Pulitzer Prize-winner David Hoffman on starting over.
David Hoffman covered the State Department and the White House for The Washington Post, ran the newspaper’s bureaus in Jerusalem and Moscow, then commuted downtown for eight years to oversee its foreign staff. But in August 2009, his 27-year career at the Post ended. At age 55 he took a buyout and became, in effect, the owner and only employee of David Hoffman Inc. No more fancy title, instant status, corporate credit card. Instead, he is hawking his wares—books, magazine articles, op-eds, blog posts—out of the basement of the home he has owned in Potomac since 1987.
As we talk one sunny morning on a screened-in porch at the rear of his house, a ceiling fan slowly stirs the air, a pingpong table sits unused in a corner (Hoffman’s two sons are in their 20s and gone from home) and a squad of songbirds serenades us from a patch of nearby woods. A compact, intense figure, Hoffman is not a man of few words. Nibbling on blueberry muffins left by his wife, Carole, a substitute teacher in the county schools, he muses about his departure from a job he loved.
“To walk out of there is really extraordinarily hard,” he admits. “It doesn’t go away in a year. It’s part of your whole life. I’m struggling. I would be dishonest to say I’ve actually made the transition; I’m experimenting with the transition.”
Hoffman is hardly alone (I made the transition myself more than 20 years ago). Throughout the suburbs, a corps of castoffs from the institutions that once dominated journalistic life are toiling away in basements, garages and their kids’ old bedrooms. Some teach, others consult, many hunt for freelance writing assignments. Most share Hoffman’s dismay and discomfort. “Everybody is sort of trying to find a niche,” he says. “All those people have had to find some future.”
But if full-time jobs are scarce, technology is creating new opportunities to participate in the city’s intellectual conversation. Hoffman’s years in Moscow left him with a strong interest in nuclear weapons, and though he still “puts on a tie” and goes downtown for meetings and interviews several times a week, he can monitor the latest developments in the field without ever leaving Potomac.
“I’m just amazed the way professional nuclear nonproliferation people have created a community using feeds on Twitter,” he says. “All day long I can read the latest stuff. It’s a small example of how you can use today’s methods to stay much more informed.”
He can also inform others. From the headquarters of DHI on Lakenheath Way, Hoffman has been posting news and analysis on the website of Foreign Policy magazine, and that gives him a new perspective. “News is actually being reborn,” he argues. “I’m not a handwringer about this. There’s so much more available to us now, we’re actually swimming in it, we’re drowning in more news. It’s just in a different place.”
Yet he stills believes (as I do) in the invaluable role of the mainstream media he served for so many years. He deeply regrets the sharp shrinkage in the Post staff and warns its new editors, “If people don’t get what they want from their newspaper, they’re going to go elsewhere for it.” His strong emotions showed through in a speech to his colleagues on the day he left the Post. “We discover, we reveal, we explore,” he reminded them, “and we must have no fear.”
Hoffman is better positioned than most to prosper in this “reborn” marketplace. His recent book, The Dead Hand (Doubleday, 2009), an exhaustive history of the Cold War’s obsession with nuclear weapons, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. The Post gave him a contract to contribute occasional articles, and old friend David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, asked him to write about global epidemics. Hoffman’s byline is known and respected by foreign policy players around the world. But he still feels like an immigrant moving to a new land and shaping a new identity, while losing touch with the customs and culture that defined his world back home. “I thought I would die the day I left that newsroom,” he tells me. “I thought my career was over.”
I know how he feels. I spent 25 years at The New York Times, and after I left in 1989 it seemed like I’d lost a vital body part. I wept at my going-away party, and for years I found myself calling sources and saying, “This is Steve Roberts of The New York Times…” I still have troubled dreams streaked with loss: I cannot file my story, or find my desk, or get an editor’s attention. And these psychic wounds have practical consequences. As staffers, Hoffman and I could spend weeks or even months on in-depth projects, knowing that our paychecks and expense accounts were assured. No longer. Hoffman enjoys his work for Foreign Policy, but it’s a “labor of love,” and all buyouts, no matter how generous, eventually run out.
“You can only do so much for free,” he says. “You want to earn a living, you want to go on vacation, and one of the things I’ve found is you can basically work till you’re blind trying to do high-quality stuff—but you have to figure out how to make a living at it. The Internet was born with this ethos of being free, but free is not a business model. It’s not a business model for the Times or the Post, and it’s not a business model for me.”
I share Hoffman’s belief that technology has created more options than ever for young journalists. The barriers have fallen. You don’t need a job at the Post or the Times to acquire a voice. And as I tell my students at George Washington University, information is more in demand than ever. Still, most of us have acquired the irritating habit of eating regularly. Bills must be paid. And who will pay them? Is David Hoffman Inc. part of the answer? He doesn’t know yet, and neither do I.
Steve Roberts’ latest book, From Every End of This Earth, will be published in paperback this fall. Send him ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.