Melody Kramer: ‘I’ve had to reframe in my head what my journalism career is’

January 13, 2019
Category: Business & Work

This is one of 15 profiles in our series on journalism’s last decade. For the rest of the stories, visit “The Hardest Decade in Journalism?

In 2008, Melody Kramer was working at her first real journalism job as an associate producer, writer and director for NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.”

“I had been a Kroc Fellow at NPR, and visited Wait Wait as part of my fellowship,” said Kramer, who now frequently writes for Poynter. “When I showed up, they asked if I was there for the job audition (I wasn’t, but said yes) and by the end of the week it was apparent that it was a good fit. I was incredibly excited to work — I had applied for well over 100 jobs in journalism out of college and got one.”

2008 was a great year to live in Chicago, Kramer said, “because I also acted as a fixer for NPR’s political team and got to cover President Obama’s acceptance speech for local stations as a reporter.”

Now, she’s a senior digital audience manager at Wikimedia Foundation. Here’s what she told us about the past decade:

What were you the most excited about then in your career?

“Wait Wait” was my first real job. (The Kroc had an end date.) I don’t think I was necessarily thinking of a “career” at that point. I was 23, it was pre-Twitter-and-constant-networking and I wasn’t connected to a wider network within journalism. So having a job and living on my own was a pretty big deal.

What were you the most afraid of then in your career?

I’m not even sure I thought of my job as a career at that time. And then in May of 2008, I was in a rollover car accident that smashed my dominant hand. I was able to go back to work for several months — and did, but by the end of the year, it was clear that I needed surgery and rehab, so I quit my job at “Wait Wait” and moved back home with my parents. It absolutely sucked. I went from having a great job and living in Chicago to having no job, doing hand rehab, and living in my childhood bedroom. I was really, really worried that I wouldn’t be able to find another job. I had no idea how to network. I read a lot of genre lit and spent a lot of time on the internet at 2 a.m.

In the last 10 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve had to make in your job?

I have since had – counts on fingers – five jobs since “Wait Wait.” I’ve moved four times. I got married. I had two kids. Relatives got sick and needed to be cared for. And journalism is not exactly set up for that. It’s a passion, it’s a lifestyle, it’s 24/7 and bleeds between work and not-work. We have all of these articles now about women trying to balance and the difficulties of managing everything. So I’ve had to reframe in my head what my journalism career is. I still write. I still report. I still do journalism, mainly in the form of side gigs and writing assignments. But I’ve also said to myself, “It doesn’t have to be your primary job.” And right now, it’s not — even though it is my passion and probably will always be my passion. That means that I’m not invited to speaking gigs or conferences on the regular, and part of me hates, hates, hates that I’m missing out, that my decisions will make it impossible to re-enter the field in the way that 23-year-old Mel didn’t ever have to contemplate. Any maybe it will. But thinking about it drives me crazy.

In the last 10 years, what are the biggest changes you’ve seen journalism go through?

In 2008, I was one of the first people to create a “public figure” account on Facebook for one of my colleagues, Carl Kasell. It was unheard of to do that. We were profiled in the NYTimes for collaborating together on social media. So, social media and the constant mediation of personalities and information on platforms. The layoffs, mergers, shutdowns, hedge fund takeovers, Sinclair et. al. But also, the new voices, the turning away from “What school did you go to?” conventions (hooray!) and the ability to push back. There’s more, but I have a sleeping newborn strapped to my chest and if I don’t answer all of these questions in a timely manner, he’ll wake up and I’ll never finish this assignment.

What are you doing now that you didn’t expect to be doing 10 years ago?

Worrying constantly about whether I’m going to get fired or laid off and be unable to support my family. Saying “no” more. (Twenty-three-year-old me was so excited to be a journalist that I often said yes to things that affected my sanity. Thirty-four-year-old me is able to say no.)

What aren’t you doing now that you did expect to be doing 10 years ago?

I’m not working full-time in journalism at the moment. I live in Carrboro, North Carolina. We intentionally moved here to afford fertility treatment, but that meant also making decisions about my career (and about moving away from the DC/NY corridor.) I love it here. I truly do. But it means thinking about journalism differently. But moving here has also been incredibly helpful for the way I think about journalism.

Looking back, what do you wish you’d done or changed faster?

I wish I had gotten a master’s at some point. I am unable to teach and do research — both of which I absolutely love — because I don’t have a master’s. It’s hard to go back to school with a full-time job and two children. I also wish I had left jobs that were incredibly toxic sooner. Just because something looks good on paper doesn’t mean that it’s good, or a good fit.

What advice would 2018 you give 2008 you?

Be more holistic about your career. You don’t have to fulfill everything with your job. Date more. It’s OK to take time off. Shine theory is the best. A good boss + coworkers > pretty much everything else. You can do great work in for-profits and shitty work in non-profits; stop being a martyr. You can still go to bed before 10 and do good work.

10 years ago, where did you think you’d be now?

I thought I would be a columnist. My dream job is to be a columnist. I was a columnist in college and it sparked my interest in writing and journalism and everything it is I do now. I’m not a full-time columnist. Maybe one day.

Where do you think you’ll be 10 years from now?

I have no idea. Every three to four years of my life in the past decade has been absolutely surprising. I hope I’m finding a way to balance more, and process less. Also I won’t have any newborns so I’ll be sleeping more.

What’s the best thing that’s happened in journalism in the past decade?

The pushback against the establishment.

What’s the worst thing that’s happened in journalism in the past decade?

Twitter, and the need to constantly get likes from peers.

What are you the most afraid of now in your career?

The fact that I can’t attend events/conferences where things happen because I have a toddler/newborn and that dropping out or going sideways means never being able to recover.

What are you the most excited about now in your career?

Thinking about it differently. I absolutely love journalism. I love writing about journalism. Finding new ways to do that and collaborate and amplify others doing that really recharges me.