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Finding the sweet spot in journalism — again | COMMENTARY

Longtime journalist Michelle Deal-Zimmerman left the industry in 2016 to open Charm City Chocolate with her husband, Todd, on The Avenue in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood. Last month, she returned to The Baltimore Sun.
Longtime journalist Michelle Deal-Zimmerman left the industry in 2016 to open Charm City Chocolate with her husband, Todd, on The Avenue in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood. Last month, she returned to The Baltimore Sun. (Courtesy of Charm City Chocolates)

I’m back.

If you’re puzzled, don’t worry — you’re not alone. I’m puzzled, too. But let me explain.

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I spent nearly two decades at The Baltimore Sun in a host of different roles, from designing news pages to creating graphics to writing a travel blog to editing feature stories.

I was here for former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, when then-editor John Carroll said we should run every word of the Starr Report. I was here for 9/11, working pizza-fueled days and nights to cover the breadth of that tragedy, a horrific stretch of unblocked time when I could only catch my breath in the stairwells where I went to cry alone.

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In other words, I have marked time in some way or another in Sun years. But there is only so much joy and pain that a person can absorb from a job, even if it has always been one’s passionate calling.

So I left in 2016 to pursue other passions with my husband, Todd. We opened a small chocolate shop in Hampden. The Baltimore neighborhood, with all of its hon-ness, was a perfect spot to observe the ebb and flow of a city often seen as on its heels. I learned nearly as much about Baltimore from chatting with customers while hand-packing boxes of chocolate as I had learned in 17 years of working inside the newsroom.

Conversations over candy with newcomers, old-timers, tourists, parents of out-of-state college students, fellow business owners, police, politicians and even homeless people gave me a more nuanced view of the issues facing a city that is so troubled and yet so beloved. Some of these revelations were bitter and some sweet, but beneath it all was an unwavering community spirit of togetherness that is often not seen in local news coverage.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic stressed our small business, we saw more clearly how that support can hold things together, even when you’re at the breaking point. While Charm City Chocolate survived the lockdowns and socially distanced changes more or less intact, I realized I needed a different kind of pivot. A return to something that was comforting and comfortable.

The news.

Yes, I know that sounds absolutely off-my-rocker insane. I mean what is even tolerable in the world right now? War, climate change, murders, politicians, hurricanes, a pandemic gone wild. There is nothing soothing anywhere in the news. And for God’s sake, do not check your social media. The back-to-school pictures of your friend’s kids are a balm for the soul right up to that latest conspiracy post from a long lost — and I do mean lost in every way — relative.

But newspapers are themselves built upon a strong community spirit of togetherness. Sure, the paper is divided into sections, but there is little divisiveness among the people who craft them from scratch every day. So if a tornado hits Annapolis on a stormy Wednesday afternoon, it’s all hands on deck, and no one would want it any other way. There is nothing more comforting than everyone being on the same page, working toward the same goals.

Sometimes that comfort can create a sameness to the way we think about the news. Reporters and editors covering the same beats, reaching out to the same sources and ending up with the same stories. The Sun is doing better than ever before with changing things up, but there’s a long way to go in a city with so many diverse stories to tell.

Hiring an editor who’s also a small-business owner is one way to switch the angle. A colleague recently told me he didn’t think he’d ever worked with a journalist who was also a business owner. In my prior years at The Sun, I probably would have said there was a good reason for that — a person in business probably has a distinct outlook that may not be neutral. But let’s face it, no one is neutral. Every individual in a news organization brings life years of experiences, challenges and choices. Being able to execute your job in as neutral a way as possible is a skill, not a personality trait.

I plan to bring my journalism skill and my small-business intuition to the news discussions we have daily. Hopefully it will enrich the types of stories we cover, expand the voices we amplify and help to craft a broader telling of the ever-changing story of Baltimore.

So I’m back. But I’m not the same and neither is The Sun. That could be a good thing for both of us. And maybe you, too.

Michelle Deal-Zimmerman is senior content editor for features and an advisory member of The Sun’s Editorial Board. Her column runs every fourth Wednesday. She can be reached at nzimmerman@baltsun.com.

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