The Ups and Downs of a Career in Journalism

Last Updated Aug 29, 2007 11:32 AM EDT

newsroom.jpgIt would be interesting to know what percentage of news-editorial students immediately abandon ship on a journalism career after getting their first taste of the meager wages. I certainly retreated in horror (as a fresh college grad) when confronted by the reality of a starting newsroom salary.

I think it's safe to say that folks that stay the course and do this for a living have a different (and certainly less materialistic) outlook on life. I'm always wondering what that career would have been like (aside from the constant low-wage shackles). I got a few (anonymous) thoughts from a friend who was a long-time reporter.

Why do smart people go into jobs as journalists?
I think by far the main motivation is to make the world a better place. When you're young, successful in school, and you've been achieving and have survived typically four years of liberal arts education at a good university and *totally* empathize with the downtrodden of the world, you want to do something about it. Celine would NOT be the favorite author of aspiring newbie reporters.
Related to this would be the interest to be 'real' and somehow connect with working class and poor people. Certainly at most top tier pubs, the fortunate entry level hire (lightning can strike and you *can* score some kind of reporting gig at the LA Times, NY Times, Forbes, etc... right out of, typically, an elite university) loves the idea of immersing himself or herself into the hoi polloi. A weird kind of intellectual slumming.
After changing the world to be a better place, another motivation is just to get paid to write. If you have any writing talent, it's a lot of fun to get paid for this work.
Next up is the pure intellectual challenge of reporting and writing on different things every day that are complex to sort out and make interesting and comprehensible to general readers. It's a mental rush every day if you're any good.
One of the lesser motivations, for good starting reporters, is the ego rush of the byline. The first few times it's almost like sex just to see your name in print. But after awhile that mostly goes away.
So where does this end? Typically, for the daily newspapers where I toiled, the end game is a newsroom choked with cynical burned out mid-30 somethings reduced to writing the same story over and over. It's true. Apartment fires, city council votes, elections, you name it, all follow a pretty typical pattern. At its most extreme, I recall one smart-ass reporter at the LA Times creating a template for different news stories. You just plugged in a few facts in the blanks and the story wrote itself.
You also realize that even teachers make more money than you do.
The labor/management model is right out of the 19th century.
Publishing does not know how to develop talent. So typically a great reporter may get promoted to an editor's job and the publication loses a great reporter and gains a lousy editor. The skills are quite different. But cheap publishers never invested in making this somehow work. Publishing seemed to attract a lot of first-rate young talent on the editorial side but a lot of 2nd and 3rd raters on the business side. After 10 years in a newsroom you finally see all this and for most it's the right time to flee into more lucrative and rewarding careers, particularly if you dared to breed and need to take care of your family financially and emotionally.
Look at the WSJ. Almost 20 years of being poorly run had consequences. The lousy management/ownership team cashed in big-time thanks to Murdoch. but now a ton of terrific reporters are stuck working for a guy who puts naked ladies on the third page of some of his English papers to boost circulation. Ironically, he'll almost certainly prove to be a more capable and enlightened owner than the beloved numbnuts who sold the reporting/editing staff down the river. Murdoch is a smart guy who appreciates the value of the Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal brand and he'll invest in smart ways to make it much more successful than the Bancrofts and other Dow Jones leeches who sucked the place dry of dividends for decades.
Image courtesy of Florian's photostream on flickr creative commons.