Russell Gold, senior energy writer with the Wall Street Journal, is wrapping up his year away from the hustle and bustle of reporting while serving as UT Austin’s inaugural Energy Journalism Fellow, a position jointly sponsored by the Energy Institute and the KBH Energy Center. As his Fellowship comes to a close, Gold reflected on his time away from the hurly-burly crush of daily deadlines.
There’s a quote from H. L. Mencken making the rounds among my journalist friends on Facebook:
“I know of no human being who has a better time than an eager and energetic young reporter.”
That’s for sure. I can remember the joy of driving through the Louisiana night, windows down, whooping and pounding on the steering wheel to celebrate tracking down a source and scoring a front-page story. And there was the time I inadvertently broke into a bank on a slow election night. Long story, don’t ask, the statute of limitations might not have expired yet.
Until last fall, I had been a full-time reporter nonstop for twenty-two years, the last fifteen of them at the Wall Street Journal. I had interviewed a lot of people and written a lot of articles. I even wrote a book. You could no longer, even charitably, describe me as a young reporter.
The thrill of chasing the scoop was still there. (When it is gone, could someone please clean out my desk to make way for an eager and energetic young reporter? Thanks.) But I also keenly felt the desire to embrace the muddy complexity of a big story. To do that meant slowing down in a profession that is relentlessly speeding up. That’s why I ended up as the inaugural Energy Journalist Fellow at the University of Texas Austin.
The story I wanted to pursue was how were we supposed to generate the energy we need without destroying the world we live in. Put in a slightly different way: Can a civilization built on fossil fuels kick the habit? The question was tougher than it seemed. To go back to Mencken, the secular patron saint of journalists: “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong.” I wanted to avoid the simple, wrong answer.
Walking onto campus for the first time in the fall was a strange flashback experience. I had graduated from college in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree and hadn’t been back to school since then. I hadn’t worked in an office with other people since 2005. It took some time to get adjusted to these big changes. For the first time in years, I turned off my email notification and only checked it once or twice a day.
So, what did I go with my time at the university? I began to write a book. This one is about the rise of renewable energy in the United States. I had a couple false starts: promising pathways I needed to head down before I realized they were dead ends. But I finally hit on an idea and began reporting and writing. I’m up to 60 interviews and have more to come. I’ve delved deeply into the university’s libraries and their resources. I’ve also had countless conversations with the technologists, policy wonks, scholars and engineers at U.T. who live and breathe energy.
Will I finish the book before the end of my fellowship? No, not even close. But that’s okay. I had the space and time to slow down and figure out what I wanted to write about. A few chapters will be completed by the time I turn back into a full-time journalist in September. The rest I’ll write around the margins of the workday.
I am returning to journalism because, well, even middle-aged reporters have a pretty good time. It’s a scandalously fun way to earn a paycheck. But I go back a little wiser for having slowed myself down and rediscovered the importance of talking through a difficult issue with inquisitive colleagues. I hope that I’ll look back at my time on campus as an intellectual sojourn that rekindled my curiosity. And I think I’ll keep the email notification off. Life is too short to be constantly distracted by the chimes of incoming press releases.