Why I left news

Here I am interviewing a Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue official.

I get asked two questions several times a week, and I brush off both with a verbal swat.

One — because I’m in my late 20s, I suppose – is when are you getting married? And the other, because it seems like small talk, is why did you leave the newspaper?

I could answer both with a single word: Money.

But I usually deflect the marriage subject, wrongly justifying it as an acceptable passing question, with a practical reason: I’m not eager to have children. And I answer the news question with something to which my audience can nod along: “It didn’t seem like a sustainable career path.”

But that’s a cold and detached answer. I don’t feel cold and detached about news, and I only give that response under the assumption that people don’t want to hang around for the full story – ironically, the same reason newspapers aren’t really working anymore.

So here goes. This is the real reason why I left news: I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied.

I started working at newspapers in 2005, the tail-end of the good days. During my first year of work, a Florida newspaper flew me down to the Mexican border to write about cocaine cartel murders back at home. We booked the first available flight, disregarding expense, and arrived before the investigators. That would not happen at a daily newspaper today.

I don’t think the Internet killed newspapers. Newspapers killed newspapers.

People like to say that print media didn’t adapt to online demand, but that’s only part of it. The corporate folks who manage newspapers tried to comply with the whims of a thankless audience with a microscopic attention span. And newspaper staffers tried to comply with the demands of a thankless establishment that often didn’t even read their work. Everyone lost.

People came to demand CNN’s 24-hour news format from every news outlet, including local newspapers. And the news outlets nodded their heads in response, scrambling into action without offering anything to the employees who were now expected to check their emails after hours and to stay connected with readers through social media in between stories.

There was never such a thing as an eight-hour workday at newspapers, but overtime became the stuff of legend. You knew better than to demand fair compensation. If any agency that a newspaper covered had refused to pay employees for their time, the front-page headlines wouldn’t cease. But when it came to watching out for themselves, the watchdogs kept their heads down.

A little more than a month after I left the newspaper, I went to Key West for a friend’s wedding. I realized on the drive home that I had never taken a vacation – aside from a few international trips – without some editor calling with a question about a story. I remember walking down Fifth Avenue in New York on my birthday a few years ago, my cell phone clutched to my ear and mascara running down my face, as an editor told me that he thought the way I had characterized a little girl with cancer needed to be sadder.

To many people, and even to me, part of the draw of news is that it never stops. You wholly invest yourself in a story – until something bigger happens.  The only guarantee in any workday is the adrenaline rush. And even when the story isn’t terribly thrilling, you’ve still got a deadline to contend with, a finite amount of time to turn whatever mess you’ve got into 12 to 15 column inches that strangers would want to read.

The flip side to the excitement is the burnout. You’re exhausted, and you’re never really “off.” You get called out of a sound sleep to drive out to a crime scene and try to talk with surviving relatives. You wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, realizing you’ve misspelled a city councilman’s name. You spend nights and weekends chipping away at the enterprise stories that you never have time to write on the clock.

Everyone works so hard for so long and for such little compensation. The results are dangerous.

We saw it with the Supreme Court health care ruling, as our national news leaders reported the decision incorrectly. We saw it with the Newtown massacre, when initial reports named the suspect’s brother as the shooter. Major news outlets are no better than bloggers if they adopt a policy of getting it out first and correcting it later. They don’t have the money to fend off the resulting lawsuits, and they don’t have the circulation numbers to allow people to lose faith in their product.

Newspapers always have been liberal places where people work hard for little pay, because they believe in the job. They always could empathize with the poor. But pay continues to dwindle to the point that I wonder what kind of person, today, enrolls in journalism school?

I took a pay cut when I moved back from Florida to Charleston, expecting to make up the difference quickly. Instead, I quit my newspaper job at 28, making less money than earned when I was 22.

I can’t imagine anyone outside of an affluent family pursuing a career with so little room for financial growth. And I wonder: Would that well-to-do reporter shake hands with the homeless person she interviews? Would she walk into a ghetto and knock on a door to speak with the mother of a shooting victim? Or would she just post some really profound tweets with fantastic hash tags?

