There’s an interesting discussion going on over on Linked In among journalists about whether, if they knew what they know now about the industry, would they do it all over again? Would they still become journalists if given the chance to do something else?
As a journalist who has been out of work for a year now, the profession has left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth and my initial response to the question is a resounding HELL NO! But a more rational response would be: No, but let me explain why.
First, let’s start with why I got into the business in the first place and its many upsides. As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, I’ve always loved to read and I dreamed of one day writing my own novels that would fly off bookstore shelves into the arms of loving readers. I imagined my name, G. Robert Frazier, on the spine of books between the likes of authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Grisham. Many times I would put my finger in the space between books in the store and say, “That’s where my book is going to go.” (I still do that from time to time, even noting whether the space is on a shelf that’s eye-level or on the bottom row.)
With that goal in mind, I wrote my first three novels while in high school. I used reams of notebook paper, bought for the purpose of doing homework, to scribe my novels instead. My study periods and lunch periods became my writing periods. I wrote all the time. (I don’t know if this is a blessing or curse, but I didn’t have many friends in high school to speak of since we moved around a lot as a family. I went to three different high schools. So, instead of friends, I had my books.)
And, yes, I wrote with a pen. Not a typewriter. Not a word processor.
As graduation neared and thoughts turned to what I wanted to study when I entered college, writing was clearly the answer. I worked on the newspaper while in high school and enjoyed writing stories about people and events. I enjoyed seeing my byline. So, it became clear that one way to write and make a living writing was to study journalism. That way, I would be doing something I like while getting paid and I could write my novels on the side.
I didn’t know then what I know now.
Journalism is a grueling task master. It is work. Hard work. Long hours. Low pay. And it is largely a thankless business.
Yes, there were numerous times that the work excited me. Where else could you interview U.S. senators, governors, and celebrities? What other job gave you access to major sporting events and concerts, simply in exchange for a short article about the event? Over the years, I covered everything from government budget meetings to elections, from business openings to closings, from murders to burglaries, from Bonnaroo to Mule Days, from NASCAR to college sports. My byline in the early days ran the gamut, to be sure.
I sometimes lamented about the long hours and the piss-poor pay, but I was good at what I was doing. I built a solid reputation of fairness and accuracy in my reporting. I was a respected and award-winning journalist among my peers. What’s more, I was writing important stories that mattered to people.
The profession eventually took me into the editor’s office where I eventually became a managing editor of the newsroom. Now, instead of chasing stories and writing them on deadline every day, I was working with reporters on their stories. I assigned stories, I edited stories, I coordinated story layouts with designers, etc. And the pay was substantially better than when I was a reporter.
Throughout this, I continued to grow with each new role. I picked up new skills along the way. Editing. Layout and design. Management and personal skills.
Incredibly, I worked even longer hours. And when I got home, my mind was still working. I watched and devoured the news. I constantly looked for new stories, new angles, new things to do and how to bring those things down to a local level. Even when I was on vacation, my mind was at work. I was obsessed with emails and press releases and news, news, news. It was my life. I hated it, and I loved it at the same time.
And then, of course, the bottom fell out.
The industry took a turn, thanks in large part to the great recession of 2008 and big corporations’ love affair with the digital future. I somehow survived round after round of personnel cuts for several years.
Until last year.
It was my time. Middle managers like myself were being eliminated left and right in the name of restructuring. The newspaper industry had become enamored with the idea that it could make more money by posting more videos to its websites than it could with good, old-fashioned investigative stories. Reporters were being asked to not only write stories for the newspaper, but for the website. They were expected to shoot their own pictures with their smart phones. They were told to shoot and edit videos. They were even told to edit their own stories. (All for the same lousy pay, mind you.) And with reporters doing all that, there simply was no room for so many editors at the paper, especially the ones making good money.
I should make mention here that during this entire career, aside from a short stint in the early 2000s, I was not writing any fiction. My dream of becoming a published novelist had been shoved aside by my career. I was making a living, yes, but I was also drowning in my work.
Now that I’ve been out of the profession for a year (the layoff happened one year ago this month), I’m happy to be free of it. I’m happy to finally have a chance to do what I’ve always wanted to do: write fiction. I’m working on a mystery-thriller novel. I’m writing short stories again. And I’m actively learning the craft of screenwriting. I have several ideas in the works.
So, now back to the big question. Given what I know now about the profession of journalism, would I do it all over again?
While there are numerous reasons to say yes as I’ve described above, there are also ample reasons to say no. I sincerely wish instead that I hadn’t let journalism become my life. I wish I had devoted more time to my own writing dreams. The long hours, low pay and heartache that is the world of journalism is something that I would not wish upon anyone. Some people may have the notion that they are doing good, valuable things as a journalist. That’s true, to an extent. But the question is, is it what you really, really want to do?
In my case, the answer is no. I don’t lament the real-world experiences I’ve gained. I’ve met fascinating people and written incredible stories. Some of that is likely to inspire my fiction. So in that sense, it was time well-spent. But, if I had to do it over again? Nope. I’d stick to my original guns. I’d write.
The layoff from my job has given me a chance to do just that. I’m writing. I’m not turning back.
What about you? Given what you know about your profession and your dreams, what would you do different if you had a chance to do it over again? I’d love to hear your comments.
My dad once said to me that he would rather I became a prostitute than a journalist. It’s a phrase which has rather stuck in my memory – and no – I didn’t become either! 😉
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