Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
Ten Years As a Journalist
Reflections on time gone by
Just over 10 years ago, I became a professional journalist. It was on my 22nd birthday, October 22, 2011, when I found out I would be a staff reporter at the Queens Tribune. It’s possible that I’ve never been more ecstatic, now or since, over receiving a particular email. Having graduated from SUNY Stony Brook that June, I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do since many jobs, following the 2008 crash, were still scarce.
In the summer, I did my first journalism internship, showing up a couple of days a week unpaid at The L Magazine, an arts and culture publication based out of DUMBO. It was formative in the sense that I got to write—and formative in the sense that I got to see what millennial exploitation looked like. In the aftermath of 2008, millions of young people believed it was normal, or at least expected, to work for free. I wrote for free and ran errands for free. One time, I hauled up multiple L news boxes off the street because they were supposed to appear in the background of an Avengers movie. Another time, when it was properly sweltering, I carried sacks of ice from a Williamsburg bodega as Beirut performed their soundcheck during Northside, the music and arts festival the L ran for many years. Everyone at the L was nice to me and I have no real complaints. The summer felt fun but precarious, a slow slide into graduate school, where I would go for my master’s and hope to land a teaching job in a public high school. No one was really hiring teachers then—the recession had crushed so many budgets—but I liked being in a classroom and figured it was one way to start a career.
From the age of 18, I wanted to write and publish novels. In college, this was a singular obsession, and it hasn’t abated much since. You can buy my second one next year, and it’s the first that will have an audiobook, so I am excited about that. In college, though, I was both incredibly sure of future success and unsure how I would ever arrive at it. I knew books did not pay bills. I knew writing for a living seemed a bit farfetched but journalists did it. I hated interviewing people—on my high school newspaper, I only wrote op-eds—and spent most of my college career writing essays and satire for the alternative newspaper, the Stony Brook Press. I sneered at conventional politics but I understood this economy was not going to be terribly kind to me, an English education major from a state school. I had no tech skills. I was not transitioning into PR. I was not networking. I was not one of the journalism kids doing high-profile college internships. I was not on the Newsday employment track—many current and former Newsday journalists taught at Stony Brook—and was not noticed much by the department, since I was not majoring in journalism. (It was too many credits! Only engineering required more.) I wanted to write but the rest of it seemed dreary.
I don’t want to undersell myself too much. I was, deep down, very ambitious, maybe obnoxiously so. I had very big dreams. I wrote odd, poor, but maybe redeemable works of fiction during that period that will never see the light of day. I got a few short stories published. I read deeply, Henry Miller especially, and hungered for some mix of worldly and spiritual success, a life lived well and very full. As a young ballplayer on his way to batting .406, Ted Williams supposedly said he dreamed of walking down the street and people going, “there goes Ted Williams, the best hitter in baseball.” I had, and still do, that sort of white-hot ambition as a writer. (I even once did as a baseball player but realized at 15 my skills could not match that sort of dreaming.) At one time, it would cause me shame to admit all of this, but at 32 I am graduating past that. If I never realize the greatest heights, I will go down swinging my hardest. Of course, this is a very subjective profession, and one person’s idol is another’s false god. That’s fine. I go out and do my best.
There are ambitious people who befriend the right agents and writers and work their way early into a world they want to conquer, and those that do not. I was not, in my early 20s, a careerist. In retrospect, it would have been easier if I had been one then, but time cannot be turned back. As I was graduating, I sent out a few emails. The L interviewed me and took me on, unpaid, and treated it as a great favor to me. That fall, I also began writing for the Brooklyn Rail. The clips were good, as they say, but the money was nonexistent. I was living at home in Bay Ridge, an only child, so I was privileged, blessed. If I were a newcomer to the city, I’m not sure how I would have made any of this work.
The Tribune job was a revelation. In the summer, I had applied for the same opening, a staff reporter, and been passed over. I knew enough about the collapse of journalism and the ongoing woes of the post-2008 world to understand people did not just get journalism jobs. This is as true today as it was then. I expected to substitute teach and get my master’s and eventually teach full-time somewhere. In my spare moments, I’d write. Somehow, the Tribune called me in for an interview and then I had found out, on my birthday, I passed muster. It was incredible. For $24,000 a year, I would get to be a real working journalist at a newspaper.
It should tell you something about the state of the industry that both the Tribune and the L no longer exist. Today, that salary would be below the New York City minimum wage, but it wasn’t then. I was still living at home, driving a beat-up Mitsubishi Galant, so I could stretch the money out into a passable existence. The hardest and most stressful jobs are usually the lowest paying. At the Tribune, where I learned to be a journalist, I was gone from home for 10 or 12-hour stretches. I could write as many as 12 stories a week. We all had to. The editor who hired me departed and a much more mercurial person replaced him. There were no copy editors at the paper; we journalists did that work and would be screamed at if typos found their way into stories. Shortly into my tenure, I was almost fired because the publisher thought my story on casinos would get an ad campaign in the newspaper canceled. I remember coming home, after sitting in an hour of traffic, completely spent, terrified my career had ended before it began. One challenge of the job, in general, was attending graduate school at night while working full-time as a journalist during the day. It wasn’t unusual for me to drive through three different boroughs in a day, starting early in Brooklyn and slogging north to Queens before leaving at five or six p.m. to attend classes at NYU. After Hurricane Sandy, I recall doing this in a blinding snowstorm. At least I had a student discount at a garage on Broadway.
