Thoughts of an Ex-Reporter

(Note: John Reinan just left the Star Tribune to go back into the PR/marketing/consumer-engagement biz. Reinan worked at Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin/Shandwick in the early 1980s, then left to spend years as a kickass reporter around the country. Reinan is thoughtful, earnest, funny and a little nuts. We asked for his thoughts as he made the transition. Thanks for the insights, John. -Benidt)

I just started a new job in marketing communications, and I’ve never been so wigged out. After nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor, I decided to get out of the business. I left the Star Tribune and took a job with Fast Horse, a growing midsize agency in downtown

It was the hardest decision of my life, and I’m not exaggerating. I loved working at the newspaper; it was never like a job for me. It was an entire identity: the raffish, iconoclastic newsman has long been a character in literature and film, and I loved the role. Being a reporter is like having an extended adolescence, I told my friends. You don’t have to dress well, you get to sit around bullshitting with your feet up and you’re expected to be the turd in the punchbowl. It’s fun! You get paid to read stuff and talk to people. And with rare exceptions, you have the upper hand in any professional relationship because people want what you can give them; you’re rarely a supplicant.

It was tough leaving all that behind. But it’s been nothing but gloomy in the newspaper business for the last two or three years. The Internet suddenly started eating our lunch in a major way, and the constant drumbeat of bad news was really starting to get me down. I wondered if I could count on keeping a job for the next 15 years. And when our newspaper was sold to a bunch of Wall Street buccaneers right after Christmas, it seemed like the right time to make a move.

I put out some feelers in the marketing world and was fortunate enough to get some serious interest right away. But the more serious our talks got, the more depressed I became, because every conversation increased the odds that I was actually going to wind up leaving the paper. For more than a month, I had trouble sleeping, I virtually stopped eating, I lost interest in sex. A huge coffee drinker, I stopped entirely and also stopped drinking alcohol. Basically, I was so mentally and emotionally uptight that my whole physical being just shut down. Even though I stopped exercising, I lost about 15 pounds.

I went through all the stages of grief: anger, denial, bargaining. I was mourning the loss of a career that I’d loved and been good at for a long time. But I finally got through to acceptance, and started getting excited about my new opportunity instead of being upset at what I was leaving behind. Today, a month after I left the paper, I can honestly say that, while I miss some of my buddies there, I’m not sad that I don’t walk through the Strib’s front door every day.

Why go into PR? Actually, as the newest member of an agency that just declared itself no longer a PR shop, I’ll rephrase the question: Why integrated consumer marketing? There’s no mysterious answer. That’s where my skills are. I like writing, reading, talking to people and thinking about how to convey ideas. I had no desire to re-invent myself in a completely different field, such as teaching or insurance sales or lion taming.

The path from journalism to marketing communication isn’t as well trodden as it may have been in previous generations. Then, mid-career reporters went into PR for a chance to make decent money. Now, people at a place like the Star Tribune are paid pretty well, so the financial incentive isn’t what it once was. In 20 years of newspapering, I can’t think of more than 5 or 6 colleagues who left for PR jobs. I also think that since Woodward & Bernstein, reporters have a higher opinion of themselves and their moral mission than previous generations did. That leads to an attitude that people who go into PR are sellouts.

But I expect that attitude to change as the newspaper and TV businesses slowly circle the drain. On my way out, Doug Grow, one of our metro columnists, said to me: “I think all of us are a little less judgmental in our opinions about others’ career choices than we would have been five years ago. We used to watch it happen to other industries, but now it’s happening to us.”

I’m really enthused about this new thing I’m doing and anxious to succeed. It will take some time before I really feel competent in my new job, but I’m confident I have what it takes. It feels good to be really stretching myself with something new.

– John Reinan