This is the latest installment of Career Crossroads, an occasional series that features journalists, bloggers, and freelancers and their professional journeys.
As a journalist, some stories stay with you more than others.
For Theola DeBose, this played out summer of 2003.
DeBose was a reporter with The Washington Post, covering the DC suburbs and filing stories for the Metro section.
She started there just after 9/11, coming from the Albany Times Union in upstate New York.
“I didn’t think I had a chance to get into DC,” DeBose remembers. “It was such a terrible time. Then I got this email that said, ‘Hi, we haven’t forgotten about you. Things are crazy right now.’ So I went down Columbus Day weekend and met with a few more editors. Weeks later, I was driving down to DC with a job waiting for me.”
By March 2003, DeBose watched the growing coverage of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
It became clear that America wasn’t going to leave Iraq anytime soon. So a call for reporters who wanted to go to Iraq was sent out within The Washington Post. The plan was to send anyone it could – not just folks on the foreign news desk.
DeBose raised her hand.
“I had no confidence that I would be picked,” she said. “But I had questions about the coverage. I wondered about how it was on the ground, how the military was feeling.”
She was picked.
The Baghdad Bureau
DeBose was the first non-foreign correspondent to go to Iraq for The Washington Post.
This was a relatively safe time to be a foreign correspondent. DeBose said she could roam freely and talk with and interview people on the street.
“It was an example of the most basic and natural reporting that you could do,” she said. “Every detail and every quote was hard won. You went to the green zone, stood in line for long hours to be waved through, went to the briefing, and asked your questions to get quotes from officials.”
DeBose also did embeds with the US military.
One night, in particular, the team left after dark – everything was done late at night there. At the time, the military still was looking for Saddam Hussein.
“At one point, I stuck my hand out of the Humvee – there were no windows or doors,” she said. “It was a way for me to acknowledge the moment. I was scared. There was nothing between me and the outside. As a journalist, a lot of the times, you’re not thinking about yourself. You’re thinking about the story.”
DeBose spent most of that summer 2003 in Baghdad. It was a demanding post.
One of her most memorable stories involved a two-day stay in the ER at the combat support hospital. DeBose was exposed to things that most people don’t get to see.
Facing the Horrific Every Day ran on the front page of The Washington Post and in other newspapers across the country.
A top editor of The Seattle Times reached out to DeBose after reading her story. DeBose quoted a trauma surgeon in her piece; it was the man’s brother.
“His brother always said that everything was fine,” DeBose said. “It was the first time he understood what his brother went through. The responsibility of journalism was really present through that story. You are supposed to be the eyes and ears and to see the things – and report the things that others can’t see because they don’t have that access.”
DeBose worked with The Washington Post for many years. In 2010, she wrote a piece that became part of her pivot story: Pregnant and Covering the Crisis in Haiti.
Shades of Gray
The journalism road was ending, and it was time to change course.
DeBose left The Washington Post in May 2012 and moved away from journalism.
She wanted to help people beyond reporting stories. So, she advocated for charter schools as communications director for the DC Public Charter School Board, and as an appointee in the Obama Administration, promoting funding for cultural projects at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Today, DeBose is on another journey and recently launched a journalism-based podcast: The Gray Side: Life After Journalism.
The podcast is a project of GraySide Media Group, a boutique communications firm working with journalists to tell their stories through branding, messaging, graphic design, and media relations. DeBose serves as CEO and co-founder of GraySide with her husband, Brian.
The Gray Side podcast plays on dark and light.
When DeBose left journalism, she left for the communications world, or as some journalists might put it – the “dark side.”
“It felt a lot more gray than black or white,” said DeBose, of striking the balance between journalism and the communications field. “I heard similar things from folks who left the newsroom. There’s a community of us out there, and we were the only ones who could understand what it was like. People would ask: How’d you do it? How did you get out?”
… And We’re Live!
The Gray Side: Life After Journalism podcast launched Aug. 9, during the annual meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists in New Orleans.
The podcast offers former journalists a “space to share their inspiring stories of life after journalism,” says a news release.
“I wanted to tell the story of leaving journalism,” DeBose said. “Why not hear from people who have done this and talk about everything involved in it? If someone wanted to leave their organization or was laid off – they wouldn’t know where to start. They wouldn’t know how to build a life after journalism.”
The first episode features former aviation journalist Benét WIlson. Wilson describes moving through a newsroom layoff into a freelance career and corporate communications.