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

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.

8 Responses to “Selling out in journalism, and why I don’t think I ever will”

  1. Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Tuesday squibs Says:

    […] Selling out in journalism, and why I don’t think I ever will. Folks like Meranda are the future of the craft. The present, too. […]

  2. Cool Links #2 (With some not-so-cool links) « TEACH J: For Teachers of Journalism And Media Says:

    […] Meranda Writes – about a journalism sell out.  I can’t tell if she pities him, hates him wants to be him or doesn’t know.  I too was a journalism sell out, I left for the better hours and better pay.  But at least I still teach journalism.  But in today’s market I still can’t blame j-students who become dissatisfied with the state of journalism today.  Many who have decent web or video skills can find better pay and working conditions at Web 2.0 startups or in PR.  Or if they are really crazy they can start their own online biz – Drudge Report, Grammar Girl, Huffington Post, need I say more? Posted in Design, Journalism, Newspaper/Magazine, Video, Web. […]

  3. Charles on… anything that comes along » Why some sell out and others don’t Says:

    […] Fascinating stuff over at Meranda Watling’s blog – she’s a local journalist in Ohio – watching a colleague who joined a year after her (and she’s only been there a couple of years max) go off to a super-well-paid job in government: […]

  4. Kate Martin Says:

    Meranda, just saw your post and I completely agree with it. It’s frustrating for me to see reporters going through the motions and doing the bare minimum to get a paycheck when there are so many people out there who would die to have that job.

  5. MikeB Says:

    Face it, not everybody who goes into any line of work is cut out for it. People change jobs all the time. I’ve been in the biz 31 years. Pay isn’t great, working conditions could be better, but the job satisfaction is high. Why do I stay (yes, I can do other things)? I can’t imagine doing anything else. Worked for both family-owned paper and corporate. Both had good, bad, up down. I just love what I do, have done and will do (done it all, writing, copyediting, rewrite, designing, columnist, photo, enjoyed it all). Can’t ebven imagine doing flackery, pencil-pushing, or any other ‘sell-out” routine.

    They’ll have to carry me out on a “turtle” (For all you younger journalists, look it up. It is an old newspaper term)

  6. Brad King Says:


    As someone who’s worked 14 years (and counting) in and around the profession, there’s another more frightening reason for the young brain drain: lack of innovation.

    I’ve worked as a journalist in Ohio, SF and Boston — and in every place, I felt the frustration — and sometimes managed the frustration — as we tried to implement modern technologies that would allow reporters to tell better stories and engage with the readership, only to have management shut them down.

    The fact is the day of the story being the primary driver of information is over. We now need to provide tools and data — and many reporters reject that notion because they still believe a one-to-many source is the best way to reach people.

    Stories are important, but if you truly care about the profession and the community, you want to provide them tools to engage and interact.

    When that does happen, the best and brightest find their way to professions that allow them to do that.

  7. Claire Says:

    Wow – little bit arrogant are we?

    There is nothing wrong with people having different goals, different interests, different desires as far as careers go. Just because someone decides working in daily reporting – where the pay is low, the hours long – does not necessarily constitute “selling out.” Working in news works well for you, which is a good thing – the world needs dedicated reporters. But save us the sanctimony – your pursuit is not more meaningful than that of the former reporter who goes into PR. The world needs all kinds of people – including those who are tolerant of others and don’t judge others for making the choice that is best for them.

  8. Meranda Says:

    @Claire — I wasn’t trying to be arrogant. As I hope you read in my post, I completely agree with my former co-worker’s desire to leave. He hated his job. He SHOULD leave, for both his sake — he can and now will get paid more to hate his job elsewhere — and the community’s — this isn’t a job you can do well if your heart isn’t in finding and telling the stories of your community.

    I was merely commenting on my reasons for staying, and “why I don’t think I ever will” sell out. (And you can split hairs on my use of the phrase sell out, but it’s hard to argue with it to mean leaving this entire profession to go work for higher wages filling out paperwork for the government. If you have a better term for it, I’ll hear it.) It’s not that I feel morally better or superior or any of those things. If anything, I’m jealous. Jealous that he doesn’t have the need to do this, that he can take an easier or at least more profitable road and not feel like a sell out or feel like he’s missing his calling. I’m not judging him, I’m reflecting on the things that keep me doing this when other options exist.