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TNTJ: For young journalists, it’s all about attitude

(This is a post from the new young journalist’s blog ring, Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists. The topic was, “The biggest challenge facing a young journalist in today’s media is…” Click that link, btw, to read what other young j-bloggers have to say about this. I linked to some of their ideas in the second graf as well.)


I am late to the game on this, but I was off the grid for a couple days at corporate database training.

Wait, what? I thought young journalists are all self-taught and nobody respects you enough to care about whether you improve. And isn’t corporate killing journalism? And databases on the web, the curmedgeons wouldn’t approve of such new-fangled, innovative ideas.

Yet, I swear the company paid to send me and another young reporter (and about two dozen others from this region) to learn about computer-assisted reporting and database reporting from IRE teachers. It was awesome. And I can’t wait to apply what I learned to my beat.

Before I left, I thought about what I would say here. Certainly, every one of those points alluded to and stated in the previous posts in this ring crossed my mind. They all have validity. But after reading or at least skimming the other TNTJs’ posts and thinking about this during the 5-hour drives and over dinner with my fellow trainees, here’s what it comes down to for me:

The biggest challenge facing young journalists today is attitude. Our attitudes. Our professors’ attitudes. Our bosses’ attitudes. Our readers’ and our sources’ and our parents’ and our friends’ attitudes. It’s all about attitude.

The problem is we’re all too damn pessimistic.

Our parents and our friends wonder, whether they verbalize it or not, why we would want a low-paid profession with crappy hours and low prestige. If you have computer skills multiply this thought by about 1,000, because that’s how many times you’ll have to defend the decision to forgo untold riches to instead hold governments accountable (long nights in boring meetings included) and get to experience the things most people only read about (six-alarm fires in sub-zero temperatures fall in this category, too).

Our professors and our bosses and our sage co-workers will either love us for our enthusiasm or try to douse that spark with a dose of reality. In either case, be prepared for history lessons about “the good old days” and bring a Snickers for those trips through Nostalgia Lane. You shouldn’t feel guilty that they didn’t have Google or digital cameras. Your job is not easier because you do. Those are tools that allow you to do more accurate, more detailed journalism quicker. (Not necessarily “better journalism,” but the same things quicker, definitely and with a sophistication they couldn’t have had.) You are probably writing/producing more than your peer of a few decades ago and for more media to boot, all with quicker turn-around. Or, as my editor once put it to us when we were grousing in the middle of the office, “I was way lazier than you guys when I was a reporter.” It made me laugh and feel better. But the difference is, he may have been able to afford a little slacking. We can’t afford complacency. Our future, both our jobs and our industry, is on the line.

But we, young journalists, are just as guilty of pessimism, even if we haven’t yet (and we hope never do) become as jaded or cynical as the co-workers we bitch about in our blogs.

I have pretty much given up reading Romenesko. I understand why it’s so enticing. But it’s too depressing.

When I was about to graduate, I just knew I would never find a job. I lost so much sleep obsessing about how I’d end up flipping burgers, just a waste of talent and intelligence. I shouldn’t have worried. I was editor of my 10K circulation daily student newspaper. And I had professional experience, decent clips and all the skills employers say they want, coupled with an eagerness to learn and a geographic blank slate limited only — and I said it exactly like this to the corporate recruiters whom I interviewed with — to “any place that pays me enough to live.” Still, I knew I was doomed because I had been diligently reading about dropping circulation, layoffs and buyouts, and scandals that further tarnished the already tenuous credibility of the media. I was so screwed.

Then, about a month before graduation, the first editor called and asked me to drive out for an interview. I can remember the exact moment I realized I had a real job interview. I didn’t quit smiling for weeks. Someone, somewhere (and this was actually a decent-sized somewhere) thought I was at least worth talking to and introducing around. That was a turning point for me. I was hireable. I had skills editors desired. There were actually jobs out there.

That was a year and a half ago. A lot has changed in the industry and for me personally. But I still stand by the fact that every day you wake up and you get to decide whether to perceive the sky as falling, and if it is, how you will react. Somedays are better than others, some more depressing.

It doesn’t feel good when an official who you know makes $124,000 claims that if you spread the number of hours he works out, you (reporter) probably make more than him. Clearly, newspaper reporters are overpaid and don’t work nearly as much as the rest of America. And you’ll roll your eyes through those contract negotiations where teachers with zero years experience, fresh out of college lament the $33,000 starting salary for a 184-day work year, with health insurance and a government pension, as being “underpaid.” You just have to hold your tongue. Yes it is disheartening. Woe is me.

But then there are the days where you know what you do matters. Policies and laws are changed because of what you have written. You do follow-up stories where someone tells you the story you wrote was the catalyst to stay with a program that turned their life around. And strangers stop you on the sidewalk or in the halls to thank you for your work or tip you off to something you’d never have found. Occasionally, in a public meeting, officials refer to the story you broke and compliment you on a story well done — even when this story portrays them negatively, they acknowledge it was “fair.” Often, their questions to administrators are prefaced with, “I read in the paper…” No this isn’t my imaginary utopia. Every example here is first-person, my own experience. They are the yang to the disheartening, depressing yin.

Being optimistic is not going to stop the ship from sinking. It’s not going to pay your salary. It’s not going to exempt you from downsizing or critical comments. But it doesn’t hurt, and it’s a lot more enjoyable. Yes, there are as many reasons (probably more) to be scared about the future as there are reasons to be excited about being part of the generation that gets to shape the future. Reality, to a large extent, is how we perceive it. This doesn’t mean we can selectively ignore the more depressing things (you can, but that won’t fix it). It means, approach those things with a frame of mind that they are a challenge to be overcome not a stumbling block on which to trip and fall. So choose your reality: We can believe journalism is dying and there’s nothing to be done about it. Let the violins play on. Or we can believe that we, journalists young and old, can make it work in some form, some way. We have everything to lose either way. But this is worth fighting for. I say forget the ship, jump in and let’s set about selling the pessimists on our ideas.

Post script:

I love inspirational quotes, as any of my blog readers can attest. So I leave today with the one I have written on a sticky note by my computer as a daily reminder of the importance of attitude: “If you want to be happy, be.” — Leo Tolstoy


Meranda Watling is a 23-year-old reporter covering education for the newspaper in Lafayette, Indiana. She used to read four newspapers a day in print, but today is lucky to find time for one that’s not coded in bits and bytes. She blogs, mostly about journalism, at MerandaWrites.com. Her friends also worry about the amount of time she spends twittering, even if they obsessively read her updates.

One Response to “TNTJ: For young journalists, it’s all about attitude”

  1. Greg Linch Says:

    From one optimist to another, very well said. I especially like how you cut it down to the very simple answer (attitude). I tried to do something similar in my post about uncertainty.

    We know the obvious problems that have been restated over and over, but I think we need to acknowledge and assess the more basic issues before we can tackle the other problems.