A beat worse than mine: commuting

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Lately I’ve been complaining about my chosen beat. While my smarter colleagues were picking topics like TV and architecture and national politics, I picked…work. Why? I dunno. Like most of my decisions in life, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Turns out my bosses were questioning my choice, too. I write frequently for the magazine, if I do say so myself, but rarely on said topic or under my “branded” banner, Work in Progress. I’ve been told I need to raise my profile. That they want to see more of me, and in other parts of the magazine.

How would you respond to that? You’d take it as criticism, right? Even couched in sweet nothings like “I’m a big fan” and “we need more talent of your caliber,” it sounds like a boot in the butt, right? As if the unsaid part is, “…so get off your fat arse and carry a little more weight around here. Remember who pays for your kid’s Cheerios.” It’s a little hard to hear when you feel like your arse is pretty much worn flat from work and your shoulders ache from carrying weight and you’ve got another Cheerio-eater on the way.

The thing is, I kind of love my beat…at least, in this here medium. As narrow as it might sound compared to the nonstop scrum that is the presidential election, I still don’t seem to have any trouble coming up with new posts. If I didn’t have a job—if I didn’t have to justify those Cheerios by contributing articles to the print magazine—I’d blog 24/7. Maybe 23/6. Maybe 22/5. But you know. A lot.

Still, when the boss says jump, I say how high do you want my triple salchow. So this weekend I set about thinking up new beats. This is where you, my friends, come in. Because my ideas suck. I wound up instead coming up with beats that suck way, way worse than mine. I think of it as a glass-half-full approach: yes, I write about cubicle decor. But I could be writing about…

* commuting. The New York Times recently added a commuting beat. Let me repeat that. A beat that involves nothing but riding the New Jersey Transit buses and the No. 7 subway and the Staten Island ferry. The ferry part sounds okay. But the PATH train from Hoboken at 7 a.m., especially with the new cattle-herding at the Wall Street exit that my brother-in-law says delays riders up to 15 minutes due to construction on the Freedom Tower? Holy seventh circle of hell.

* sectarian violence in Iraq. Last Friday, I hosted a discussion at Time Inc. with Bobby Ghosh, TIME’s World editor and until recently our Baghdad bureau chief. He alighted there during the initial shock and awe in ’93, and has since become the longest-serving print reporter in that war zone. He survived kidnap attempts (once by telling kidnappers he was Indian, and therefore had no money for ransom—it worked), neighborhood bombings, dangerous sources, and the slow diminishing of the foreign press corp around him. It’s probably the most important beat of our time, he told the crowd last week, and the least desirable. For the past five years, while I was deciding which handbag to carry to work, Bobby was fitting himself with a flak jacket. Even among the handful of Western journalists who venture over, few stay longer than a few months, and most never leave the Green Zone (unlike Bobby, whose bald head, full beard and South Asian features allowed him unusual and frequent passage among locals).

Other beats worse than mine:

* municipal waste.

* interest rates.

* American football.

The thing is, all those beats could be interesting. (Now that I think of it, I wrote about commuting just a few months ago in this story about long-distance marriages.) I believe it’s possible to get excited about covering the science of potable waste water or the selection of a new Mormon leader or the marketing of eco-friendly hearses. That’s why I’m a journalist. That’s what the luckiest among us get to do at TIME: write about anything and everything that excites us.

So that’s it in a nutshell, folks. As of 2008, I’ll be expanding my coverage in the magazine to things far beyond the world of work. Not that that’s any different from 2007, or 2006, etc etc. The fact is, I’ve always been a generalist. Back when my bosses got all hepped up about us holding specific beats—way back in 2006—I tried to narrow my focus. It didn’t stick.

I’m hereby stating a renewed commitment to stories of all types, races, genders, body shapes and countries of origin. I’m hereby open to ideas from readers and, to a lesser extent, pitches from p.r. types about stories to do with interesting trends, people and discoveries. Give me a good lead on municipal waste, folks, and watch me go.

As for the blog, you’re stuck with me ranting at the corner of Work and Life. For now. Like the blog says, I am as ever a work in progress.

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