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.