The Tribune job could be great, though. My colleagues were tremendous, and I still keep up with some of them to this day. I wasn’t taught much by my second editor, but I learned every day and night on the beat, writing about politics, real estate, transportation, crime, and the peculiar neighborhood stories that always crop up. Until I arrived at the Tribune, I didn’t really know I wanted to write about politics. What the Tribune did was give tremendous leeway to a 22-year-old. I wrote about asbestos in public housing, the history of the Van Wyck Expressway, Occupy Wall Street’s Queens offshoot, and the battles surrounding the Willets Point development. When I was reporting and writing—and not getting yelled at—it was an extremely enjoyable way to spend a day. When Gary Ackerman, a Queens congressman, suddenly retired, I covered the very first race of my life, the open Democratic primary for the newly-created 6th Congressional District in Queens. A quirky campaign ensued that Grace Meng eventually won.
Ultimately, differences with my editor led to me getting fired right around Thanksgiving 2012. I was an outspoken Brooklyn kid and he probably didn’t appreciate that. One time, he was angry enough with me to hurl an action figure against the wall of his office. What made the firing so crushing was not the loss of the job itself but my fear for the future. I felt unmoored. There were moments I was certain my career, as a newly-minted 23-year-old, had permanently short-circuited. I filed for unemployment and learned about the confounding bureaucracy of New York State. In a precursor to this Substack, I started a blog called the Barkan Report to write about New York City politics. This began to make me relevant but earned me no money. I was fortunate, though. Henry Miller, though destitute for long stretches of his life, believed a lucky star always followed him, from New York to Paris, and in my own curious way I believed the same. My timing was good—in 2013, there would be a New York City mayoral race, the first open primary and general election in 12 years. Michael Bloomberg was leaving and the political firmament was shifting. There would be real interest in New York politics and I knew enough about it to make myself useful. And so I would.
At the end of 2012, I started as an intern at the New York Observer, the Jared Kushner-owned pink newspaper that was known, in its heyday, for its stylish cultural and political coverage. It was the opportunity I craved. The Observer’s politics desk needed a third reporter and I was available and eager. In May, I was brought on part-time, and in the fall, I had a full-time job, earning a little less than $40,000. Before the end of 2013, my girlfriend and I moved in together, renting a $1,100 one-bedroom apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. At some point that year, in a blur, I earned my master’s degree. I felt, at last, fully an adult. I remember, half-drunk, seeing the future president’s son-in-law at the 2013 holiday party.
If you watch the Anthony Weiner documentary, I’m in it. I don’t speak. I’m just there, one of the many city reporters tailing him around. The summer of 2013—of Weiner’s chaos, of Bill de Blasio’s resurgence, of Eliot Spitzer’s shock comptroller campaign—might still be the most exciting time I’ve ever had as a journalist. Since then, I’ve produced journalism, essays, and fiction I’m immensely proud of, but no singular story or event has captivated me to such a degree. I was gone all day, every day, careening through four or five boroughs at a time. I crossed through almost every city neighborhood. I followed Bill Thompson through a frozen meat locker at 5 in the morning. I watched Bill de Blasio shack up with public housing residents. I was with Anthony Weiner when he melted down at that kosher bakery. It was strange, exhilarating, and endless.
Some of that was a function of the campaign, but my youth mattered too. There is nothing quite like a discovery made in adolescence or young adulthood. A novel can consume you; words on a page are small mantras to live by, lifeblood to draw from. I haven’t moved on from Miller or Thoreau, but I will never quite love them the way I did when I was 19, 20, 21, or 22. This is not a knock on them as artists or as thinkers. Rather, it is a reflection on the timing of my life. Music is that way too. The bands and albums I discovered in 2009 or 2010 will carry a certain weight that music unearthed today will not. I accept that. What I do not miss about that time in my life is the uncertainty, the low-running anxiety, feeling like a young man in a hurry who could always miss his train. Ambition can corrode. Today, I am much more at peace. I do not compare myself to peers any longer. I am not measuring myself against history. I am not reminding myself of all I haven’t done—instead, I point to what’s there, a growing corpus I’m proud of. I want to do more, and I’ll do it. My social media might suggest a certain edge, a contrarian’s thirst for combat, but I am not like that in everyday life. Twitter doesn’t suit me, in that sense. I’m content. This pandemic has made the last two years hellish, and I count myself lucky. I’m on two feet and I get to be paid for what I like to do. They even pay me to teach at the school I used to attend.
I wouldn’t trade these ten years for any other. They’ve been eventful and wondrous. I’ve written for the publications I grew up admiring. I’ve seen my book on a bookshelf. I somehow ran for office and got people to vote for me. I doubt I’ll do that again—run for office—but that’s an experience I wouldn’t swap for another. Friends made that year will stay friends. The 2010s, all in all, were good to me, and I can only hope the 2020s will be the same. May we all get what we’re after.