Maybe that’s what people – editors and readers – put at a premium now. 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.

The day I announced my resignation, I had to cover the alcohol ban on Folly Beach. The photographer working the story with me said very little about my decision, except for one heartbreaking statement: “But you were made to do this.”

I had thought so, too. For so long, people had asked me what I would do if my name wound up on a future round of layoffs, if my paycheck were furloughed into oblivion.

I had spent countless hours late at night trolling online for something else that appealed to me. But covering news was the only thing I ever had wanted to do and the only thing I ever had imagined doing.

I started writing stories for my local newspaper when I was 16. I worked seven internships in college, eager to graduate and get into a newsroom. I left school early, school that was already paid for with enough scholarship money that I took home a check each semester, so that I could lug my 21-year-old life to West Palm Beach and work the Christmas crime shift alone in a bureau. And I wouldn’t change that decision for anything.

People in news like to describe a colleague’s departure, especially into a public relations or marketing job, as “going to the dark side.” When word of my resignation traveled through the newsroom, I heard “dark side” references over and over, always with a smile and a wink. I couldn’t help but resent them. But I looked over my cubicle each time and flashed my best Miss America grin instead of the middle finger poised over my keyboard.

I now write for the fundraising arm of a public hospital. Anyone who thinks that’s going to the dark side is delusional. And as my former coworkers ate farewell cake on my last day at the paper, a few of them whispered, “Do they have any other openings over there?”

I don’t know a single person who works in daily news today who doesn’t have her eyes trained on the exit signs. I’m not sure what that says about the industry, but I certainly don’t miss the insecurity.

Sure, it took me a while to get used to my new job. When I go to parties, I no longer can introduce myself as a reporter and watch people’s eyes light up. Instead, I hear how people miss seeing my byline. No one misses it more than I.

News was never this gray, aging entity to me. It was more like young love, that reckless attraction that consumes you entirely, until one day – suddenly — you snap out of feeling enamored and realize you’ve got to detach. I left news, not because I didn’t love it enough, but because I loved it too much – and I knew it was going to ruin me.

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639 thoughts on “Why I left news

  1. How I learned to stop worrying and love the layoff

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  3. L’ha ribloggato su e ha commentato:
    Quanto coraggio in questo post. Sticky Valentines, ex giornalista e attuale scrittrice americana sulla trentina, racconta perché a 28 anni ha deciso di lasciare il lavoro che più ha amato al mondo, quello della “giornalista”. Fondamentalmente, per i soldi. Si leggono tante grandi verità, tra le quali che i giovani giornalisti sono disposti a lavorare per una miseria e con tempistiche assurde solo per la vanità di vedere la loro firma pubblicata sotto un pezzo e che non è internet ad aver ucciso il giornalismo ma che si è ucciso da solo. La ex giornalista con questa metafora: “Le news sono un po’ come il primo amore la cui attrazione fatale ti consuma interamente, fino a che, un giorno, di colpo finisce l’innamoramento e realizzi che è ora di passare oltre”. E’ davvero il caso di dirlo: tutto il mondo è paese.

