The Power of the Word

By Silja J.A. Talvi

Listening is a powerful thing.

For the last day, I’ve spent the time really listening to the folks around me, really learning from the depth of experiences and the breadth of perspectives here. I do not agree with everything that I hear, but I the vast majority of what I hear resonates—at least on some level—with my own experiences and perspectives.

And then I listen, in turn, to what my own voice is telling me. It’s not a voice I necessarily articulate well, in person, but it’s something I’m able to share here.

That voice, if you will, is what keeps me doing this thing that I do.

It’s the fire that burns inside.

To be completely honest with you, this fire of mine doesn’t appreciate the sentiment that business is—or should-be the primary operator, the driver, if you will, of this occupation of ours.

But it’s not as though I haven’t heard it before.

A friend of mine, an editor of a large circulation newspaper, smiles at me every time he hears me say this in his presence. He laughs, cocks his head in my direction, gazes at me incredulously, and then gives me a kind of sympathetic pat on the back.

I laugh, in kind. I don’t mind; it’s deserved. I can’t even manage to work in the structure of the newsroom, much less contemplate the idea of managing a newspaper where revenue concerns are as much a part of the equation as the kinds of stories I feel compelled to tell. The kinds of stories I want to tell? They’re hard for even me to stomach. They keep me up at night, and they honestly break me down, from time to time. The prisoner who’s being raped in his cell for the hundredth time and being told by guards to just “fuck or fight;” the woman who has finally given into the power of her addiction and started to sell her body on the street for the sake of her next high; the lost livelihood of the African store owner and immigrant who’s been hauled off into a detention cell at two in the morning because most of his revenue is coming in from Somali Muslims using their food stamps to shop for hallal meat.

I remind him that this why the world needs people like me—the storytellers, the muckrakers. Mind you, I consider myself one among thousands in recent history; neither extraordinary nor legendary, just a woman doing the one, concrete thing that compels her to move forward in life. And I remind him, in turn, that that’s why the world needs people like him—the men (and women) who can traverse the fine line between journalism-as passion, and journalism-as-bottom-line.

I do realize that nothing in this capitalist economy of ours sustains itself, for any significant period of time, without a profit margin. I’d simply be a fool to think otherwise.

But here’s where I’m coming from: there’s no bottom to my line. The drive to do what I do stems from another place altogether: the power of the word. I think you all know this as well as I do: The power of the word has the ability to convey and contextualize the lessons of the past, the potential of the present, and the transformation of the future.

I came here primarily focused on something that I still think merits more conversation: the extent of the dissent, dissatisfaction and outright misery in the ranks. Those of us engaged in media work as the producers of news and information for magazines, newspapers, television and radio number now about 300,000, including 55,000 reporters and editors nationwide. That may seem like a huge number at first glance, but consider that this only adds up to 1/10th of 1% of the number of people who live in the United States, and that this nation’s newsroom workforce has been cut by roughly 2,200 full-time positions in the last five years alone. It’s also worth pointing out, again and again, that ethnic diversity in newsrooms isn’t getting any better; in fact, it’s been on a steady decline over the past three years.

Not only are professional media workers facing job and pay cuts and less diversity in the ranks, we’re also facing the reality of declining numbers of pages for editorial content, and demands to make our own stories shorter and shorter.

“The vast majority of reporters will tell you that they entered journalism because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people,” contributing author Linda Foley writes in The Future of Media: Resistance and Reform in the 21st Century (Seven Stories Press, 2005). Yet, according to a survey conducted for that book, 83% of those surveyed believed that there was “too much emphasis on the bottom line … and a decrease in the overall quality of journalism.” (Another 65% of media workers believe news organizations do not give enough coverage to stories that are meaningful to average Americans.)

Speaking at the second annual Conference on Media Reform Conference in St. Louis in May, noted journalist and columnist Juan Gonzalez had this to say: “Most [journalists] are frustrated and angry … they wanted to do something better with their lives, but they don’t believe that they can do anything to change [the situation in media.]”

“But when those workers decide to [act],” he added, “they will revolutionize the entire industry.” I, for one, was gratified to hear Gonzalez say it. Journalism is changing. Of this there’s no question. I’ll embrace the change, but I won’t embrace a bottom line that asks me to sprinkle water on this fire of mine. And that fire, my dear colleagues, is something I’d ask of you, as well. If you’ve got it, folks, keep it burning.

Even when the bottom line would have you do otherwise.

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