Opinion - Please quit
When an aspiring young journalist asked why she should get into a failing industry, here's what I should have said
A couple weeks ago, I was asked to speak to some college students about working in journalism. We were gathered in a student lounge, about 30 or so in total, sipping on bottles of water in the early afternoon. I sat on a stool and spoke for a few minutes about my experiences, about working my way up from internships, about freelancing, about the demands of a staff position, about the things that college can do to help prepare someone and the things it can't do. Pretty soon after I started taking questions, a young woman asked, "I feel like all I ever hear about is the death of the media. Why should I even bother doing the work to break into an industry that's just going to fail?"
For a second, I paused. I didn't know what to say. Or, rather, the first thing that came to mind was to say, "Maybe you shouldn't," and leave it at that.
An artist friend of mine, about the same age as me, recently posted this on Facebook: "Talking to college students at university redacted this afternoon. Unofficial objective: make someone drop out of art school." Another writer friend who works at a university once tweeted, "if i make just one of my students decide to stop writing poetry, i'll have done my job." The late novelist Harry Crews, who worked at the University of Florida for decades, once told an interviewer about his students, "They were just young people who thought they wanted to be fiction writers. By and large, they fell in love with the idea of being a fiction writer and then they were introduced to the slave labor of it and they pretty soon decided, 'No, I don't want to do this.'" These are cynical jokes meant for a knowing crowd, of course, but they're embedded with a lot of truth.
Anyone who has worked in a newsroom has probably overheard or had a fantasized conversation about telling young aspiring journalists to run away from the profession. Anyone who tells you different is lying (which isn't out of the ordinary for a journalist, by the way). There are good reasons for this. Writing is hard, thankless work. Many, many more commenters will tell you how terrible you are at your job than will praise you. (I can't think of another profession where people basically sit at their desk telling you how much of a shithead you are all day long.) The money sucks, if you even manage to find a job. Right around the time that you think that you're getting comfortable, you'll watch some of your most qualified, senior co-workers get laid off in an instant.
And yet, I don't know anyone who does this job who can imagine doing anything else. We think about our jobs every waking moment of the day. We ruin our personal lives to be better in our professional ones. We learn to ignore the commenters or even thrive on their negativity. In our few moments outside of work, we beg and fight for freelance work that pays scraps on the most irregular pay schedules possibly imaginable. In short, we're all dealing with some sort of seriously co-dependent, love-hate feelings in this field.
I felt the need to defend the field to this young woman, to explain that what the media is experiencing right now is a transition between profit models, that everyone from the New York Times to Creative Loafing is still figuring out, but that people will not stop reading and not stop desiring writing that helps them better understand the world around them. I told her that the media is changing, not going away. I said that because I believe it. I also couldn't help but feel that I was sugarcoating the situation.
Last year, when I profiled CNN's Don Lemon, he told me about a professor at LSU who pulled him aside in class and told him that he wasn't going to make it in the industry, that he needed to think about another career. He dropped out of LSU after that and moved to New York. The rest is history. He also told me, quite proudly, that he still sends that fucker his clips.
So here and now, I'd like to respond how I should have to that young woman: Please quit. If you can possibly imagine yourself doing anything else with your life, walk away now. Get into software development. Go work for Amazon. Do anything else. Don't waste your time or ours. And if hearing that pisses you off enough to throw the rest of your life away to do this, I look forward to reading your clips someday.