many of them are names you know — vanguard brands of media. Some of them are new, bursting at the seams. Some don’t technically exist yet. I’ve had an extremely rare window into our profession and I’m here to tell you a big secret.
No one — I repeat NO ONE — has any idea what they’re doing.
And that is AWESOME. It’s up to us to fix things, make things, create something new that isn’t here yet. From vulnerability comes strength and while everyone else is freaking out, we can actually get to work and have a blast. I’m actually super optimistic. There are some brilliant people doing some brilliant things. Steve Jobs believed that people don’t know what they want until they see it. We get to MAKE that stuff that doesn’t exist yet! There are many sad pandas wasting away at jobs they hate. Let’s not invite those people to our happy hour.
David often spoke of today being a “golden age” for journalism and I couldn’t agree more. I get reader emails from Afghanistan, Alabama and all points in-between. I can shoot photos, film and file stories faster and more efficiently than ever. Google Docs and Evernote have been a godsend for my mosaic brain. More people can read our work than ever before and the impact from our reporting can be swift, lawmakers having to act in seconds or minutes rather than days. We can funnel our cynicism and critical thinking into our work and make the world a better place by doing so.
I’m reminded of the line in “The Great Gatsby,” a book I’m sure many of you have read for school and you should continue to reread, where Nick Carraway’s father tells him that “whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” By virtue of the fact that we’re all sitting here at the Newseum, looking at the dome of the Capitol Building, whatever it took to get you to this point, that’s us. We have a duty. Or, in superhero terms, with great power, comes great responsibility.
At the Journal, I spent some time covering the retirement industry, which sounds like a total snoozefest, but ended up changing my life. Much of that infrastructure is based off an economy that no longer exists — one of unions and factory workers, one of pensions and shorter life expectancies. I don’t anticipate ever retiring or telling me that poof! once I hit a certain age, I get to go to Florida and golf. Ever. Besides, Florida is humid and I’m a terrible golfer. But I don’t think many of you should bank on a magical tomorrow either, whether that’s “once high school is over” or “once college is over…” Now is now. As journalists, and as people, we must be present.
The good news is at any age, we still have a ridiculous boondoggle of a gig. I get paid to travel, meet people and ask them all kinds of questions and write. It’s like permanent school with an awesome social justice component. You get to be an observer of all sorts of things that other people can only dream of. As the sage Nora Ephron put it, you’re the “wallflower at the orgy.”
In meeting many of you this week, I’ve been completely inspired by the fires in your bellies. You’ve told me about your dream broadcasting gigs, the documentary films you’re making, the school boards you’ve irked with your articles. You’ve told me about the people who have bullied or stonewalled and pushed on regardless. The same people who think you’re the secretary rather than a reporter on assignment are the first to email you when your story hits A1 or book makes the bestseller list. You’re all gaining confidence by getting better at something. Don’t take no for an answer. Ever. This is YOUR life. Not that of your parents. Not your editor’s. Not your boyfriend’s or your girlfriend’s. Take risks. Uncertainty can feel like a huge pain in the butt, but embrace it. And the biggest error you can make is to be inauthentic. I mean, my God. We’re journalists. If we can’t be honest, what hope is there for anyone else?
So, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for joining me at the bar today. I’m Mary Pilon. A journalist who has no clue what she’s doing with her life. I’m still on my Amish rumpsringa and reporting up a storm and somehow waking up every day having a blast with this gig. As you kids today would say, YOLO.
I can’t wait to work with you all. Keep those headlights on and go out there and kick some ass.