It’s cool when I run into someone in the biz.
No, not showbiz. The newspaper biz. Usually, you can tell by the scuffed shirt cuffs and clothes bought in 1986. Used. Not in this case, though. Esther Robards-Forbes and I both worked for the Charlotte Observer back in the day.
She’s now in public relations at the University of Texas.
We had a conversation years ago that would have been one of the earliest #GirlsRock interviews. Instead, it sat in drafts, like those old archive rooms back in the newsroom. It was an awesome find for me.
So I reached out to Esther.
I let her see the interview and asked if she’d change anything. She changed so little, which is beautiful. This is a tough business, newspapers. Even when we leave it, it’s still in our bones.
Eli: When you were little, what did you think you’d grow up to be?
Esther: The first thing I remember wanting to be was a writer. That was when I was about 10. I think I was about 14 when I saw Top Gun for the first time. After that, I really wanted to be a fighter pilot. To the point that I started college as an aerospace engineering major. I was all set to join the Navy after college. Then my eyesight started to go, so flight school was out. I remembered that I have serious problems with authority and being yelled at, so a military career was right out.
I also hated engineering, so I went back to the original dream of being a writer and switched my major to journalism and here we are.
Eli: That says something about the process of elimination! Do you remember the first article you wrote that got published, at any level?
Esther: The first article I wrote that was published was for The Battalion, the student newspaper at Texas A&M University. It was on a study that had been released about the Texas A&M Business School. The report said that Texas A&M’s business school was the best in the country in terms of return on investment. In other words, the tuition was less expensive and graduates ended up with high-paying jobs. It could have been boring, but I worked hard to track down alumni of the business school that had landed top positions and it ended up being pretty interesting if I do say so myself.
Eli: Is that where you started to see that journalism might be a more promising path for you than say, engineering appeared to be before?
Esther: I wrote that first story about six months after I had started taking journalism classes. I loved the classes, but that first story hooked me on actually working in journalism. When I started covering meatier stuff, and especially breaking news, I thought I’d never want to do anything else. I’ve always been a storyteller and I’m a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so journalism was a good fit for me professionally.
Eli: Covering breaking news was different before, wasn’t it? What technology did you have at your disposal when you started covering the meatier stuff, compared to today?
Esther: When I started at my student newspaper in 2002, we didn’t have social media like Twitter or Facebook. We had a portable police scanner that we took turns with. I think I took it home every third night or so. When emergencies were going out on the radio it had a distinctive tone. I learned to sleep through the general chatter, but I would wake up if the emergency tone dropped. Luckily, College Station, Texas, is a pretty small town and didn’t have to crawl out of bed too many times to go cover breaking news.
We had texting. That was new back then and not everyone had cell phones. I would occasionally get texts, sometimes calls during class to come out to scenes. In those days we depended on our sources to alert us to breaking news a lot more than we do now. And there was more teamwork in the newsroom. One person would be on the scanner and would alert other reporters via text or call to get out to breaking news.
We had a general email box at The Battalion and students, faculty, community members, anyone could drop notes to us there. We found out about a lot of the breaking stuff on campus that way. Again, a staff member monitored it and would send out reporters as needed. And sometimes we got tips from watching the TV news or listening to the local radio stations. One day, when I was sitting in the newsroom between classes, we heard that there was a tornado warning in the area.
I grabbed my camera and we jumped into a friend’s car. We spotted a funnel cloud off in the distance. Before I knew it, we were tearing down the highway, a tornado running parallel to us about a mile off. I’m sitting on the window of the passenger side, elbows on the roof of the car, shooting pictures. Looking back, that was not safe and I don’t recommend that. But the photo did run on the front page the next day.
Eli: That’s awesome. At the moment, though, you do what you need to if you want the story right? What challenges have you faced as a woman in the newsroom?
Esther: I don’t think I faced any challenges in the newsroom as a woman. The newsroom has always been a pretty welcoming place to me. Now, outside the newsroom is a completely different story. Male politicians, particularly older ones, have been, shall we say, challenging. But it’s not just politicians and officials. Sources of all kinds have presented challenges. I’ve had everything from the typical condescending “little lady” comments all the way to sexually inappropriate and harassing language thrown my way.
I’ve sources make blatant passes at me. Sometimes I ignore it. Sometimes I call them out. My favorite way to diffuse those situations is the phrase, “That ____ is inappropriate.” Insert words like language, tone, suggestion, gesture as needed. Then I move on and ask the next question.
