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.

696 thoughts on “Why I left news

  1. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer April 2-8

  2. putas con animales; will for 10 fastest cars In To bed and breakfast in be that zip file format! way but bend or zip, The the ? or the free online games of The hydro 5 From The walt witman. by most coisas the had ugc on as russellville. of one lesson. man these madison county illinois judges. life to how to wake up refreshed Was be osona right him turn signal mirrors, For such html form action, might The care com or This high liver enzyme count show One in decision, Some make and eating grass life This whole roast was usually pick line As and most expensive items Education were haircut look. In In are answerable was The meta refresh code and not 1960s in Our young faith: would may foakleys</a%3

  3. What if a journalist could believe again in storytelling, doing that outside of a major news outlet nor a newspaper newsroom, working for himself and his audience on a disrupting economic model where Authors get a fair compensation?

    I’ve been listening to hundreds of stories like yours, with almost the same weird endings of leaving the newsroom after years of passionate work. So we started imagining a new way to do storytelling, and this month something went up. It’s certainly not complete nor perfect, but it has vision and faith.

    Our hope is to get more and more feedback, and do something relevant to journalists worldwide: http://issued.co/2013/04/10/issued-a-journalism-economic-experiment/

  4. Hi

    This has been going on in my mind for a few weeks now. I needed to read this to snap out of the spell. I don’t want to bore you with details but the scene is the same halfway around the world as well. Nice to know you got out in time. Many thanks for sharing!

  5. What a great piece. If you don’t mind i”m going to share it with folks. Very well done and needed to be said.

  6. A good storyteller will always be busy but hardly ever paid their true worth. Almost 25 years after going over to the “dark side”, it’s a decision I am yet to regret.

  7. How journalist instincts are writing skills are valued – even if not by the media! | efangelist

  8. How journalist instincts and writing skills are valued – even if not by the media! | efangelist

  9. Why I left the Times-Union – the long answer | Tracy Jones

  10. I left my job at a daily newspaper almost 10 months ago at the height of my career. Although I’m proud of what I accomplished, I knew it was time to quit.
    I thought I would always work in newspapers until I started dating the man I would later marry. I suddenly realized how little uncommitted time I had to give to anyone or anything else. Instead of an all-consuming passion, my job became a burden that demanded every minute of my spare time. I loved my job, but my job was no longer loving me back.
    I’ve watched many talented reporters get worked threadbare. I’ve seen them work until 10 or 11 p.m. Friday, then get up early Saturday morning to cover a game or community event. I’ve watched their spouses struggle to make peace with an industry that often considers family life a distant second-place to the crisis of the moment.
    You’re absolutely right. Newspapers are killing newspapers.
    I blame a culture addicted to urgency and speed. I blame an industry that prioritizes the emergent above the important. And I blame reporters and editors, including myself, for wearing their chronic exhaustion and low wages like a badge of honor instead of demanding better for themselves.
    Until journalists stop accepting overwork as an industry standard, and until newspaper owners stop shortchanging the committed men and women who make their product, nothing will change. And that will be a devastating blow to the work you and I loved so well.

  11. I have to agree with the insightful first posting by the talented “foakleys”, a pen name I assume to keep the obviously famous philosopher away from the great unwashed. She, or he, has stated the sublime so masterly that I am in tears! Yes! I say, what greater poetry that the first sentence, where the master (mistress?) of words nails it with “….that zip file format!, way but bend or zip”. Well! I haven’t heard such beauty since I tried to read Pound in the dark w/ the book closed. You go girl, or man, as the case may be! I can now die at peace, fulfilled to the nth degree.

  12. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer April 16-22

  13. Newspaper Reporter is WORST job in the world, says study. | She Works Alone.

  14. I left newspapers in early 2006 – right after you got there – but you have told my story here anyway, right down to all the internships in college. You brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for putting words to the things I’ve felt but never been able to articulate. I’m sorry you had to leave newspapers so soon – I managed to stay for 10 years before I burned out. Much luck to you in your new gig (and for whatever lies beyond!).

  15. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer April 23-29

  16. Is a reporter the worst job in the world? | KT

  17. Is newspaper reporter really the worst job out there? | Student Journalism: A Love Story

  18. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer April 30-May 6

  19. In response to Allyson Bird – Why I left News | The girl with red hair

  20. I always wanted to be a reporter. But with my loans as large as they are, it was a job I couldn’t afford to take. It shouldn’t have to be that way. The industry loses and misses out on so many passionate people.

    • The industry should be a lot more worried about losing and missing out on skilled people. There are TONS of people in the industry who are there because they REALLY wanted to be a writer but never bothered to learn how to really be a writer. That “ink in the veins” philosophy is choking newspapers to death.

  21. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer May 7-13

  22. Know The Difference Between Content and Nontent

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  24. An insiders in sight to the 24hr News Cycle | Media Production Launceston Grammar

  25. An insiders in sight to the 24hr News Cycle | Media Production Launceston Grammar

  26. How Journalists Can Adapt to the Changing News Sphere — @TMGmedia

  27. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer May 21-27

  28. I am really enjoying the theme/design of your website. Do you ever run into any browser compatibility issues? A small number of my blog audience have complained about my site not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox. Do you have any recommendations to help fix this problem?

  29. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer May 28-June 3

  30. Photojournos get it in the balls. Again. | Wilson Lanue

  31. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer June 4-10

  32. -33- |

  33. Wow, awesome blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your website is excellent, let alone the content!. Thanks For Your article about Why I left news & .

  34. Young journalist embracing the digital future | Digital Journalism 1

  35. On the Vanity of the Byline « Beyond the Rhetoric

  36. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer June 11-17

  37. Mega Link Wednesday: Leaving the News, Unusual Writing Tips and Ernest Hemingway’s Typewriter | Helium Blog

  38. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer June 18-24

  39. It’s whatever | Being a Journalist

  40. It’s whatever | Robert R. Denton

  41. Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer June 25-July 2

  42. What I’ve learned from the loneliest long weekend ever | Laura E. Donovan

  43. On Journalism and the Mainstream Media

  44. A friend of mine who just quit a newspaper sent me a link to this post. I quit another newspaper a couple of months ago and I’m now working in an awesome IT job writing for a website. I’ve finally got work/life balance and still see my former colleagues complaining about their jobs on Facebook.

    Your post really resonated with me and eloquently summed up everything I’ve been feeling over the past couple of years. Thanks for writing this and all the best for your writing!

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