Learning to flack: Journalists mull the ‘Dark Side’

Politics and journalism have never been too far detached. And while professionals in both fields attempt to keep the other at arm’s length, occasionally one is pulled to the other side.

It’s often been those at the top of their fields, stars like ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton White House staffer, or MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a former GOP congressman. Meanwhile, people like David Axelrod and Linda Douglass have gone the other way through the media-politics intersection. (Axelrod was a Chicago Tribune reporter before becoming a political consultant, and Douglass was one of ABC News’s Washington correspondents before joining the Obama presidential campaign and the Obama White House.)

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But some at the lower end of the totem pole are forced to consider the leap far before they imagined. It’s a two-lane road, but the traffic lately seems heavier coming from journalism to politics.

Daily newspaper staff accredited to the Senate press gallery was down by more than 150 in 2009, compared to 2007-2008, according to a report released at the beginning of the year from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Wire service staff experienced a less dramatic drop, while niche outlets saw a slight uptick.

News bureaus are shrinking, unlike the government offices reporters cover, so young journalists who thought they would come to Washington to cover politics often end up on the other end of the tape recorder. The idea of crossing over to the “Dark Side,” the tongue-and-cheek term used by some reporters for public relations and communications jobs, can be a difficult decision.

Chris Linden is pondering it. He just graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and hopes to land a job reporting in Washington. But he is not optimistic that he’ll find a job before he leaves Washington, forcing him to continuing searching in the fall from his parents’ home in suburban Chicago.

Just in case, he has a backup plan.

“If I get to the point where I don’t have a job, then maybe I do cross over to the darker side, as it were,” said Linden, 23. It’s not his first choice, but it’s something he thinks he would enjoy.

It’s a logical step, given the reporting and writing skills necessary for each field, according to Christopher Hughes, a career adviser at American University’s School of Public Affairs. Hughes hasn’t noticed a significant increase in students initially interested in journalism who are moving to politics, but it’s a move he has often urged students to consider.

“When I speak to students who are interested in journalism but are finding it tough to get jobs and internships in that field, I have been advising that they may consider communications jobs and internships with political advocacy groups, think tanks and campaigns,” Hughes said.

The dilemma is hardly a new one. Brittney Bain, a 2008 Medill master’s graduate, works as an aide to a House Republican from Texas.

Likewise, a few years earlier, Michael Steel and Tom Mentzer made the move to Capitol Hill after starting with journalism aspirations.

Steel and Mentzer got advanced degrees in journalism at Columbia and Indiana universities, respectively. Now they’re both 32-year-old press secretaries for members of Congress — Steel for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Mentzer for Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.).

Steel was a reporter at the National Journal Group from 2000 to 2002, but he felt the political itch right after graduating from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2003. “I knew I wanted to be on the other end of the phone,” he said. “I wanted to be the guy with the information rather than the guy asking for it.” So he went to Capitol Hill shortly after graduation and has been in political communication since.

Mentzer worked as a reporter for the Scripps Howard Washington bureau for several years after finishing his master’s degree in 2001. He later moved to a public relations job for a nonprofit organization and landed on Capitol Hill approximately two years ago. He loved what he was doing in journalism but had started worrying about his long-term job security.

“The future was not looking particularly rosy — especially in Washington — for what I wanted to do,” Mentzer said.

Both have made the transition successfully and express little regret. Many of the altruistic goals that inspired them to take media jobs can be met working for politicians. Yet it takes a different approach, and in some cases a different type of personality.

“The role of a press secretary is more of a job of a salesman than anything you would do in journalism,” Mentzer said. “When you are selling something, even if it’s just trying to get the newspaper to report on something that my boss has done, your angle, your outlook is very different than if you’re just doing objective reporting that is going to be in the newspaper or on the wire.”

Like most job transitions, it’s difficult to know how someone will fare and enjoy the change in scenery. But unlike most, this transition comes with added trepidation about the ability to go back. Comparing it to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon may be severe, but there is a concern that a journalism career becomes that much more difficult to pursue after a partisan branding.

That’s partly why Steel would advise any aspiring journalists to do as much research about a job on the other side as they can before making the jump. He hasn’t ruled out returning to journalism, but admits it would be difficult.

“You can only make the jump so many times,” he said.

 Call it stubbornness, but there seems to be little buyer’s remorse for the time and money spent on journalism education — both from former students like Steel and Mentzer, who left journalism jobs, and students like Linden facing the prospect of never getting into the field.

“The interesting thing about grad school is that there are so many days where you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘What am I doing here? Am I really doing what I want?’ ” Linden said. “For all of these moments that I’ve had in the last year, looking back on it now, I wouldn’t take it back for anything.”

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