The other day, while waiting (on my second hour) for my stories to get edited, I did a Google search for “journalist’s life” and found this article. It’s crazy long, but totally what I needed:
Her story could be a TV plot line: Passionate editor of award-winning, small-town paper operates “journalism school part II,” where reporters and copy editors learn the trade, then bolt as soon as they find a job that will pay more than mixing low-fat lattes at Starbucks.
Barney, 41, and the Vacaville Reporter, an 18,100-circulation daily on the edge of California’s vast Central Valley, straddle the nexus of several key issues that are vexing American newspapers: paltry salaries; a shortage of quality entry-level applicants; and the gap between journalism education and the publishing world of community newspapers.
Most newspapers in America are in places like Vacaville. Of the nation’s 1,468 dailies, 1,250 have circulations of less than 50,000, according to Editor & Publisher. They have a combined readership of more than 17 million people–just under a third of all daily newspaper readers.
These small-town newspapers employ 21,114 journalists–37 percent of the editorial staff counted in the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ 2002 newsroom census–and form the foundation of the journalism food chain. They feed staff to midsize papers, who in turn supply the metros, which then sacrifice their best and brightest, or at least their most ambitious, to the elite–the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times (winners of all the 2002 Pulitzer Prizes for reporting).
Climbing this pyramid is a time-honored journalism journey, both glorified and vilified as “paying your dues.” But it is also one that more and more journalism school graduates, put off by low salaries and long hours, seem unwilling to make. Editors of community newspapers and J-school professors say more graduates choose to opt out of journalism rather than face reporting life in a small town.
Heh. Reading this story, I get a feeling of, ah…..finally, I know what’s expected of me. But what happens after you’ve paid your dues at a small paper? What happens next after that? That’s sort of what I’m interested in right now. I mean, traditionally, what I thought was, in a professional life, you climb the pay and quality-of-life ladder by changing jobs that benefit you – in terms of more pay, less work, more fulfilling work, more exciting work, better hours – any of those things, maybe all of those things, maybe one or two of those things. For me, I’m looking for three things – I want to be somewhere where I can learn from the people I work with, I want to not have to kill myself on a daily basis anymore (not to say I am afraid of hard work, but geez, lately I’ve been doing three stories a day with no end in sight), and I don’t want to disrupt my family/church life. I’ll be honest – I’m holding out for a job that will fill all this criteria, but sometimes, I despair and wonder if I’m supposed to downgrade my hopes in order to stay in journalism. This story, down a bit, didn’t give much hope either:
“A lot of people don’t want to make the sacrifice,” she says. “It really is a sacrifice. I just think of it as though I’m still in school. That way I don’t get worried by the fact that I’m not saving anything. It’s a learning experience, and it’s a tradeoff.”
Mannes’ contemporaries seem increasingly unwilling to follow her career path. Journalism school enrollments are booming–the number of students in journalism and mass communication programs rose to an all-time high of 182,182 students in the fall of 2001, according to the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communications Training and Research at the University of Georgia. But graduates, frustrated by the lingering newspaper industry recession, complain of being unable to find good starting jobs, even though unfilled reporting and editing positions abound on small papers.
“If an employer says, ‘I can’t find good people. The problem is with the people. There’s nobody interested in my work,’ what they’re really saying often is there’s nobody who’s willing to work for a very low wage, very long hours, very few benefits, very little appreciation, when they could find a job that gives them benefits, gives them better pay and where they’re rewarded,” Becker says. “That means that these people that they aren’t getting are smart.”
Becker’s 2001 survey of journalism graduates found a “very marked drop” in newspaper salaries to a median of about $26,000–$1,000 less than the previous year and, adjusted for inflation, the same level as 1998.
Studies that measure whether journalism graduates are spurning low-paying jobs at small newspapers are difficult to come by, but statistical evidence abounds that student interest in print journalism is waning, even at a time when enrollment in broader communications curricula is growing.
Becker says lousy pay is the primary reason for the decline. “I don’t think it’s the case that people aren’t interested in careers in journalism,” he says. “All the evidence is quite demonstrative of that. Whether they want to take a job if it means earning less than they’d earn at McDonald’s, that’s another question.”
So here’s my question – since I managed to find a “small-town job” in a metropolitan area, shouldn’t that say something? I didn’t move to Vacaville, or something, but I’ve had to pay my dues and hold my feet to the fire in my own way – I endured six months of living in Los Angeles with no steady full-time job, a car to pay for, working part-time as a web producer, working part-time as a Coffee Bean barista, working graveyard holiday shifts at a newswire and as a freelancer for a paper 30 minutes away (both of which I didn’t really need, but did because I wanted to continue getting experience), before I got my first full-time job. What, does that not count for anything?
One thing that the article did not address was effort to get more minority reporters and editors in to the industry and how that fit into the equation. I don’t know of any culture or ethnic background that’s OK with sending the kids off to a university for an education, that will lead them to a job that pays $9 an hour. Or even $11 an hour. For those beginning reporters, there’s societal pressure to settle down, buy a house, buy a car (and not just a crappy house or car, c’mon), and have kids, besides trying to succeed professionally. I think this graf said it best, and this is actually Trinity’s favorite graf in the whole story:
So those who choose to be journalists are often heeding a calling. “It means you get a level of commitment and dedication that is quite unusual in many other professions,” Schell says. “But you can only abuse people so much. They have families, children and student loans and lives to lead. We are not monks.”