Some J-Student Therapy

Journalism students having identity crises seem to be visiting my office lately, seeking counsel. Their uncertainty has moved me to write this blog post. I tend to relay one message to them: Despite all the industry turmoil, despite the very real concerns they might not be able to make a living as a professional writer, despite the hard work being a reporter entails, the job of journalist trumps most other jobs I can think of.

I’m not sure what other day-to-day job provides the opportunity to ride along in police cruisers, drive farm tractors, fly model airplanes the size of a classroom, talk to a creator of the Manhattan Project, talk to a creator of the Internet, hang out in emergency rooms, access backstage, effect legislative change, learn how to invest money, meet famous people, sail, fish, network, hear how a woman covered with external benign tumors aimed to make someone laugh every day, interview presidential candidates, know how a town operates, analyze tax code, discover that I could talk to anyone about anything, understand how to find information on just about anyone and anything and then to write a story about it all — on deadline.

(Um. Of course, it also provided me with the opportunity to get shit on by cows, ruin countless pairs of shoes, miss parts of my brother’s wedding, spend Black Friday in the middle of Wal-Mart, wallow in an empty newsroom on Christmas Day, get my car broken into doing a story in a bad part of town, be lied to often, endanger myself trying to chase the police chase, and — the worst worst days — write sad, sad stories about death. But even these situations taught me something, each and every one: never wear white to a farm, carry extra boots in my car, videotape weddings, bring my checkbook to work on Black Friday, host Christmas the next day, buy anti-theft devices, learn how to spot a liar, drive fast well, and develop empathy and compassion for my fellow human beings.)

Don’t get me wrong: I love my new career as a professor. I find infinite satisfaction in teaching and enjoy immersing myself as a researcher. I fancy that I can make something of a difference investigating the industry by providing pragmatic recommendations. Still, as a journalist, my faith in humanity was alternatively destroyed and rebuilt — often in the span of a single day. It was worth all the sad paychecks and long work days and professional instability and corporate politics.

Dear students, please try it out. Take a chance, if only for a little while. I don’t think you will be disappointed. And in the process, our democracy might grow just a wee bit healthier for your decision.

4 comments

  1. Amy Karon

    How lovely! This post boosts my spirits after a couple rough weeks of investigative reporting – thank you. It sounds like you had some terrific beats and stories. I agree, it’s an amazing profession – 10 weeks doing it in Milwaukee showed me people and places I couldn’t have seen there otherwise in 10 years.

  2. jamshidi

    It is beautiful and powerful to have an access to a politician, to go after a controversial story, to dig into piles of documents hoping to find the line you want for your story. Yet, it is damn hard. I know that you know writing is hard. In order to write a paragraph of two sentences, each sentence 25 to 30 words, you, as a journalist, have to spend several hours. You have to go after sources, convince them to come into the light, go on the record, be your evidence, you have to find a way to approach the story from a different angle, you have to do …. At the end, you just have a story. only one story to tell. then you ask yourself, does this much trouble really worth?
    I have always convinced myself that it would worth. but my answer is getting more and more skeptical after I see too much changes in the industry. I wonder when I can adjust myself with the industry’s fast-past change. the kind of changes that are not very promising.

    • mediatrope

      I hear you, Saideh! There are definitely days and weeks when I wonder about the output vs the reward. But I encourage you to consider the bigger picture as well: it may just be one story to you, but to the people you write about, it is everything. They will talk about it for years! And systematic coverage of a beat can often result in real change on political and cultural levels as well. I truly believe that.

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