“Are you sure you want to be a journalist?”
This is a transcript of the opening remarks I made during a guest lecture for an assembly of soon-to-be-graduating journalism students at the University of Texas at Tyler:
Hello there… before I begin, I just want to say one thing: don’t do it for the money.
I know, right? You’ve probably had this beaten into your heads enough by now — either by your world-weary professors or earnest hacks in the industry like me. But seriously, I want to go ahead and put that out there: don’t do it for the money.
In an industry that most people consider on the brink, money is always tight. Printing costs, staff salaries, advertising sales decline… Almost all aspects that go into the simple service of providing news to the community is taxing on everyone affiliated with the paper. As romantic as it may seem to live the life of a writer, very few make the sort of money that leads to the cushy life that many a movie has portrayed.
Now, if writing is what you’ve always wanted to do then do not be disheartened. However, if you’re going into the industry not knowing whether you fully want to commit, I’d like to provide a fair warning. So, here are a few things to consider before deciding to become a journalist.
1.) Not all news is interesting.
The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and all of the other large media outlets you can name make covering the news absolutely enjoyable. I mean, a community reporter would be incredibly lucky to have the budget to cover a presidential debate, let alone an Iowa caucus or New Hampshire Primary. If you’re one of the incredibly lucky ones who is able to find employment at a large media outlet, then fantastic.
However, covering a community doesn’t provide the same excitement day-in, day-out. When the large scoop comes your way, grab it, because most of the time a community paper reporter will see and cover the same, handful of prominent “newsmakers” in the community (many of whom are far more “normal” than the likes of a Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, or Newt Gingrich).
I have to say that there are gems of stories out there in a small community — you’ll get the biggest buzz from beating the large news organization to a story. Oh, and when they ask you to help them with their story… Oh, yeah, that’s the good stuff. But be humble. You never know when you might need their help on another story.
2.) Be prepared to be outshone.
You will not guess the number of times a reporter from a large paper has attended an event that our community paper is also covering and proceeds to get everyone’s attention. Now, journalism is not at all about getting attention, in fact, I cannot stand it when reporters are shuffling around important community meetings, disrupting the flow of the proceedings, just to get their “perfect shot.” More than once I’ve actually had to call someone out on this. Their guileless expressions always surprise me. “What?! You mean I can’t shove my handheld recorder into the mayor’s face for 45 minutes?” Journalists report the news, we aren’t in it.
Once again, there are those special moments when being a part of a small, community newspaper has its benefits, though. After a few weeks on the job, community members begin to recognize who you are, meaning they’ll send you stories that they, perhaps, don’t feel confident in sending to a larger media outlet. Many special stories have been found this way.
3.) Be flexible, be very flexible.
About four years ago I got a part-time job at my local paper covering high school football games for $25 a pop, with the added bonus of a press credential (so I could get into the games for free). I took pictures also, so that was a $15 bonus. A few weeks later the editor there asked if I wouldn’t mind covering a school board meeting. I made $40 for the story, with an added $15 bonus because I took a couple serviceable shots of the event. This led to a reporter job.
During my time as a reporter, I learned everyone else’s job. I could do layout, build pages, and anything else that needed doing. I volunteered for jobs others didn’t want to do. I made myself indispensable. This led to a promotion to News Editor about two years ago.
As a News Editor, I continued to learn. I expanded my skillset Taking on more and more responsibilities from the Managing Editor until, last Autumn, I took his job. The point I’m trying to make is that you need to be constantly evolving, and never allow yourself to become marginalized or pigeonholed into one specialty. Journalism is evolving and changing. The days of the specialized newsroom are drawing to a close. Whatever form of media you work in, you need to be multidimensional.
Those of you wanting to work in TV, you better know how to operate a camera and edit video. Having a pretty face won’t do you any good if you can’t operate the machinery. On-the-spot film crews are seldom more than one person anymore. Better hit those aerobics ladies, cause chances are you’re gonna be lugging a 50-pound camera around.
Those of you wanting to work in radio, you better get good at selling advertising, because you’ll be expected to do so. Also, bone up on your sports terminology, because you’ll likely get your start covering middle school volleyball games in Palookaville. Also, you need to be conversant with podcasting and how to promote your format via the Internet, because people just aren’t getting their news from radio anymore.
That goes double for you wanting to work at newspapers. The newspapers of the future are going to resemble blogs, and will be updated in real time. Get familiar with the technology, and stay ahead of the curve. Newspapers aren’t go anywhere anytime soon, especially in smaller markets. Small-town papers are actually doing quite well right now — at least, ours is. But newspapers aren’t dying. After all, someone has to do all the reporting to give the TV people something to read off the teleprompter.
4.) Again. Don’t do it for the money…
…because there is none.
I’ll cop to this much: I make a dang good living. I’m married with five young children and we live comfortably within our means. See, I’m management, so I do okay. But starting out, you’re gonna be making a meager wage. The upside is most places will give you all the overtime you want because the hourly rate is so lousy. Which is sorta like being fed only bread and water, but at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Still… the perks are many. Right now I can place a call to just about any elected official and, provided I have a legitimate-sounding reason, I’ll get through. If I leave a message for a senator or judge, they’ll call me back within the hour. At a car wreck, I can just walk up to the ranking law enforcement official and get the full breakdown of what happened. On a given day, thousands of people are reading my interpretation on current events. That’s a humbling sense of power.
Journalism is one of the most important and personally fulfilling jobs you can do. You are authoring the first draft of history with every trivial event. You can tell the story of a people and a time with every article you publish.
My hope and prayer is that you see this as nothing short of a calling, and treat it accordingly.
I wish you well.