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Archive for March 31st, 2008

Selling out in journalism, and why I don’t think I ever will

Monday, March 31st, 2008

I’ve commented before about people leaving the journalism profession for greener pastures.

I think I’ve encountered more people who say, “I used to be a journalist,” than I actually know personally as working journalists. I mean they’re in all walks of life, everyone from teachers and house wifes to lawyers and business owners. And that’s not to mention the PR workers who’ve fled this biz.

Yet today I was still a bit surprised and saddened when I learned that one of the other young reporters who works with me is “selling out” to go shuffle paper for the federal government — making almost more money in his first year than I’ll likely make after a decade.

Really, I shouldn’t be surprised. I like the kid — a kid, I guess, just like me; in fact, he started here part-time about the time I did and just graduated last May — and he did the job well. But the thing was, it was just a job. He showed up, got his assignments, did them without complaining (my editor loved this) and went home.

So, when I asked him today why he decided to take the other job (aside from the obvious pay increase and daytime hours, lack of weekends, lack of people yelling at you or returning your calls, shorter commute, etc.), he was pretty blunt. Basically, he said, “If I’m going to hate my job, I might as well be well compensated.” Not that his job was terrible or that he didn’t like it, but he said he could only cover so many CAFO meetings where no one would talk to him. Plus, he said he’s resigned himself to the fact that he won’t like any job. But he figures, it’s only eight hours a day.

I laughed at his bluntness. And then I pondered, “I could sell out for that much money.” And he was quick to reply, “No you couldn’t.” To which I protested, “Why not?” And his reply, which kind of cements the difference between me and a lot of journalists, “How many posts have you made on happyjournalist?”

I guessed two posts. But he corrected me, three. He had read them all, apparently. He’s a bigger fan of angryjournalist. But that’s another point entirely.

The differences between this reporter and myself span much more than the month and a half age difference, the colleges where we earned our degrees or the states we claim as our homes.

There is something fundamental that many working journalists don’t get: You can’t just “do” journalism. You have to want to effect change — however small and however many unreturned phone calls or boring meetings it takes. You have to care about the community you cover, whether it’s a topic or a geographic region or both. You need to have a purpose. You have to believe in it.

If you don’t take it to heart, then you’re not going to enjoy journalism. Those meetings will just be three hour wastes of your youth, and the stories you write, just another byline to fill your quota. You’re not going to be happy. And you know what, my soon-to-be-former colleague is absolutely right: If you’re going to hate your job, you may as well be paid well to hate it. Or as I often say, “I’m not paid enough to hate my job.”

As for me, I think he was right. I care too much, almost to a fault. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Journalism could use more people who care. It’s the people who believe in it who will make sure it outlasts whatever technological shift the world endures, and who will figure out a way to see the work we do persists, stays relevant, and, hopefully, thrives.