‘I used to be an education reporter.’

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A former AP reporter reflects on what she gained — and left behind — going over to the so-called ‘Dark Side’
By Dorie Turner Nolt

I remember the moment seven years ago when I realized I wanted to leave journalism. It was a lazy weekend afternoon at my local pizza joint back in Atlanta, and I was recounting to my husband how miserable I was at work.

I had gone through periods of unhappiness before in my more than a decade as an education reporter, first for the Chattanooga Times Free Press and then for the Associated Press. But this was different. I had fallen out of love with being a journalist, and I didn’t know where to turn.

I knew what drew me to journalism: I loved making a difference and shining a light on injustice. I loved hearing the stories of students, families, and educators. I loved writing and editing. I loved my beat. But I was increasingly frustrated by the growing demands on the shrinking Associated Press staff, which meant I had little time to report meaty enterprise stories or develop new sources. I also hated constantly scrambling for the next scoop while important stories about educational inequity were left untold. I left the office most days drained and unhappy.

I knew I had to be choosy about where I went. While most journalists work for for-profit media conglomerates, many see their mission as aligned with that of a nonprofit: comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Public service was calling my name.

So I quit what I thought was my dream job at the world’s largest news organization for a gig at the Georgia Department of Education in 2012, and I’ve never looked back. That blind leap would lead me to the Obama Administration in 2013 as press secretary for U.S. Education Secretaries Arne Duncan and John B. King Jr. — the best and hardest job I’ve ever had.

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Some of Turner Nolt’s staff badges from over the years.

It turns out that you don’t have to have just one dream job in your lifetime. You can be both a journalist and a flack, and love both of them fully. Just because you struggle to see yourself as anything other than a journalist — and I certainly did when I was in the throes of deciding what to do — doesn’t mean there isn’t other fulfilling work out there for you.

With one-quarter fewer journalism jobs compared to a decade ago — and with the rolling layoffs in far too many media organizations, the numbers of recovering journalists will probably continue to swell. We all have bills to pay, and reporting isn’t the steady work it used to be — just ask the 26-year-old reporter who has been laid off three times. Of the dozen or so journalists with whom I keep in touch 15 years after we worked together at the Chattanooga Times Free Press, only about a third are still in a newsroom — some because they left the profession and some because the profession left them.

My transition from reporter to flack felt strangely natural. I was helping write state and federal policy rather than just reporting on it, and the pace was frenzied enough at times that I got the same deadline rushes I’d had in the newsroom. I still wrote and edited a lot, and I got to work with many of the education journalists I was friends with from my time on the beat.

Here are some bumps I didn’t expect.

It was hard to move into my own office after working in a bustling bullpen for more than a decade, and I felt isolated as one of two communications people in the entire Georgia Department of Education. Even with the fairly large communications staff at the U.S. Department of Education, it felt like I spent too much energy trying to help colleagues outside of communications understand the value of what we did. And the gallows humor that is so frequent in newsrooms is completely absent in other workplaces, which meant that some of my wry comments landed badly.

The work world outside the newsroom isn’t nearly as expletive-friendly, and I learned quickly to cut back on my potty mouth in meetings and hallway conversations (though not at home — old habits die hard). It only took one or two meetings where I was the only person dropping an f-bomb to know that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

While journalism taught me how to be a lightning-fast writer and a wizard with a spreadsheet, I had no idea how to do what were some basic tasks for most people in the office, such as creating a PowerPoint presentation or writing a briefing memo, both tasks I had to learn on the fly while pretending I knew what I was doing.

Reporters tend to be direct, but that doesn’t always go over well in non-journalism work. I had to figure out how to craft carefully worded responses to colleagues who had never had the experience of being yelled at by a grizzled managing editor in the crush of a deadline.

I also had to learn to be more patient — a quality I rarely employed as a reporter — when colleagues in the policy or data offices took a few days to get back to me or didn’t prioritize reviewing my draft press release until the last minute. That newly found patience came in handy when I moved to Washington, D.C., where reporters are much more likely to yell at you than in genteel Georgia. Is there something in the D.C. water that makes journalists shouty? I can count on one hand the number of heated conversations I had prior to becoming a press secretary, but I lost count for the number after joining the Obama administration.

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Turner Nolt with Obama administration education secretaries Arne Duncan and John B. King, Jr.

Curious about others’ experiences, I asked a few of my communicator friends who are former journalists about their transition out of the newsroom. For longtime education journalist Alan Richard, leaving Education Week in 2006 to work for the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board felt like an extension of his work as a reporter.

“I loved that communications could contribute to thoughtful discourse and policymaking in the same way journalism can,” said Richard. “I also think it’s important for there to be sincerity in communications, and there’s value in being a trusted source who journalists can call on for insight and perspective and information that’s unbiased. I needed that when I was a reporter.”

The move from journalism can be jarring in many other ways, which is why Theola DeBose, who left the Washington Post in 2012 for a job in communications, created her six-week Life After Journalism course on moving out of the newsroom “with clarity and confidence.”

