Journalists typically try to not be the story.
But last week we published a story that was about us, more specifically about our former reporter Carrington J. Tatum.
You probably read it; our analytics show that it was one of the best-read stories on our site this year. But if you didn’t, it explained how student loan debt and rising rents made being a journalist impossible for Carrington. That’s why he’s back home with his mother in Texas instead of here in Memphis, doing more award-winning work.
It wasn’t an easy story for Carrington to tell; finances are one of those things we still keep private. Longreads chose his piece as one of its top five for the week, and it was also featured by Nieman Lab. It wasn’t easy for Carrington to experience what it means to be the story.
“At first, it was overwhelming,” he said. “It’s intimidating to have that much attention, to have people tweeting at me. I don’t know that I do well at center stage.”
Thankfully, his story was almost universally received with the intention Carrington had when he wrote it.
“It was encouraging to have so many people show love and support. It was validating too. Nobody blamed me. They understood. That’s a sad reality for the industry.”
Carrington wrote about his experience but the piece wasn’t really about him. It used his experience to tell a greater story about equity and wealth and the systems that shape them. That’s why he was bombarded with tweets and DMs. He’s still going through emails from journalists, current and former, and students who had similar stories to share, who have been enduring in silence, who were comforted by the fact that they aren’t alone.
“That made it all worth it,” he said.
Carrington says he’s at peace with his decision to leave journalism. He feels encouraged to double down on the idea of giving himself permission to leave, without feeling like he is selling out or giving up on what he calls a “righteous” mission.
“I was still judging myself a little bit for not thuggin’ it out,” he says. “But now, I’m rethinking the way I frame my politics and my journalism. What does it look like to live my politics?”
He knows now that sustainability is key; you can’t do the work if you allow yourself to crumble. It’s both, not either-or.
Plus, he’s optimistic about the work he’s yet to do. “I’m still in a fantastic position, in the ability to make change. I still have the resources to reach higher. I’ve made some impact as a journalist. What’s the impact I can make as ‘fill in the blank’ with the power of journalism underneath me? I’m inspired by what else we can get done.”
As Carrington’s journey with us ends, MLK50 will continue the conversation his column sparked (Our publisher Wendi C. Thomas has written about some of the questions we’re pondering). It’s not important that we be the story.
But it is vital that we keep thinking about ways we can make journalism a more inclusive field, and hold our industry accountable as we try to hold those we cover accountable.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.