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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I can 100 percent relate to this post! A lot of my other friends outside the newsroom never quite understand my love-hate relationship with the newspaper industry. It is amazing, being able to go on adventures seemingly every day to tell someone’s story. Yet at the same time, we’re mistreated, underpaid and requesting overtime is forbidden.
I work for a newspaper currently and it was two weeks ago I worked a 60-hour work week, no overtime. I asked my boss if he had room to pay me for that, but he just said to work less hours the next week.
But that didn’t happen. Because you are called to be on your assignments around the clock.
So thank you for sharing, Sticky 🙂 It at least gave me peace of mind that I’m not crazy for this love-hate thing I’ve got going on.
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Thank you for writing this post. I have identified with the “I was born to do journalism” feeling for most of my life. After four years of college internships, working part-time and running myself ragged to chase bylines on nothing more than daily crime reports, the vanity of a by-line wore out as well.
Changing careers was one of the hardest decision I’ve ever made, especially after chasing (and finally achieving) the dream of becoming a reporter after so long. I switched gears and became a high school teacher. It is a job that I both love and feel safe in (unlike the news room), though I sometimes cannot help but look back.
Thank you for writing this post, which articulates my feelings about journalism in a way I never could. While I miss having a by-line often, your post is a reminder that I made the right choice for myself. The idea that journalism would one day “ruin me” was one I could never quite shake. It is a shame that journalism no longer has the public support or resources to sustain the people who are passionate for it.
Sincerely and Gratefully,
Thank you so much for sharing. I sincerely appreciated this piece. As a former reporter (print journalist), I totally related to your story, your experience. I have been out of the journalism world now for 8 years. It seems like an eternity, yet it feels, sometimes, as though I just left yesterday. My reasons for leaving was the fact that I was severely underpaid, having been reporting for 6 years (started at age 20), as well as the fact that it started becoming too political for me, in that my stories were no longer my stories, they were chosen by the editors for me to write about. I left the news room (it was hard for me) to join Corporate America. Although I make substantially more money reviewing and redlining contracts for a living, than I did as a reporter telling insightful and meaningful stories (during the better times), I hate it. At the age of 34, I am now getting that itch to go back and do something meaningful again, as I did in journalism. Will that be dusting my pen off or will that be doing something on the non-profit side, I don’t know. All I know is that I was inspired while I was reporting. I am not inspired at the present time, but I will get to the bottom of it. I promise. Your piece simply inspired me tonight. Wish I could shake your hand and say, thank you!
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Thank you so much for writing this post, I too identify with this love-hate relationship. I am 24, already a news anchor and it’s amazing to see the people who didn’t think I’d graduate high school react when I tell them where I am in life now. There is vanity, but there is also the inspiration of changing the way a serious issue is handled through discoveries I made reporting on major issues. It is so rewarding yet so draining. I have not taken a vacation since I was 19. I work myself to the bone, my skin can’t handle this makeup, my bank can’t handle the clothes I have to buy to wear on air, my station does not fund what it takes to do this job. I am basically working to work. Meanwhile I can’t save up anything, and I am now missing all kinds of opportunities a young woman in her 20’s should be experiencing! This job is so hard for me to imagine parting with, I worry about the judgement, I worry I will never find happiness in anything else, but at the same time, I want a family, and I want a personal life!
I feel as though if I stay in this job, it will prevent me from ever being happy in family life, but if I leave will I lose being happy in my professional life?
It’s so hard.
Thank you for writing this post, it feels good to know there are others out there who feel the same and have found success outside of this world!
This “slow motion train wreck” is, perhaps, slower than many people realize. My father-in-law, may he rest in peace, left the newspaper business for many of the same reasons seventy(?) years ago to co-own/edit a construction magazine. It’s a been a business that was tough on its front line reporters for a long time.
I’m impressed, I need to say. Really rarely do I encounter a weblog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve got hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the concern is something that not sufficient consumers are speaking intelligently about. I’m quite pleased that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to this.
Best blog I’ve ever read on this subject so far. You summarized what so many of us in the business are feeling or have felt. Thank you for sharing.
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I can totally relate with you. I’m a digital journalism major and have done an internship while also was able to freeelance for a few papers. One thing that has constantly made me upset is the money. I don’t know how I could make a living from this and I don’t want too. The deadlines are insane, the work never stops and you get so burnt out. There isn’t much of a spark inside me anymore and that’s why I’m quiting journalism after I graduate. I may do freelance gigs every now and than but I wouldn’t dare to try to find full time employment. It’s really not worth it to me. I’m glad you were able to leave and found something else. Hopefully the pressure and non stop thinking abour stories has dissapeared.
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A confession: I found your website by googling “I hate my newspaper job.” So needless to say, I can relate to all of this. I’m 25 and debating leaving my newspaper job at a large daily in Florida. I’m miserable here (and have been for a while), but I can’t seem to shake the feels I have for journalism. It’s all I’ve ever wanted — this was my dream job in college — and nothing else seems as good a fit. I really unsure of what to do, but lately, for the first time, I have felt at peace with the idea of walking away. I’m glad to know others feel the same, and I’m thankful for the glimpse you gave me of what it’s like on the other side.
Hi! Came across this post by googling “i dont want to be a journalist anymore” so it gives an idea (as most above) as to why i am so pleased to hear your story. I graduated with a bachelors in Media Studies and a minor in foreign languages here in Portugal. After 3 years of college (that was 2 years ago) i just felt burnout by the political agenda, no schedule fit for a healthy personal life, underpayment, insecurity and above all lack of desire/happiness. I used to be thrilled with writing stories, now i just want to runaway from journalism. I’ve got an offer from a magazine but i think i will refuse it, because i simply dont see myself as a journalist any longer (or aspiring journalist).
I really feel more driven by the business side of Communication, reason why everyone tells me i should have gone to marketing, but i suck at numbers so.. Anyway, i feel your explanation and deep down others feel too. I know alot of journalist who live on their toes not knowing if their future is secured. But in this new era of journalism: i guarantee its not. We have a expiring date/age i feel like and in a small area like the one i live in, id rather give myself to Corporate/Government jobs. At least i know i have a future, possibility of progression and my future secured.
Also would like to mention, part of this problem of mine, is that i never truly had a spark for journalism…
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Sonia, maybe you won’t read me, but I felt completely identified with your comment, specially with your last phrase, because I’ve felt the same for years… I hope you find a better path in your career =)
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.