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  5. You’re wrong, wrong, wrong. As a full-time working daily news reporter at 24, I am so offended. You just defined your bad experience. That’s not everyone’s experience. You left out, very unreporter like of you, all of the context for what makes this job great. But you’re in PR, so I suppose you’re cool with spinning the truth. It’s not the vanity of a byline and the adrenaline that should drive you… It’s the realization that you’re giving voice to people who have no platform. As a newspaper reporter, you’re providing the public with stories maybe they’d rather not read or care to think about until they glance at your gripping lede sentence .and go further. And you’re providing a crucial check-and-balance system on the government and higher officials that makes the wheels of democracy turn. I live a modest lifestyle to accompany my low paying wages but I’m comfortable and I’d never complain. Far more make less. I live comfortably and go to sleep at night knowing everyday, at least I tried to make a real difference and change. This is such a vain post you have here. I can assure you, you most certainly were NOT born to do this. If you were, money would not factor into it. And, you go on to criticize fresh from ” the dorm” college graduates, as if they’re so below you, and in the same breath gloat about your 7 college internships and scholarships. Wow, aren’t we so amazed by you. And what is so awful about working on your birthday? You’d be hard-pressed to find a job that gives you a day off for that. But I suppose if you’re used to thinking your birth is an unbelievable holiday all should respect, I suppose this is a real travesty. I really feel sad for you, and enraged you think you can define my experience as a reporter for me. Respectfully, go fuck yourself. and do you really feel so amazing about yourself that you don’t realize hospitals/healthcare hangs those who can’t pay out to dry? That’s why we call people like you “the dark side.” You think so highly of your esteemed position jamming a brand down peoples throats that you don’t report what’s truly going on. Some people are pushed out of emergency rooms, judged for having hiv or an addiction, or raced through their recovery because their insurance only covers so much time. Where’s your gorgeously-crafted press release about that? And do you hospital supervisors know you’re a vain, self obsessed person gloating about yourself on the Internet? This just seems so unprofessional, to have someone in PR speak so poorly of their former job.

    • I respect your passion, but your comment is unnecessarily harsh. I, too, was once proud to be an underpaid 24-year-old journalist without the benefit of life experience. You may well look back at your comment ten or twenty years from now and realize you agree with the author.

    • What a rude comment. As a news reporter, you should know as well as anybody that she is entitled to her own opinion. You’re no better than the people who call and gripe and complain when something they don’t like gets printed in the paper. You should be ashamed of yourself.

    • If you were truly a newspaper reporter, you would not have reacted to an opinion piece with such negativity, and you certainly would not have written the line “That’s not everyone’s experience” — a comment that goes without saying. It’s an opinion piece.
      I think this blog post expresses many of the same feelings most newspaper reporters go through.
      Reporters all go into it knowing what the pay will be, but in the long run, as their lives change and progress, will their youthful idea that “money doesn’t matter” prevail?
      If a reporter is being an actual reporter, they’re pissing off people on a regular basis, beginning almost every workday dealing with complaints (such as “whatever”‘s response) and few commendations.
      It wares you the hell out.

    • Maybe you’ll have a different opinion in 10 years when this job has dragged you through the gutter and spit you out. I’m a news reporter, too, and wish I was able to “check and balance” the government and save people’s lives. Only in dreams does that actually happen. Or at the New York Times.

    • Whatever, whatever. I seriously doubt you’re really a reporter. Newspapers don’t normally hire trolls…

    • At 24 year’s old, it’s very hard to see the bigger picture. When I was 24 and starting my career, I was blind at what was ahead of me. And thought just like you, i was passionate, driven and thought it was the greatest job ever.

      But, let me give you some understanding of what 13 years in the newspaper industry has done to my life:
      1) I am divorced because my wife lost patience with the time constraints this job made;
      2) I have emptied any form of savings I could accumulate because regardless of how well you manage money, it’s hard to live on $1,400/month in a city where rental property is at 97 percent. And when your company feels that $3,200 per year is enough salary to pay someone in a city where the average cost of living is $2,000/month, something has to give.
      3) You want friendships outside of the office? Good luck with that, because I can tell you that when you have to cancel weekend plans because a story broke on Friday night at 11:45 p.m., they will too get tired of it and move on.
      4) I have watched 100 or so co-workers, get laid off, bought out of furloughed, which leaves you wondering when your time will come you aren’t so lucky that you survive.

      I admire your passion and wish I still had that same passion, but 13 years in this industry and being passed over for promotion after promotion because someone will work for cheaper, has left me looking for a way out. Like Pam said, I bet you’ll see things differently in 10 years.

