An Alexandrian  colleague recently suggested to me that, in this current media crisis, laid-off journalists  are suffering a sea change: transforming themselves into experienced (and in some cases fairly expensive) wordsmiths for hire. 

For as newspaper and magazine staffs shrink and shrivel, hundreds of ex-journalists are of necessity becoming commercial writers: publicists, corporate spokespeople and freelance “communications” specialists who wield the English language for a living.

 

Full disclosure: Occasionally, I do this very thing myself. In a practical sense, I find it very much like what newspapers call ”rewrite”: taking feeds of information, quotes and statistics from other reporters and reweaving the strands into a story. Or in the case of PR, not into a story but a press release, or a pitch letter. I have editing experience, I’m a clean writer, and I’ve always been pretty good at rewrite, and so I’m finding the transition to freelance PR writing is not too difficult. 

Here’s the thing: There are plenty of educated business people in this country who are very good at what they do, but who either don’t have the time to write, don’t like to write, or aren’t particularly gifted in writing clear, persuasive English. I have always known I could not do their jobs as well as they do. Now it turns out they can’t do my job as well as I do, either. And so they’ll pay me to do it for them.

When you’ve been a writer all your life, and especially when you’ve been paid to write plain English for a living, you tend to take your ability for granted. It’s surprising to discover how many people do not take it for granted. 

To me, language is just a skill I was born with, one I honed professionally for 30 years. To those who don’t like to write, or who can’t do it so quickly and easily, such adeptness verges on a sort of voodoo magic, rather the way we mere mortals regard the Warren Buffetts of the world. I can’t imagine how the Oracle of Omaha does what he does, but I can admire how brilliantly he does it, and I would gladly hire him to manage my portfolio, if only I could afford it.

Needless to say, my services do not cost as much as even one share of Berkshire Hathaway. And I doubt I’ll ever turn my rewrite capabilities into a full-time job as a publicist or spokesperson, as a few of my fellow former journos have done.  Still, it’s nice to know that I can still spin the straw of raw information into the gold of a paycheck. Especially since I am qualified to do absolutely nothing else.

My Alexandria colleague wonders if  “something of the wild and unpredictable [must] inevitably be disappearing from the natural history of human information metabolism in favor of something more… domesticated.” I suspect he is right, at least for those of us who weren’t all that wild and unpredictable to begin with. The gonzo madman Hunter S. Thompson was never my role model. I was always more into the witty, genteel subversiveness of Tom Wolfe.  

But then, the newspaper culture has been becoming more domesticated ever since I got into the business, in the post-Watergate era. Once earnest young Woodward-wannabes with journalism degrees began flooding into newsrooms in the 1970s, the business inevitably lost some of that raffish, Front Page charm that made it so dear to romantic Hollywood screenwriters. The old-school newsmen who kept fifths of bourbon in their desks surely considered us youngsters a bunch of wet smacks — and worse, a lot of us were forgodsakes women.

It’s probably just as well that most of those old guys are gone now, and can’t see what their once-booming business has turned into, and what their starry-eyed successors have become. For them, PR was the Dark Side. For us who have been laid off and who will never have another job in a newsroom, well, PR is what pays the bills, and that’s all we’re really interested in these days.

In his satire Gulliver’s Travels, Dean Swift invented the character of Climenole, who was a “Flapper.” These servants of the Laputa society facilitated communication between their eternally distracted masters by means of a well-placed smack from a blown bladder filled with small pease or pebbles and fastened to a short stick. In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Erica Jong suggested that perhaps we have become like the Laputans, so distracted by modern technology that we are living more in the virtual world than in the real one.

If that is indeed the case, it may be that the job of Climenole is one with a bright future for ex-journalists. We’ve always been pretty good, after all, at getting people’s attention.

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