Eli: Why are we still dealing with this? Wait, scratch that. Let’s not give it any more attention. Instead, tell us about a source or interview that said something to you that had a positive impact on you beyond the story.
Esther: You can ask me anything about martial arts. I’ve been practicing since I was 8. One source that stands out was a piece I did for Veterans Day for a local community paper here in Austin. It was still fairly early in my career. I’ve always enjoyed writing features and hearing people’s stories. I’d written about several veterans in the run-up to veterans day and I got a call from an elderly gentleman who invited me to interview him. He told me had a Veterans Day story I’d probably never heard before.
I arrive at his home, which is really more of a mansion in one of the ritzier parts of town. We get to talking. He has a faint accent but I can’t place it. I ask him to tell me about his service. Turns out, he’d served in WWII. For the Nazis. I’m mentally scrapping the article right there, but to be polite, I keep listening. And an amazing story unfolds. Turns out this guy was 17 when the war broke out, living in Hamburg with his parents. He disagreed with the Nazis and was a member of the local youth resistance (I was able to independently confirm this).
So he gets called up for service in the army. He doesn’t want to fight. He’s been actively working against the Nazis. But he knows if he flees the country or dodges the draft, it might expose his friends in the resistance to scrutiny. So he goes off to fight. He spends three years in a foxhole in Italy with one other guy, manning a radio. They used to recite Shakespeare and poetry to each other to stay sane. He and his partner routinely neglected to report Allied troop movements to their superiors, even though they knew their fellow Germans could die as a result.
They walked a fine line. After the war, he came to the U.S. and was highly successful in business. A well-respected member of the community. Gave large amounts to charity. When we think of evil, a lot of us think of Nazis. They’re the bad guys. The ones Indiana Jones punches in the face. But this guy taught me that there are no absolutes. Not all Nazis were evil. Here was a guy just trying to survive and do the best he could in a crazy messed up world. He told me something that stuck with me.
He said, and I’m paraphrasing, there are going to be times in your life when events will be beyond your control. Horrible things may be happening around you. You may be forced to do things you never thought you could. You must do two things if you find yourself there. One, keep breathing. Two, do whatever small thing you can to hang on to your self.
I’ve faced some difficult points in my life since then and I’ve gotten really low a time or two. I just thought if that guy can live through three years in a foxhole, forced to serve evil people he hated, I can get through this.
Eli: That’s incredible, and a huge eye-opener for us, isn’t it? I so appreciate you taking the time for this, Esther. What advice would you give girls and young women about becoming a reporter or otherwise venturing into this world?
Esther: At this point in my career I’ve become quite jaded about journalism and reporting. It’s a business that chews young people up and spits them out. Very, very few people make it in this business. I thought I was a lifer, but I got laid off after 12 years in the business. I couldn’t move because of my husband’s job and couldn’t get any work in journalism. I had zero success as a freelancer.
I went into PR because I was qualified to do it and I was good at it, but it was not originally something I was really passionate about. I’ve been working for the last 18 months doing publicity for a science college at a major state university. I love science and I’m able to tap into that early background in engineering, so it’s kind of come full circle. I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The road getting here was a little bumpy, but there is nowhere else I’d rather be.
So, my advice for young people considering a career in journalism: don’t. Don’t do it. The odds that you will make it in this business are so small and not worth your time and talent. Get your degree in something else. If you still really want to write, take some courses and write on the side. I had some good times as a journalist, but I also saw a lot of things that left me with a lot of mental scars. Honestly, if I could go back, I might pick a different career.
If you decide not to listen to me (and I wouldn’t have listened to me either back then because I’m a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” kind of girl) then don’t give your soul to journalism, like I did. I had no real backup plan. When my journalism career ended it destroyed me. I’ve managed to pick up the pieces, but it took me several years.
Manage your expectations. Have other dreams. Don’t pin all your hopes on a business that doesn’t care one lick about you.
I would like to add that I think journalism, journalists and reporters are more important than ever in the current political climate. They are the fourth estate and that is an incredibly vital role. It kills me that so many good journalists have moved on to something else and have been forced out of the industry because we need them now more than ever.
A to Z Challenge:
I is for I Shot the Sheriff, Item Lifting and other Illegal Activity (Go Ask Daddy)