Surviving as a journalist

After seeing the latest journalism movie, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” a friend and I ended up talking about career plans. I also saw “Spotlight” with this friend, so journalism has come up a lot. We talked about what we planned for our lives at 22 or 23 and where we ended up.

I finished grad school just as newspapers were starting to create websites, and though I had one class that touched on web design, the bulk of my classes focused on in-depth and investigative reporting. I imagined getting hired at a small paper on the East Coast and gradually working my way up to larger papers.

I married Greg at 23, and he was still in grad school in Illinois, so my plan went off the rails from the start. Still, I did work at a newspaper, and I loved my job. When we moved to Austin, I moved to a larger newspaper, and I still felt I was following a trajectory even if it wasn’t as I had imagined. Then our paper started announcing buyouts and layoffs, and my daughter died, and I began to seriously question my career path.

I read two stories over the weekend that sum up the current state of journalism. One is about the increase in very young political reporters. The story talks about how these reporters do a great job on the campaign trail because they are energetic and willing to constantly be on social media. They aren’t tethered to spouses or children and can work long hours. This story depressed me, most notably when one of the reporters, age 26, disputed that she was young.

We need young journalists, and we need reporters who are skilled with social media because that is how people get their news. Still, the story points to a major problem. Older people are being driven out of journalism, and in this case, older could be anyone over 30. Young reporters are touted as being media savvy, but most people in their 30s and 40s have the same knowledge. Young people will work long hours for lower salaries.

The question that the story doesn’t ask is: What happens when you pass 30 or 35? What happens when you want to build a life outside of work? There will always be a fresh supply of 20-somethings willing to work really hard for low pay.

The second story I read delved into that. The reporter talked to some of the journalists who have been pushed out of the industry. The story notes that there were 55,000 full-time journalists at newspapers in 2007, and there were 32,900 in 2015. That is a lot of layoffs, and that is a lot of knowledge lost.

The people interviewed have moved on to driving for Uber, opening businesses, or going back to school. A few attempted a freelance career but couldn’t survive on the income. I identified with that.

Journalism feels like my hobby. Freelance pay is so low that I can’t make a living. I can, however, make a living writing for other, more commercial outlets. A rational person would quit journalism all together. I believe too much in the work to completely drop out. I could lament the fact that so few people are willing to pay for good journalism, and I do sometimes. But I’ve had a lot of opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible 10 or 15 years ago.

At times, I’m sad that my plan went so far off track. Other times, I’m swept up by the possibilities. What will I be doing in five years? I have no idea, and I also have a lot of ideas.

2 thoughts on “Surviving as a journalist

  1. I have that same journalism degree. I was on fire when I graduated and spent some time interviewing for online print media and in radio. And while I liked it, I didn’t think it would adapt to MY hope of being married and living somewhere desirable.

    And so, I decided I could use some of my love for writing to teach. It’s considered a “backup job” for so many people who are at least relatively intelligent, but I never saw it that way. Teaching changes constantly and education evolves but still retains the teachers (almost to a fault. Tenure be damned).

  2. interviewing = interning

    I also interned at the Biltmore Hotel in LA in marketing. They offered me a job after a few months and I declined. Turns out I hate marketing.

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