Making a living as a journalist, and especially as a fulltime freelancer, demands flexibility, stamina, high energy and commitment. It
is an insanely competitive business, no matter what level of experience. This is not a career, unlike law, engineering, computer science
or business, where fresh graduates, even from the top schools, can rely on recruiters to line up and woo you. Nor will they try to retain
you, once hired, with perks, stock options and other inducements.
Most print journalists, save for a very few, won't ever become wealthy as a result of their work. We get paid in what's often called
"psychic income" - memories and satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, emotional connection and a chance, when we're lucky and
persistent, to write in some accordance with our values.
Here are some of the pleasures to be found working as a journalist, whether newspapers, magazines, books or broadcast:
While a standard criticism of journalists is that our knowledge is a mile wide - and an inch deep - the chance to learn something new
every day, with every story, and often with every call and interview, is something that keeps many journalists excited by their work.
Subjects I've learned about on deadline, sometimes from the world's greatest experts, include: nuclear proliferation, radiation
poisoning, falconry, yacht design, guns, domestic violence, vintage clothing, cross-border trucking, insurance fraud, car racing,
polo, pension legislation, the de-regulation of the utility industry, DNA testing, the marketing of running shoes.
Journalism offers a healthy diet for the intellectually omnivorous.
You can't sit still in this job, figuratively or literally. If you think you know it all, you're toast. Be prepared to have large, new
chunks of data tossed your way almost daily, perhaps even hourly. The challenge of deciphering, analyzing and explaining them keeps you
sharp and engaged.
Journalism is great for people who loathe routine and bore easily. Daily reporters know that every day brings new challenges, and
freelancers cranking out stories they find less than fascinating know they'll soon be working on something more fun.
An Open Mind
Working as a journalist, except at the most elite and blinkered organizations, forces you to examine your life, and your choices, with
a fresh eye - because it can force you to look at your neighborhood, town, city, state/province, country and hemisphere as an insightful
observer, not simply a passive participant.
You're paid to question authority: just because the mayor says it's a great idea, or the Prime Minister or Madonna or the President,
doesn't mean it is - and you may talk to many people who disagree with them, no matter their power or wealth.
I've met, and interviewed, everyone from Queen Elizabeth II to convicted felons, celebrities to murderers,
the impossibly wealthy to the poor and disenfranchised. Very few jobs outside of journalism will bring you into such close contact with
so many different kinds of people - in age, race, religion, income, education and experience. If you enjoy hearing a wide variety of
stories and perspectives, this is a great gig.
Afflicting the Comfortable and Comforting the Afflicted
Publisher Joseph Pulitzer, for whom the prizes are named, gave this as his definition of a journalist's true work. By this he meant the
journalist's role - as it often is today - is not to lavish praise and attention on the wealthy and powerful, but to examine closely the
source(s) of their wealth and power, calling them to account when they abuse their position. Similarly, it is giving voice to the
voiceless and inaudible, the weak and inarticulate, the illegal immigrant or political detainee, the battered wife or abused child, the
cheated investor or bullied employee.
Not every editor or every publication cares as deeply about this credo as you might want them to. But some still do, and you can find
Smart, Down-to-Earth, Interesting Colleagues
Journalists who stay in the game recognize the value of working with and for people they, by and large, like and admire professionally.
People attracted to journalism tend to be high-energy, curious, gregarious, outgoing, verbal. Fun!
Pomposity doesn't work well in most newsrooms. Neither does snobbery. And, chances are, people working in your office or newsroom --
whether in photo, design, production or editorial -- have done some extraordinary things along the way, no matter what their current job
title. They've probably lived in a variety of places on their way up the career ladder, whether Hong Kong, Moscow or Minneapolis, and
have seen things you can only imagine. There's a richness to that diversity of experiences that's yours to explore.
Explore in Depth
While daily journalism can easily burn you out with its incessant demands, there is a good chance you'll get to know a region, person,
organization or subject area really well. A longer project - like a book, teaching or a film - becomes a more realistic goal.
Mentoring -- Yours and Theirs
There are fields where it's unrealistic, laughable even, to hope for mentoring. It's winner-take-all competition.
While journalism is indeed extremely competitive at every level, it's also a business that recognizes the value of, and the need for,
mentoring. Many of those now working in the field had someone - a relative or friend, a professor or tutorial assistant, a boss or
colleague --- who helped point them in the right direction, gave some advice, read their resume (and passed it along), edited a story
or a manuscript, listened to a late-night vent of utter frustration.
Call it karma, call it decency, call it smart business. But call someone and offer them their your help and smarts, and ask for it when
you need it. It won't always come at exactly the right moment, but it is, always, available somewhere. Seek mentors and treat them
respectfully for they're essential to your success.