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  8. I agree with everything that you said.
    I’m a small town reporter in rural Oklahoma with more than 10 years on the job and have a stack of awards to show for it.
    But my pay hasn’t increased in eight years.
    I see some reporters that remind of the guy playing an accordion while operating a drum and blowing on a harmonica with a dancing monkey. Take pictures for the print edition, shoot video for the online edition, post tweets and such for scoring and news updates, lay out your pages, and it just goes on.
    It’s sad because I really like being a reporter. I get a kick out of getting out of the office to hang out with cops, firemen and local officials.
    We all know that feeling when you know that you’ve got that one story that everybody is going to be reading.
    What I like most is that when you’re a reporter, you’re somebody.
    It’s a tremendous responsibility to write something that literally thousands and thousands of people are going to be reading.
    It’s sad that our industry is in decline.
    It’s too bad that reporters and editors aren’t in charge instead of advertising and business types. That’s the real dark side – the greedy, bloodsucking world of advertising suits that deem you as an easily replaceable commodity.
    No one buys the paper to read the damn ads, they buy it to read the stories.
    I hate living paycheck-to-paycheck and being the lowest paid professional of any other professional I meet. When I tell people what I make, they shake their heads in disbelief. At least county road hands get benefits and a pension.
    I also hate when my general manager walks around boasting that “it’s an employer’s market.”
    Translation: you’ll do whatever I tell you to do and like it. Be glad you have a job.
    I hate to see how social media is affecting the news business, but I guess it’s the sad reality of the transformation of the modern media.
    I too am hoping to get into a new career field where I can at least have some financial security for the future, but walking away from “being somebody” to being what I currently perceive as being just another regular person is hard to do.
    I like the juice.

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  10. Oh boy. You hit the nail on the head. I was a reporter for 6 years, with no life, hanging out with my cynical, jaded colleagues, until I realized that life wasn’t for me. And when I wasn’t married, I got asked those questions all the time! I still get asked, “So, are you writing anymore?” I think one more disadvantage I’d like to add to that list is that you’re practically a celebrity, a useful one at that, and therefore have no real friends outside of the circle of said cynical, jaded colleagues. Everyone wants a favour, and I got tired of that too. And of all the stories (reserved for crowds), which I washed and hung out for anyone to see if they cared to.

    The worst part? I went to journalism school too, bwahaha! Today, when I have people asking me for advice about studying journalism, as in, getting a degree + certificate as proof, I try to be gentle in saying, “Don’t! If you’re in the mood to try it out, become an intern – the lowest possible life form In the organization. And if you survive those months, perfect, you’re built for the job.”

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  12. I have to agree with you about the state of the business. To me it got stale, boring and predictable. I worked in TV news which is also struggling (with falling ratings across the board). I left for mainly personal reasons, including Headaches, heart palpitations, trouble sleeping…then there’s the other big reason…I hated working weekends, overnights, holidays, and evenings. It was great to me for many years but it ran its course so I “retired.” I have nearly 20 years in journalism under my belt, lots of good and bad stories I could share, but a word of advice to you just starting out…pace yourselves, don’t let yourself get burned out.

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  16. I was a journalist for eight years and left to get an MBA. I now make four times what I was making before, as a management consultant, primarily for newspaper chains. I like my job and don’t consider it to be on the dark side. I’m helping newspapers succeed, which keeps journalists employed and readers informed. That said, in the five years since I left the industry, I’ve seen many of my former colleagues’ careers soar. One thing those people have in common is a laser focus on a specific career goal, no matter how lofty it may seem. My journalism career stagnated not because I didn’t like my job it or wasn’t talented, but because I never had a clear vision, or even a vague vision, of where I wanted to be in 5/10/20 years, and therefore wasn’t doing the right things to get there. I didn’t know what skills to build, what organizations to work for, or what professional connections to make. And I think that’s a perfectly fine way to live, especially if you’re in your 20s, as I was, and have only yourself to support, as I did. But my career stagnation is my fault, not the industry’s. There is money to be made in journalism, and there will be as long as people like to consume news and advertisers like to reach audiences. But you have to take responsibility for your career. If you’re not in it for the money, you won’t make any, and that shouldn’t discourage you. But if at some point you are in it for the money, figure out which money-making job you want within journalism — they do exist — and make a strategic plan to get that job. Find mentors, be resourceful, work really hard, and don’t let setbacks derail you.

