AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Becoming Part of the Story   

Longtime Los Angeles Times staffer Geraldine Baum leaves journalism to work for a nonprofit. Tues., February 14, 2012.

By Carl Straumsheim
Carl Straumsheim (@cfstraumsheim) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

Geraldine Baum is no stranger to the changing world of journalism, but as the self-styled "Geraldine 2.0," she is leaving the industry altogether.

On January 27, the veteran Los Angeles Times reporter and bureau chief announced she was moving on. As the new senior vice president for communications and marketing for the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Baum says she will use the skills she learned as a journalist to help revitalize communities across the U.S. "As reporters, we spend a lot of time pointing out inequities―how things are broken―and I was fascinated by this group that's trying to fix things," Baum says.

Last year, LISC invested about $1.1 billion in affordable housing and community programs, according to the nonprofit's Web site. Baum says was drawn to the idea that her work would affect people in a more direct way than her writing―or, as she put it, that she would be able to "tell the story that I was, for once, a part of."

"But I'm still a journalist in the way I think," she adds.

Baum, 56, kicked off her career in journalism after graduating from Northwestern University in 1977, taking a position as a reporter for the Miami Herald. About a decade later, she was armed with a degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the post of Newsday's national religion writer on her résumé.

Then came a fateful lunch interview on K Street with Jack Nelson, at the time chief of the Los Angeles Times' Washington bureau. Red wine was involved.

"I was in gesturing mode, making some point, and―boom!―the wine went all over his powder blue suit," Baum says. "I called my husband and said, 'There's no way I'm getting this job.' "

Nelson must have known a good dry cleaner. Impressed with Baum, he brought her into the Washington bureau in 1989. She became the only bureau journalist writing exclusively for the paper's features section, "View," profiling U.S. ambassadors to the Middle East as the Persian Gulf War raged.

During her 23 years at the Times, Baum bounced back and forth between Washington and New York, and she also spent four years as head of the newspaper's Paris bureau. The roles she played were no less diverse: book critic, columnist―even fashion writer ("God help me!" Baum says).

"I always joked .. that I was a foreign correspondent, because I was always trying to explain New York to Los Angeles or Washington to Los Angeles," she says. "Being a national correspondent, you write for all sections of the paper. But unlike my brave colleagues, I've never been to a war zone."

Nor has Baum ever worked in Los Angeles. "One thing I'll never forget is how incredibly important the newspaper is and has been to the West," she says. "But sometimes people on the East Coast don't get that it's a national newspaper."

Baum currently lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with her husband, Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of the Associated Press, and two freshmen: Ben, 19, at Northwestern and Louisa, 15, at the Bronx High School of Science.

While Baum chose to leave the L.A. Times, she is staying in New York, the city where she has covered some of her most memorable stories, including the indictment of Dominique Strauss-Khan. former managing director of the International Monetary Fund; the crash landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River; and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

For the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Baum and the L.A. Times shared excerpts from a diary she had used to take down frantic interviews and her own thoughts. "Frankly, I forgot tons of stuff," Baum says. "My diary was really my guide back to that day."

A meticulous note-taker, Baum says she always asks her interviewees for their cell phone numbers (and, more recently, whom they follow on Twitter). Her notes led her back to the places she encountered on 9/11―some of which had vanished.

Baum has recently embraced social media and used Twitter – which she calls a "phenomenal reporting tool" – to learn more about the people she was covering. "I always wonder what 9/11 [would have] been like with Twitter," she says.

Baum's anniversary piece ends with a reflection on the trinkets from that day saved by the people she interviewed. While she eventually threw out the shoes she wore as she scrambled around lower Manhattan, Baum keeps another memento in addition to her diary: a bright green metal hook created by a missing member of local fire station she profiled on September 12.

"It really symbolized what was lost," Baum says. "It represented to me how special people are to each other.... It was a physical representation of the loss of an individual to a family."

Baum says one of the main things she will miss about the Times is the collegial atmosphere she encountered in all its bureaus. "So many of the stories I did were big efforts that involved not just me and my byline, but working with other people," she says. "We had teams of people who all had the same goal: journalism. You really felt it around the conversations."

Baum also praised the Times for allowing writers to experiment with structure and voice, and says she regularly hears from former colleagues who claim to have written some of their best work for the newspaper even years after leaving it―a sentiment she might find herself echoing in a few years.

"I think that the L.A. Times is a truly phenomenal news organization and remains one of the best in the country, and I loved working there," Baum says. "And I'm excited about my new adventure."