No one can stay in journalism more than a few years, let alone a few decades, without developing a clear eye for its pitfalls. (For the
good news, see the essay entitled Pleasures.)
There are many. They won't happen to everyone and maybe none of them will ever happen to you. But they are common to this business and,
especially if you are considering journalism as a career, (and assuming the cost of graduate training), you need to know what they are.
Whether you work fulltime at a major news organization or fulltime freelance, before you have 6-10 years' experience and, after that,
top-notch skills and the willingness and ability to negotiate hard for more money, you probably won't be taking home the big bucks. Expect
salaries from the low 20s to the mid-40s, $60,00 and up if you're doing well. After 10 years, a small percentage of print journalists,
usually at national newspapers and magazines, earn $80-120,000 a year or more. There is no sales or commission on editorial work;
occasionally, bonuses or stock options are offered to those considered most valuable.
Freelancers must continually push - while, of course, never alienating established, new and potential clients with their aggressiveness -
for better pay, fair rights, high(er) kill fees. While rates have not risen for many publications over the years, costs such as health
insurance skyrocket annually. Freelancers must also pay 15 percent of their income to Social Security, not the usual 7.5 percent paid by
those in staff positions.
How about the overnight shift? Nights, weekends, holidays? How about 2-11, 4-midnight and, the favorite, the overnight shift? Whatever
bizarre hours you can imagine, odds are you'll be asked to work them at some point in your career, especially in wire service, broadcast
and newspaper work. And age, experience and seniority offer no protection; there are journalists in their 50s and 60s still expected to
work weird hours. Which leads to...
Balance? What Balance?
Even if you're single, your goldfish may end up missing you desperately. You may have to kiss your personal life goodbye by working...
weird, long hours. If you write for a daily and file your story at 5:00 p.m., you can't blast out the door and start a night class at
6:30, confident your editor(s) won't have questions for you later.
Your sweetheart or spouse can get mighty fed up of the long, weird hours - and personal sacrifices -- that daily journalism, especially,
demands. How many years are you willing to put your private life on hold? How will you handle the demands of parenthood?
The attitude is prevalent: you don't like it, move on. There are hundreds of equally-qualified people eager to fill your job.
Loneliness and Isolation
For the fulltime freelancer, working alone at home can really leach the fun out of your days. Staying productive, i.e. researching,
reading, telephoning, emailing and writing, while getting out of your office space, is a challenge. It's great to skip commuting and
dressing up, office politics and dull colleagues --- but you also miss out on social invitations, intellectual stimulation, and new
viewpoints and ideas. (Find or create a writers' group that meets once a month, and be sure to attend the Neiman Narrative Conference
in November in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the ASJA conference in New York City in April, each of which attracts 1,000 journalists from
North America and overseas.)
Like Rodney Dangerfield, freelancers often get no respect - from the editors who've never heard of you and from some PR folks, the
gatekeepers to key sources for our stories. Few people who have never worked without the safety net of a paycheck and benefits
comprehend the nature of our work; to them, all too often, our very real deadlines look like bungee cords - unimaginably elastic.
Then there's the inevitable triage: if you're on assignment for a smaller outlet, it's tougher to get your calls or emails returned
promptly, without which your research cannot proceed.
Two tips: If you're freelance, create a top-notch website and update it often; it communicates instantly that you're a hardworking
professional, just like the people whose help you need. Expect a few people to ignore your calls and always allow extra time for
reporting. Avoid taking on any assignments around major holidays!
The Dark Ages: 40 and Up
Ever noticed how young many journalists are? Not on TV, perhaps, where 50 and 60-somethings still reign
supreme. But journalism, for some of the above reasons, tends to be a young person's game, rewarding those who work long, weird hours
for low pay, express few opinions about how their copy is handled and willing to relocate/travel whenever and wherever needed. They
don't have pesky appendages like a partner or children. By the time you hit midlife, other personal concerns start to take precedence.
Lack of Staff Development
If you're a bright young thing on Wall Street, earning an MBA - paid for by your employer - is a perk you can aim for. Not in journalism.
You'll arrive at a newsroom ready to hit the ground running, and be expected to stay there. While there are fellowships available for
young and mid-career professionals, they are highly competitive and rely on the goodwill of your employer to sponsor you and/or release
you from your regular duties. (And will you have the same job or beat when you get back?)
The weird/long hours, and low pay, can also make it difficult to afford/continue your graduate education at night. Even if you do earn
an(other) advanced degree - unless it's in a subject area considered essential by your employer -- your paycheck is unlikely to reflect
the value of this additional knowledge.
Contrary to popular belief, freelancers can indeed win fellowships, short and long-term. I've won five: an eight-month (now defunct)
program, Journalists in Europe; three Knight Center courses and a Poynter Institute seminar. Just as a staffer applying from a fulltime
position, you'll need letters of reference - which is why you always need a few editors really enthusiastic about your work. You can also
ask for, and get, full scholarships. I know freelancers who have won significant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities,
a Fulbright and a Guggenheim. There are also many writer's retreats where you can withdraw (with expenses) to work uninterrupted on a
You have to look for these opportunities and try for them, sometimes repeatedly. But the more of these you win, the more you'll win;
people like to see that others have placed faith in your abilities and been rewarded for their gamble.