When the world turned upside down, like it did for so many journalists during the Great Recession, it’s nice to know that a dog is still man’s best friend.
That certainly is the case for Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist John Woestendiek, who after 33 years in the newspaper industry, the last seven years with the Baltimore Sun, accepted a buyout in 2008 to write a book, ``Dog, Inc.: The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man's Best Friend’’ , a smartly written book, which met with strong reviews, and explores the curious history of pet cloning, from its roots in a 1928 experiment.
Disheartened by the diminished quality of newspapering, the book was really only a pretext by Woestendiek to mount his exit strategy.
``Like a lot of reporters,’’ Woestendiek tells me, `` I bounced around in hopes of landing in places that were still doing things right, only to see those places cut back to the point of losing important things, like ethics, principles, depth, morale, fun, and the opportunity to write good stories.’’
Between his buyout allotment and the advance he received from the publishing company, Woestendiek was able to write his book, including spending time in South Korea to conduct additional research for the book.
In addition to his book project, soon after leaving the Baltimore Sun, Woestendiek launched his own blog, ohmidog! , essentially an extension of the blog he authored while working at the Sun. Ohmidog is a collection of dog news from around the world, which features original reporting as well. `` Its focus is on the science and wonder of dogs, and the bond we share with them. It tries to be a non-cutesy, non-fluffy website, somewhat hard hitting, and with a distinct animal welfare slant’’ Woestendiek says.
Finding it difficult to immerse himself fulltime in the mundane business side of running a blog, Woestendiek says, at present, he hasn’t been able to monetize the site, though the blog does generate approximately 50,000 visitors a month. While admitting he still hopes to make the blog financially successful without compromising his journalist principles, ``It is more of an obsession and hobby than anything else’’ he tells me.
Like many former print reporters flying solo, the North Carolina native has run into his share of air pockets along the way.
With no newspaper jobs popping up, without health insurance, and with his unemployment checks having run dry, he threw his belonging into storage, moved out of his rental and began traveling with his shelter dog, Ace. Part of his travels through the U.S., included duplicating the route John Steinbeck took 50 years earlier in "Travels with Charley." His journey was chronicled in another website Woestendiek created, ``Travels with Ace’’ . The trip essentially focused on dog-related stops, spanning a year and covered 25,000 miles. `` It was a total blast’’ Woestendiek says.
``All in all’’, Woestendiek explains, ``I found, I could live as cheaply on the go as I did in still life, thanks to mooching off a lot of friends and a few strangers, and thanks to the doors my dog opened for me.’’
From the outset, Woestendiek realized the trip, conducted on a shoestring with Ace, had the makings of another book. Despite not having landed a publisher yet, he continued to pound out the book and is in the process of putting the final touches on it.
After leaving Baltimore and darting off to his native North Carolina, he discovered the apartment that his parents lived in when he was born in Winston-Salem had a ``For Rent’’ sign on it. The apartment was immediately gobbled up by Woestendiek and it’s where he hangs his hat today.
At present, Woestendiek is job-hunting, publisher-hunting, still updating ohmidog! , while periodically engaging in some freelance writing, usually dog related.
Woestendiek tells me he still misses newspapers, or at least the industry that existed before the appalling downsizing took root. `` I miss the camaraderie, the health insurance, the being part of a team. I miss uncovering stuff that needs to be uncovered and telling stories that need to be told.’’
Despite not drawing a handsome salary like he used to, Woestendiek insists he’s doing the same thing: traveling, seeking out stories and telling them -- only without getting paid for it.
Assessing how the newspaper industry lost its way, Woestendiek maintains ``the American attention span has shrunk, and newspapers, while a victim of that, were probably also perpetrators.’’
Though frustrated by the bleak prospects on the job market, Woestendiek has no regrets about taking the buyout when he did.
``I'm glad I made the leap’’ he assured me. ``It made things uncertain, but both despite and because of that, it opened up new avenues, and, in the case of my dog and me, an entire country to explore. Even if my first book sets no sales records, even if my new book doesn't become a book, it was worth it.’’ ``Scary!’’ Woestendiek admits, ``but worth it.’’
In addition to the Baltimore Sun, Woestendiek reported for the Arizona Daily Star, Lexington Herald-Leader, the Charlotte Observer, and Philadelphia Inquirer. It was at the Inquirer where he earned a Pulitzer in 1987 for a series of articles that helped overturn the murder conviction of an innocent 18-year-old man sentenced to life in prison.
A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Woestendiek was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame in 2003. He is a former Knight Fellow at Stanford University, and served as the T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2007.
Woestendiek, 58, and his shelter dog, Ace, currently live and blog in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
February 5, 2013