Guest Post by Alex Speredelozzi for Talking Writing
Recently, I attended a career fair for journalists at Harvard University. Never mind that I didn’t know the fair was for young would-be interns, not middle-aged graduate students in journalism like myself looking to break into a second career. (How gullible am I to think that newspaper publishers would show up to offer jobs with checks?)
With newspapers bleeding black ink, one might think that few college students would show any interest in journalism. I recall that college for me was a time of idealism, but I thought today’s students were far more practical. Yet that didn’t seem to be the case at this Harvard career fair. There appeared to be no shortage of people interested in media careers. Which is a problem for us all—and especially for me.
My impression of student interest could have been skewed; the number of people might have looked larger because the room was small. I do know, however, that some students came not just from Harvard. One young woman told me she traveled all the way from Cornell University in New York with a group of like-minded students.
Granted, an internship at a newspaper is not only great experience for budding reporters but for those interested in law, government service, public relations, and a host of other professions. The investigative and writing skills are invaluable. But you have to admire the spunk of young people wanting to hurl themselves into an industry in financial disarray.
Maybe the reason for this enthusiasm was best expressed by a panel of veteran international journalists (all current Nieman Fellows) at the career fair. They agreed that there's no money in journalism. I wanted to know what motivates them each day.
“What do you get out of it?” I asked during the Q-and-A.
Their answer: the lifestyle, the excitement, the adrenalin rush. Gary Knight, photographer and editor with VII Photo Agency and Dispatches, couldn’t imagine another career. James Reynolds, China correspondent for the BBC, spoke fondly of flying into a country on an almost empty plane while people rushed to board planes leaving the country.
Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono of Zimbabwe, a documentary film director/news producer for Television International, smiled like a kid as he talked about using electronic image-transferring equipment that would have landed him in jail for five years if caught. Anita Snow, Havana bureau chief for the Associated Press, discussed the thrill (and difficulty) of opening a news bureau in Cuba.
These journalists relished the chance to meet and interview both influential people and everyday folks, and to report on crucial events that make history.
But what happens when you’re married with a family and the little eyes in your home look to you for bread and milk?
Even if you find a job as a journalist, it’s not clear how you secure fair pay. In the heyday of newspaper publishing, many owners raked it in but paid journalists only a weekly wage. Early on, reporters unionized to gain some leverage over employers, but unionization doesn’t build you a second home on a lake.
Except for a few stars, journalists get paid like other service employees that we value so much but pay so little: teachers, nurses, firefighters, librarians.
The panelists also agreed that to get and keep a job these days, journalists must know how to work with sound and pictures. Words alone won’t cut it. Though great writing and storytelling are the backbone of journalism, multimedia is the future. We’re a visual society, and we’ve been that way for decades. The technology that’s driving many of the changes in the journalism business is making multimedia the pencil-and-paper of the future.
Fine. I get it. But I have to say that just as the physical ability to put pen to paper never made anyone a writer, the fun of dropping and dragging on a screen won’t turn you into a multimedia expert. What makes a great story great, including one told via podcast, still relies on some old faithfuls: great characterization, great quotes, great story ideas, great reporting.
There’s also a more fundamental law to making it in journalism, at least financially, especially if you can’t afford to start at the bottom. Journalists must develop a niche unnoticed as yet by editors and valued by readers. They need to create a unique “product” and “brand” that can’t be easily replicated.
The buzz word is “specialization.” The journalism field has had specialists for years. But now it requires a higher level of intentionality. You need subject-matter expertise, and editors and readers need to associate your name automatically with that subject. The goal: Ensure that editors can’t hire anyone else to fill your shoes.
With an ample supply of journalists willing and able to cover a town meeting, a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the latest robbery, there’s no reason for publishers and editors to pay for content. Writing better than the next guy by itself doesn’t necessarily translate into higher pay. Sometimes “good-enough” is all that editors and publishers are willing to go for.
Unless, of course, they must come to you, and only you, to get the story.
My problem is that I don’t have a specialty. At heart, I’m a general-assignment reporter. My interests vary wide and far. I was attracted to writing and reporting because of the opportunity it offered to learn a little about a lot of things. So now, I must decide: Do I make a living in a different field and write on the side for pure enjoyment? Or do I develop a niche while also clearing a little space for those stories that widen my eyes? I’ll keep you posted.
You can see samples of my reporting at The Sun Chronicle.