Why it's still a good time to be a young journalist
When I moved from Baltimore to Dallas seven years ago this month for a one-year internship at The Dallas Morning News, I knew one person in the city. He was my best friend from college at the University of Maryland and he too worked as a reporter at the paper here.
So on my 23rd birthday, days after my arrival and before my first day on the job, that friend took me out for pizza. As a present, he gave me one of his favorite journalism movies, The Paper.
Released in 1994, it’s the story of a New York City tabloid editor, Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), who is described on IMDB as, “a workaholic who loves his job, but the long hours and low pay are leading to discontent. Also, publisher Bernie White (Robert Duvall) faces financial straits, and has hatchetman Alicia Clark (Glenn Close), Henry's nemesis, impose unpopular cutbacks.”
I’m not arguing that a Michael Keaton movie proves anything about the history of newspapers, other than the fact that key themes of former journalist Allyson Bird’s viral blog post, “Why I left news,” are not new.
Long before the internet and social media ruled our industry, we were expected to sacrifice our personal lives and make ourselves available at all hours. And while it’s true that many journalism institutions once had enough cash to bankroll foreign bureaus and cross-country trips for major breaking news, anyone who says they set out in any era to be a print journalist for the money is either lying or delusional.
As White tells j.g. wentworth in one of my favorite scenes of The Paper, “If you try to make this job about the money, you’ll be nothing but miserable because we don’t get the money. Never have, never will.”
I can relate to the burnout, the frustration and the unhappiness that drove Bird to leave journalism. I experience all of those feelings on a regular basis, in part because of the human pain I’ve seen in my newsroom and others around the country in recent years. The same friend who took me out for pizza seven years ago was laid off a few years after that. He’s one of many beloved colleagues who lost their jobs, took a buyout or left the industry for reasons similar to what Bird cited.
Yet for all my peers who have left the industry behind, I have at least as many friends who are blazing paths at The Dallas Morning News and many other publications, including Politico, The Texas Tribune, ESPN, CNN, ProPublica, NPR, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
I know people around my age who have published books, made a decent living as freelance writers or jumped from newspapers to television news and back again. I’ve also enjoyed my own limited success, turning that one-year internship into a full-time job that I maintain today.
None of that really explains why I’m still working for a newspaper, so I’ll try to explain that without sounding too cliche. I’ve enjoyed telling meaningful stories at least as far back as my days on my high school newspaper. The people I’ve been blessed to write about in recent years have changed my life and, hopefully, the lives of some of those people and perhaps even a few readers.
While the number of people who get their hands dirty with newsprint every morning has declined drastically, the potential for my work to reach audiences around the world has never been greater. I often find myself experimenting with new digital journalism tools that did not exist weeks or months earlier. And, yes, some of those same tools are used to produce some damn cute animal pet videos, photos or memes.
That’s what makes it so exciting to be a young journalist today. It’s hard to imagine another time when journalists -- particularly the young and digitally savvy -- had as much opportunity to reshape the nature of what we do through blogs, apps, videos, photos and tweets. John Clanton of the Tulsa World did a great job capturing his own reasons for why he continues to love this business.
Successful digital startups, nonprofits and numerous evolving and innovative newspaper companies (including those previously mentioned) have already proven that there is money to be made in today’s journalistic environment, if not quite the same level of profits as when Keaton was playing a newspaperman. These companies, including my own, have also proven there is an absolute hunger and need for old-fashioned investigative and longform journalism.
Still, I hope very much that veteran journalists take notice of the frustrations of younger journalists and former journalists like Bird. As adaptable and tech savvy as many of us in our 20s and 30s might be, we cannot defy logic. We cannot do more with less and for less money. But we do want to produce meaningful, quality work on multiple platforms. We want to experiment with new tools and we want to learn the skills that could translate to television, radio and the web.
So just as I encourage high school and college journalists to stay the course and push for change, I call on the older veterans of our industry to open their eyes to our ideas and our concerns in more than token ways. It saddens me that young journalists like Bird would choose to leave our industry so soon after starting their careers.
I hope the discussion prompted by her piece is one that we continue to have within the profession so we can find ways to hold on to young journalists like her.