  17. I was a journalist for eight years and left to get an MBA. I now make four times what I was making before, as a management consultant, primarily for newspaper chains. I like my job and don’t consider it to be on the dark side. I’m helping newspapers succeed, which keeps journalists employed and readers informed. That said, in the five years since I left the industry, I’ve seen many of my former colleagues’ careers soar. One thing those people have in common is a laser focus on a specific career goal, no matter how lofty it may seem. My journalism career stagnated not because I didn’t like my job or wasn’t talented, but because I never had a clear vision, or even a vague vision, of where I wanted to be in 5/10/20 years, and therefore wasn’t doing the right things to get there. I didn’t know what skills to build, what organizations to work for, or what professional connections to make. And I think that’s a perfectly fine way to live, especially if you’re in your 20s, as I was, and have only yourself to support, as I did. But my career stagnation is my fault, not the industry’s. There is money to be made in journalism, and there will be as long as people like to consume news and advertisers like to reach audiences. But you have to take responsibility for your career. If you’re not in it for the money, you won’t make any, and that shouldn’t discourage you. But if at some point you are in it for the money, figure out which money-making job you want within journalism — they do exist — and make a strategic plan to get that job. Find mentors, be resourceful, work really hard, and don’t let setbacks derail you.

  18. I admit I still think of PR as the dark side, and of my ex-journo friends who have chosen that path as people who “gave up”. I have been in journalism on and off for years, and the more time passes, the more I see the absurdities of the job compared to other jobs in which one can truly make a difference, and the more I too see the undeniable vanity of this career. It is also true that journalism has become the career path of almost exclusively affluent people. I will count myself in the bunch who was lucky enough to grow up not having to worry about money and thus didn’t consider the importance of income when choosing a career. I will throw to that category the great majority of the people with whom I studied an MA in international journalism, and while I disagree with the author about their willingness to shake hands with a poor interviewee, I do think there is a certain braggart attitude on “understanding” poverty or misfortune. Some Suit is right about laser-focused journalists: those are the people who get to the top, who become the legends of journalism, make money, and maybe even make a difference in the world. People who get to 50 with ulcers, alienated from the joys of life, lonely, and haplessly sarcastic. I think those of us who got into journalism without that laser focus are the ones who can’t help look around and waste our time reflecting on just what the hell are we all doing this for anyway. Perhaps what is most mind-boggling, why all of us can’t stop thinking and talking amongst ourselves about the challenges of being newspaper reporters, is because we, the journos in our late 20s and early 30s, were the last boat to leave to a destination that no longer exists: the cruise to newspaperland stopped because the destination ceased to be, and while they figure out a new place in the world for freshly-trained reporters, we are sailing along, flaring the sky, doing the only thing we know to do: write about it.

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  21. Just because I left publishing doesn't mean I don't care | NZ Muse

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  24. One of the most difficult decisions of my life was resigning from a small daily newspaper in Ontario seven years ago. From 1999 to 2005, this was a fun, interesting and, yes, stressful place to work. The only drawback was the paycheque I received every two weeks. Then, starting in 2005, as reporters and editors retired or left for greener pastures, they were not replaced. The workload remained the same, however, so the staff worked longer hours. After a while, it was no longer fun, no longer interesting. In hindsight, it was a good decision to leave the industry. . . . I still read newspapers, still watch CBC News and CNN, still listen to the radio. I am glad that worked in the news industry because it was always something that interested me. Nine years was too long, though. Should have left earlier. . . . . One thing I have learned: My occupation doesn’t define me. I am not my occupation, I am not my career.

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