After a long day at any journalism conference, there’s one place you can go to find attendees: the hotel bar.
It’s where journalists go to catch up, to network, to discuss, to brag and boast. Drinking and journalism go together like ink and newsprint. Drinking has long been a major part of the social aspect of the media world, and it’s not leaving anytime soon.
Our industry has had a long love affair with the bottle. A few of journalism’s notable names — Hunter S. Thompson, Roger Ebert, Mike Royko — are famous for their consumption habits. (Note: I tried desperately to find a famous female journalist who was known for her drinking and couldn’t find any, which could be part of the inherent male domination of journalism culture, which is fit for another piece.)
Our day-to-day activities often revolve around drinking, too. When we’re done with work, we get drinks with our co-workers. When we do something grand, we get drinks with our co-workers. If our news organization wins a fancy journalism award, odds are sheet cake and champagne are to follow. And there’s always that old adage: Write drunk, edit sober.
It’s also a hazard of the job. Many people self-medicate with alcohol. A 2002 study by Anthony Feinstein and Dawn Nicholson found 14 percent of the war correspondents it examined suffered from substance abuse. And a 2014 study of journalists working with user-generated content, also by Feinstein, found 15.4 percent of men drank in excess (defined as 14 or more drinks a week for men) and 17.4 percent of women drank alcohol in excess each week (defined as more than nine drinks a week).
Drinking does not define journalism, but it is a considerable part of it. Drinking is a part of most other worldly institutions (sporting events, holiday parties, high school reunions). But not everyone drinks. After many years of imbibing, I decided to take a break from drinking. That was more than two years ago, and I’ve definitely seen the effects — positive and negative — on my career, from a professional and social standpoint.
Positively, drinking with others in a social setting can help you connect with others. If your boss drinks, and you can go out and have a beer with your boss, it can bring you closer. If a mentor drinks, same deal. I’ve heard many great stories that helped me solve journalism problems while sharing a few pints with more experienced reporters.
For those of us who don’t drink, for whatever our reasons may be, it can feel a little awkward at times when you don’t partake. When I stopped drinking, I started noticing a few things. First, I wasn’t invited out with others from my newsroom as often. A few told me it was awkward when I sat around and drank water while they did what they did, so they’d rather I just wasn’t around.
Second, whenever I wanted to meet with awesome people and pick their brain, they wanted to do it at a bar. And because I wasn’t joining in the drinking, I could tell they remained a little distant, not as warm and open as people have been in the past. I don’t know if that’s adversely affected my career — and many have been quite all right with me not drinking — but it’s made for awkward moments.
Such as the conference I attended a few months into my booze break. When I got my hotel room key, I was next to the bar that was raging with pals, acquaintances and people I wanted to meet. I joined them, but when I asked for a club soda and lime, I got disparaging comments, either about my masculinity or something else.
Folks don’t mean to hurt you when they say these things. They want you to join in on the fun they’re having. Which is understandable: I probably acted the same way when I used to drink and encountered someone who didn’t.
But more often than not, the conversations would turn to why I wasn’t drinking, instead of what I really wanted to talk about: The formidable projects they were working on, the government badness they were exposing, fun new programming libraries I could use. Whenever I would show up at these events, if I didn’t have a club soda in hand, I would get some grief from folks.
It can become tiring explaining myself to others. And it’s turned me off to those social rituals at times, which could hurt my career. That made me realize: All the other folks who don’t party it up in journalism could also be affected. Just because you’re not “hanging out and being seen” doesn’t mean your skills aren’t up to par, or you’re somehow lesser than. Just like the folks who aren’t as social: They can still be amazing journalists, even if they’re turned off by, or desperately try to avoid, crowded places at conferences or bars.
Based on my experience not drinking the past two years, here are a few things you can do if you drink and encounter a fellow journalist who doesn’t:
Be respectful. Not everyone likes to talk about why they’ve chosen to not partake in something. Maybe it’s because they’re a recovering alcoholic, and they don’t want to discuss it. Maybe it’s because they have a medical issue, and they’d rather not share that with you. Perhaps it’s for religious reasons, and they don’t want the stigma that may come from that. So if you ask someone why they don’t drink (and you truly, desperately feel you need to know), be OK if they don’t answer. Just move on to another topic, like that cool project they’re working on, knowing they still want to hang out and get to know you.
It doesn’t mean they’re judging you. Just because I don’t drink right now doesn’t mean I care if you do. Most of my pals who either quit drinking, or never got into it in the first place, just want to be around friends and have a fun time. They couldn’t care less if you have some beverages while you’re hanging out. Think of it this way: If you’re a big Pepsi fan and someone is drinking Coca-Cola, do you think they’re judging you? Nope. (Unless you’re in Atlanta.)
Instead of asking someone if they want a beer, ask if they want a drink. The folks who do this are the best. I like it when people don’t assume I drink alcohol. When you phrase the question this way, it allows them to respond, “Yeah, I’d love a Diet Coke.” Or, “Oh man, a club soda and lime would be the best, thank you so much.” Because if someone does want an alcoholic drink, they can tell you to get them a Jameson on the rocks. But you’re keeping things less awkward by opening up the types of drinks — including non-alcoholic — you could buy them.
Not everyone knows why they don’t drink. For me, I thought I knew, but the more I’ve looked into why, I’ve practically forgotten. It’s just what I do now. It could be because I know my life’s been going way better because I’ve taken a break. Or maybe it’s because I know hangovers start to get even worse in your 30s. Not everyone has to reach rock bottom in order to make changes.
If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll be more inclusive to journalists who have different hobbies and lifestyles.
Now, for those who don’t drink, here are a few tips I’ve learned in the past two years that have made these larger journalism functions less awkward:
Get some sort of non-alcoholic drink in your hand. My go-to has been a club soda with lime. People see it and assume it’s some sort of mixed drink, and they generally leave you alone about your lack of boozing. You can have an awesome time together, network, meet people and look like everyone else who has a drink in their hands. And later, if or when people discover you don’t drink, they don’t have that initial, occasionally negative response of, “You don’t do that thing most people I know do, and that is weird to me.”
Most people mean well. We’re journalists. We like exploring people’s opinions, why they live their lives, why they’ve chosen to do what they do. So understand that, probably more than any group of people, your fellow journalists will pry a bit into your social life. The majority of the time I know it’s because our industry is a curious one, and people are highly inquisitive. So as long as you’re OK with answering, go ahead.
Make sure people establish boundaries. I’ve had many instances where people want to know my worst story, as if I needed some terrible wake-up call to decide to make positive changes in my life. I don’t have one for them, and not everyone does.
But don’t feel like you need to divulge everything about your personal life to people. I lead a pretty open life, but not everyone is like that. If someone pries a bit too much, the easiest thing to say is, “You know, I’m talking a lot about me, I’d love to hear more about you. What’s the latest project you’ve worked on that you’ve loved?” Networking is about learning from others and hearing their great stories. So try turning the conversation back to them.
Alcohol’s connection to journalism is going to stick around. And that’s OK. Journalists have famously produced great stories after getting a tip while boozing with sources. Thousands of amazing story ideas came from batting them around at the bar after people have thrown back a few.
Just know that not everyone partakes in the same beverages you do, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be welcome to the party.
When journalism is more inclusive of people with different backgrounds, different upbringings, different habits, our journalism gets better. And that should be our never-ending goal: to make our journalism as good and inclusive as we can.
Andy Boyle is a Chicago-based writer, comedian and web developer. He currently works for NBC’s Breaking News. On Twitter: @andymboyle