published Sunday, March 31st, 2013

Gerber: Newspapers, a love story

No one gets into journalism to get rich or to have a relaxing career.

OK, network anchors and internationally known correspondents may get rich. Still, in the early days of their careers they, like everyone else — while being drummed in the head about accuracy, checking facts, holding officials accountable, dealing with sources and getting quotes — were also repeatedly told that journalism doesn’t pay much and is a high-stress job.

Most of us get into journalism because it’s a calling, a drive to do something that we think is important, that makes a difference. The hours are crazy, the stress rarely stops and the commitment is huge. We get that.

That’s why a blog post by a former journalist recently went viral and garnered a storm of comments from other former journalists who feel betrayed by the industry they felt compelled to join.

Allyson Bird, who left journalism for a job in public relations, has a long list of complaints about her time as a reporter, ranging from low pay to having to check her email after hours to having to use social media in addition to writing stories.

She writes that “the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied.”

At 28, she was burned out.

She gripes about an editor who called her on vacation because he didn’t think she’d written the story to its potential. And she ridicules newspapers’ use of social media, snarking: “Maybe a newsroom full of fresh-from-the-dorm reporters who stay at their desks, rehashing press releases and working on Storify instead of actual stories, is what will keep newspapers relevant. But I doubt it.”

Bird writes eloquently (it’s a shame she’s no longer a reporter). After I read her post, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Why?

Because I love journalism and I love newsrooms. I get that they’re not for everyone — don’t work in one if you want bankers’ hours or resent after-hours calls — and I get that many have left journalism in recent years, some by their own choice, some because they were let go. I know the business has changed and isn’t finished changing, and that makes people uncertain and doubtful.

I also get that journalism can be hard, demanding work.

But working in a newsroom can be incredibly rewarding. I feel lucky to come to work in a newsroom every day. I felt that way at my first newspaper job, when I got to work at 3 a.m. and worked for less than $6 an hour. More than a decade and a half later, I still feel that way.

It’s true that journalism isn’t the career to pick if money is your top priority. Journalism jobs never make lists of the best-paying jobs (and these days they generally don’t make the list of most respected, either). But like I said, journalists know that going in.

The payoffs come in other ways.

They come when a journalist exposes something society needs to know about — unethical behavior, wasted taxpayer money, abuses of power, failures of government, crime in their community.

They come when people allow journalists to observe their lives and trust reporters to write about the things that they love most (their family, their friends); that they are hurt by the most (their diseases, their failures); that matter to them the most (their causes, their beliefs).

As journalists, we get to explore parts of our communities that most folks don’t see; places that, if not for our stories, most readers wouldn’t know about.

My colleague David Cook recently watched as members of Chattanooga gangs agreed to a peace treaty of sorts after a month of almost daily bloodshed.

Yeah, sometimes we get to do cool and interesting things.

As a reporter, I visited the insides of an operating room and a prison, two places I have so far managed to avoid in real life. I flew over the Gulf of Mexico in a helicopter counting nesting bald eagles and rode deep into the Florida Everglades on a swamp buggy.

I also did plenty of things that were not fun, but still were vital to observe: Watched detectives log evidence at brutal crime scenes, spoke to parents who’d lost a child to a bullet in the brain, trudged through a community of houses with no electricity and no running water, spent time in a neighborhood that had lost far too many residents to AIDS.

I sat through hours and hours of mundane city council and planning-and-zoning meetings. They might not have been exciting but I knew I was responsible for conveying important information that would impact readers’ lives — the people, for instance, who were going to pay higher taxes or live with the new mall that just won zoning approval.

When you work in a newsroom, you get to help create a product from scratch every day — and yes, that’s part of the stress. But you also get to try to do it better each day. You get to know things first (or maybe not quite first, but before lots of others). You rarely get bored because you rarely do the same thing from day to day.

Important people usually return your calls — unless they did something bad and then they tend to avoid you at all costs and act like you’re trying to give them the avian flu.

Still, being a reporter, if you do it right, is hard. You know why? Because it matters.

Like being a nurse is hard. Or a teacher, a cop, a soldier, a social worker. All hard jobs. All jobs that matter, that have an impact on society — and most of which are low paying.

For many journalists, the “vanity of a byline” matters because, in a job that can be a long, hard, tiring slog it means we’re still doing a job that we think is important, that informs our community, that makes a difference.

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anticorp said...

I don't think there is an anti journalist milieu in America. I think there is, and justifiably so, an anti corporate media environment. It is corrupt. It has given over the core values that imbued it with the moniker, the "fourth estate" to the special interests of the profiteering ownership.

Have you ever taken a job only to be horribly disappointed because the demands by management (who must satisfy higher ups) make it impossible to do justice to the job. That is a recipe for stress for a person with a conscience.

The corporate media, trying to be relevant and compete with tabloidization, yellow journalism and agenda driven journalism have the heads of journalists between thumb and forefinger like a grape. They use them for their credentials and discard their used up husks.

I wouldn't want to be you, but your description of Allyson Bird makes me think (with her attitude) she abandoned her calling, as a member in good standing in the death of the legitimate news media.

March 31, 2013 at 11:13 a.m.
jesse said...

Objective journalism has gone the way of the do do bird!

The op-ed page now encompasses the entire media!

April 2, 2013 at 9:04 a.m.
timbo said...

This article was pretty funny coming from anyone at the TFP. It is like Ms. is hallucinating. They must live in their own little world. The journalism "profession" is a joke.

April 3, 2013 at 11:02 a.m.
timbo said...

By the way, Cook is awful.

April 3, 2013 at 3:18 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

At least Cook seems sincere. Harry has been around long enough to know better. Are we ever going to see an apology for his labeling hundreds of thousands in suburban Memphis as racists?

April 3, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.
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