‘I can’t believe a Pulitzer Prize winner left for PR,’ said no one in media ever.

“Exit.” Original collage.

If you’re at all interested in journalism, it’s unlikely you missed the story of the Torrance, California reporter who was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team on the Daily Breeze, but switched to PR to pay his rent.

The writer, Rob Kunzia, was part of a team that afflicted the comfortable, uncovering corruption in a school district where the superintendent was paid highly while the students were under-served. It struck a chord with me because I was an education beat reporter, too, and the ideals behind the stories I worked on were the same.

Like Kunzia and droves of others, I “left” organized journalism for something else. It’s something not fully defined at the moment, but I will probably include communications or PR work of some kind.

This story is being passed around with an implied sad nod. We’re supposed to give it a glance, think “Isn’t this depressing?” and move on. I think that’s exactly what I would do if I hadn’t left a world bookended by reporter’s notebooks and Board of Education meetings.

While I’m not a historian, I get the sense that part of the muckraker’s identity came from not having a lot of money, and being able to speak the voice of the people. But as strikingly as the figure of the starved, sleep-deprived reporter looms in our culture, there is hidden privilege behind it, whether it’s the lack of diversity on news staffs or the families and partners that help house and feed the ink-stained heroes. We should stop pretending this austere time is the first tough climate for journalists, and pay attention to the class implications of who is affected by the hard times, and how.

Leaving the education desk on a local paper has been done. Moving on happened before moving on was the only choice. Let’s look beyond this setup, though, and talk about how leaving a news publication is not – maybe has never been – the end of an individual journalist’s journey.

When contacted at his new job as a publicist for the USC Shoah Foundation, Kunzia is reported to have said feeling a “twinge of regret at no longer being a journalist.” If we take this at value, we’ll overlook the perks of not being tied to a publication. Institutional backing can be helpful, but what are the benefits of leaving, besides currently or eventually being able to pay rent?

One of the first things I noticed was an eventual un-siloing of information. Being tied to one beat, one issue or one geographical area can restrict thought and exploration when it’s your job to have narrowly defined expertise. The other is a freeing of voice. Dan Gilmor writes about the importance of journalists as activists, but institutionally backed writers are always walking a tightrope between the expression of their personal beliefs and the pressure to be “objective.” Never mind that objectivity is not the same thing as neutrality. As an independent writer, I actually feel comfortable being loud about stances that comfort the afflicted. When part-time faculty at The New School advocated for their rights, I did not have to hide my support behind the veneer of objectivity.

Leaving is not just selling out. It’s not just sad. It can be a powerful force for redefinition. The world beyond the desk, without an editor to support, correct and defend, is indeed intimidating. At the same time, it’s freeing.

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