She helps her students understand how the skills they’ve gained as a journalist can transfer to other professions, and she helps them craft a plan for what they want to do next. Because for many journalists — and I was one of them — it can be hard to see yourself as anything else, even if you’re miserable in news.

“I did it, so I understand the roadblocks and what’s stopping journalists from being successful beyond the newsroom. I want to teach others and be the me that I wanted when I was making my transition and had no one,” said DeBose, who named her company GraySide Media, because she doesn’t believe in the “Dark Side,” as many journalists call public relations.

Read also: On motherhood and education journalism (by Lauren Camera)

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Turner Nolt with Secretary Duncan during the annual back-to-school bus tour

It’s been seven years since I left the newsroom, and I can finally say this out loud: I wasn’t a great reporter. I am a great writer, but some of the other parts of the job never settled well with me: knocking on strangers’ doors, cold calling families of murder victims (sometimes before the police had gotten to them), working terrible hours and holidays, constantly being worried about another news outlet scooping me, waking up in the middle of the night in a panic over misspelling a name, building up a trove of Deep Throats who would share juicy tidbits with me. As an education reporter, I chafed at the limitations of the job. I wanted to be part of the team trying to solve the persistent inequities in schools rather than reporting both sides of the debate and calling it a day. I was just OK at journalism.

Luckily, I have now found something I am great at, and people actually want to employ me to do it. Even though I fell out of love with being a journalist, my love for journalism endures. I still crave great reporting and a gripping narrative just as much as I did when I first entered a newsroom in 2001. This country needs journalists more than ever. I’m just happy I get to be the source on the other end of the phone now.

Dorie Turner Nolt is a communications strategist based in Washington, D.C. She is also a member of the EWA community member advisory board. Follow her on Twitter: @dorieturnernolt.

Other first-person pieces to read:
On motherhood and education journalism (Lauren Camera)
What it’s like being a rookie education reporter (Amber Walker)
Writing better stories about students with disabilities (Amy Silverman)
What’s missing from back-to-school news? A reporter reflects. (Kei-Sygh Thomas)

Dorie Turner Nolt is a communications strategist based in Washington, D.C. She is also a member of the EWA community member advisory board. Follow her on Twitter: @dorieturnernolt.

8 comments

  • Caroline Granan

    To me this kind of job transition raises huge questions about journalistic ethics — even though it’s impossible to make any rules against it, of course. How do we know that Nolt — dissatisfied with her job and laying the groundwork for her career change — didn’t slant her coverage to suck up to potential future employers? Many former education reporters have switched careers to promoting so-called education “reform” policies — I can rattle off many and you can too — and I think it raises enormous and disturbing questions about the fairness and impartiality of their coverage as they were preparing for a career change. I would love to see an answer from them.

  • Caroline Grannan

    Ouch — keyboard glitch put a typo in my own name. Also, I anticipate the bogus response claiming that former reporters also go to work for teachers’ unions, but I actually can’t think of any who’ve done that, and could rattle off many who’ve gone to work in the education “reform” sector — of which the the Obama/Duncan/King Department of Education was absolutely part.

  • Alan Richard

    I know of no journalist who would cross such a line.

  • Clark

    Hello Alan Richard, an old colleague, and it was interesting to see you in this article. Did she bury the lede?

  • The finest, most ethical, most fair reporter I ever knew was Larry McQuillan. After a career in journalism (including on the White House beat) he went on to be an equally excellent communications pro for the AFT and then for American Institutes of Research. His integrity was never in doubt. By anyone.

    And while Larry always set a high bar for me, I can think of no education reporter I’ve ever encountered who would skew coverage in hopes of landing a big next job outside of journalism.

    But I think it is far more dangerous to think that it is somehow unethical to transition to a job with a particular ideology. Reporters are sought for non-journalism skills because of the skills they have and the rich content knowledge they possess. Why pose a question as if it is ethical to work for the NEA or for AASA, but not for a school choice organization or Catholic schools or ed tech? Doesn’t that assume an education journalist’s personal North Star can only be set for traditional public education? That’s a dangerous presumption that sellls both journalism and education short.

  • In her book Corruption in America, Zephyr Teachout describes how many legislators retire to become lobbyists, i.e., to cash in on their connections and expertise.

    The same dynamic is at work when journalists retire to become PR agents. It sends a signal to journalists that they should not threaten power if they wish to make serious money.

  • What I don’t see here is the cost of moving from the job of covering all sides of an issue to the job of pushing aside the other side of the issue in order to advance your office’s agenda. That would seem to me to be one of the largest costs of the transition, and the part where I think former journalists lose credibility– you used to see how someone could be reasonably opposed to this policy, but now your job is to help Arne Duncan dismiss all objections as grounded in selfishness and stupidity? Really? That seems to me to be the hardest part of the transition to accept from out here in the cheap seats.

  • Yup, what Peter said, or connected to what Peter said. Dorie, how did you find handling the part of the job where you have to defend something indefensible? I’m not talking about anything so genteel as objections to policy—I’m talking about times a public agency really screws up. Times the flack has to say something completely inadequate and/or purposely opaque and/or untrue.

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