It all started with “Harriet the Spy.” I was 7 years old when the film hit theaters, and as soon as I could get my hands on a VHS copy of it, I’d watch the movie, rewind it and watch it again.
I related to Harriet and her inherent tendency toward human observation — her compulsion to write everything down and make sense of what she witnessed by attempting to articulate it. She didn’t always get it right, and she often got herself in trouble. Her obsession, at times, knew no bounds. But that fire was something I couldn’t turn away from.
Flash-forward to the eighth grade. I had buck teeth, braces and an undiagnosed toothpaste allergy that left a crusty red rash around my lips. I was bullied — an outcast who wanted to manufacture a way to connect with others. I decided to go incognito and wrote a “Gossip Weekly” column and posted it in the girls’ restroom on Fridays before lunch.
I wrote about the hottest new couples, the buzziest breakups of the week, upcoming school dances and assemblies, and whether the sports teams had won or lost. The girls would crowd around the bathroom mirror where I’d taped it up, and I’d linger unnoticed in the area, thrilled to watch as people read my words. That’s when I first consciously knew I wanted to be a journalist.
Any academic or professional aspirations I’d flirted with throughout my life were sidelined in the aughts when the opioid epidemic wrought havoc on my community. Where I grew up, if you weren’t acquainted with or related to someone with an addiction, you were addicted. I moved to a shitty studio on Hollywood Boulevard and shot up heroin all day, and when I tried to envision my future, I saw a black hole.
I went to rehab, relapsed and then sought treatment again — a total of six stays in various rehabilitation facilities. In rehab, counselors ask you to look back on your life to make sense of how and why you wound up where you did. Everyone is given a notebook, and they instruct patients to write.
Eventually, I was able to put down the syringe and pick up the pen. Writing became the only thing I did that was as gratifying as getting high, but I was convinced I’d already ruined my life. Who would want to hire a junkie with a rap sheet? I figured the only way to get ahead of my past was to embrace it, so I wrote down everything I’d done. Then I interviewed other addicts, doctors, attorneys who oversaw drug cases and podcast hosts who’d dedicated their lives to serving the afflicted.
Something miraculous happened: Editors started paying me actual money to publish my work. Readers’ emails would fill my inboxes, and in their messages, they shared something they’d gained from my piece — some little nugget that had given them hope or taught them something new. This is when I knew journalism had the power to change hearts and minds.
I’d officially been bitten by the journalism bug. It got under my skin — it was the proverbial itch I had to scratch — and I discovered I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. We didn’t choose journalism, it chose us, and there was no escaping its grip. Who in their right mind would work so tirelessly in such a volatile industry for such little pay if it weren’t a labor of love? For most of us, it isn’t a career; it’s a calling, and we dedicate our lives to it.
After earning my journalism degree and then completing an MFA in creative nonfiction — all by taking out student loans I’ll surely be paying back for most of my life — I was hired by The Los Angeles Times. I spent the last year covering the way book bans have proliferated across the country, writing obituaries for entertainment figures and authors I couldn’t help but fall in love with as I learned about their lives; detailing sexual assault lawsuits that held powerful predators accountable; and illuminating the ways in which AI is impacting the entertainment and publishing industry. I also wrote silly little stories, and I loved those too.
I was impacted by the newspaper’s mass layoffs on Tuesday, just a week shy of my one-year anniversary at the paper. More than 100 of my colleagues also lost their jobs. I am devastated by what just happened to me, but more than that, my heart aches for this industry. In just the first month of this year, Sports Illustrated’s staff was decimated: Pitchfork was gutted; NBC News cut dozens of employees; and Time magazine’s employees were hit hard, too. More than 400 Condé Nast workers across Vanity Fair, Vogue, Bon Appétit and other outlets walked out on Tuesday in protest of what their union said are unlawful bargaining practices. We also walked out of The Los Angeles Times last week to protest the looming layoffs, but it didn’t stop the bloodshed.
The state of journalism is bleak — but I can’t imagine my life without it. I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the seemingly unstoppable cascade of budget cuts and layoffs, and I can’t help looking for something or someone to blame for what’s happening: If it weren’t for Donald Trump convincing half the nation that our news was fake, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Or if it weren’t for Elon Musk robbing journalists of their social reach, scrubbing stories of headlines on Twitter, and calling for “citizen journalists” to deliver the “real” news, I wouldn’t be grieving alongside so many. Or if it weren’t for platforms like Instagram and TikTok turning our collective attention spans to mush, people would still read magazines and newspapers. I find myself stuck in an endless loop of if it weren’t for… if it weren’t for… if it weren’t for…
This isn’t just about me or the others who now find themselves out of work. This is much bigger than any of us. Journalism is more crucial now than maybe ever. A free press holds politicians and leaders accountable. Journalists investigate and call out all the unkept promises and hollow plans spouted passionately from podiums. They hold feet to the fire and uncover abuses of power. It is often their work that shines a light into the darkest places to find answers — that offers and insists upon the truth in an increasingly unscrupulous world.
While journalism can be inherently political, it is deeply personal, too. Stories matter — interrogating and illuminating humanity matters. Journalism offers a glimpse into realities many readers have never lived, whether that’s the struggle of healthcare workers on the frontlines of a global pandemic; a man fleeing Vietnam and building a billion-dollar Sriracha business out of a van in Southern California; sisters launching an organization to help find the missing Black people whose cases are oft neglected; or a mother’s journey navigating her daughter’s years-long heroin addiction. These stories have the ability to open and change minds, which, in turn, changes our culture.
So, how do we save journalism? What happens to the 100-plus Los Angeles Times staffers who just lost their jobs and all the reporters at other outlets who have been laid off and will be laid off in the months to come? If newspapers and magazines cannot sustain a robust workforce, how many stories will go untold? How many power players will go unchecked? Despite the variety of challenges that come with the gig — the constant looming notion that being a modern journalist means being a mere and all too brief visitor in the newsrooms that come to feel like home — I’ll do what I’ve always done: Look for the next story to tell, and the next newsroom that will let me tell it.
Immediately after I learned I had lost my job, I started writing this essay. It seemed I didn’t have a choice. I have been telling stories — my own and other people’s — for most of my life. It’s my saving grace. No matter what I’ve been through or survived — bullying, a heroin addiction, being laid off from a job I’ve wanted since I was 13 — writing has always guided the way. It’s how I make sense of the world. It’s how I connect to the world. And no matter what happens or where I end up, I know it’s what I’ll continue to do.
Emily St. Martin is a reporter and essayist with contributions to The New York Times, InStyle, Cosmopolitan, NBC, Vice, Los Angeles Magazine and the Southern California News Group. She previously worked at The Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter. In 2022, she won third place for best news feature with the L.A. Press Club. St. Martin has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of La Verne and a master’s in creative nonfiction from the University of California, Riverside. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter @byemilystmartin.