On sticking with the godforsaken profession of newspaper reporter

(Cross-posted to my journalism blog.)

I spent yesterday morning in a social studies class in one of the school districts I cover. The class is a new requirement for freshmen called Success 101, which teaches students about making life plans, career goals and budgeting for their future needs.

After I had finished snapping some photos, the teacher asked me to come to the front of the class and tell them about my job and the pros and cons of my work. My answer wasn’t a polished as it could have been with some forewarning, but it made me think about why I got into and stuck with this industry.

The newspaper reporters I’ve encountered, especially the younger ones, tend to be a particular kind of masochist. Every one of my coworkers has at times complained about hating the industry to me (as I have to them). And there’s plenty to hate.

We make no money. (We got a 2 percent cost of living increase for 2014, the first COLA or raise anyone in the newsroom has seen in about five years.) We’re supposed to be happy with this because at least we still have a reporting job at a newspaper, and really, it’s true—we could be doing a lot worse.

We work odd hours. I’ve had to put date night plans on hold to go to a three-hour long city council meeting, get home at 10:30 and then be at work at 7 the next morning to write a story about it. For an afternoon paper like ours, my work day becomes a de-facto split shift when I have to go to a meeting in the evening, which makes it really hard to have a life.

We’re supposed to be able to do everything. My beat (which is supposed to be half-time; the other half, I’m a web editor) requires covering schools, city and county government, business and anything else that comes up in two counties (each with its own main town) plus four other small towns spread over Washington and Oregon. Theoretically, this means I should be an expert in educational policy and laws governing public records, land-use planning and municipal government in two states. In practice, this means I’m usually playing catch-up.

Our jobs are high-stress and sometimes require us to confront the worst of human nature. We spend weeks on in-depth feature reporting projects or investigative pieces only to see them get almost no feedback from readers, and then we spend half an hour writing and posting a story about a dead body being found and watch it become the most-viewed article online that month. Any mistakes we make are instantly in the public eye, and our desk phone and cell phone numbers are intentionally available to anyone who asks, making us easy targets for people with a bone to pick.

But I wouldn’t trade this for anything (until I have kids at least, and need to start saving for college for them). As much as the pay sucks and the stress feels like too much sometimes, my job is one of the few I’m aware of where my day-to-day work is always different and rarely boring. Some days, I sit through school board workshops and learn how federal education policy passed 10 years ago is going to impact the students in my area next year. Sometimes I get to drive around wind farms with a biologist who cares deeply about bat migration. And sometimes, I sit in the office reading the New York Times online and waiting for the seven or eight people I’ve called to get back to me.

Being a reporter is a license to keep learning. It’s a license to stay in school indefinitely, except you don’t get graded, you can stick to learning about topics you’re interested in and the only papers you have to write are supposed to be in plain English without formatted citations.

Especially at a small-town paper, being a reporter means people look to you as a source of information. You get to find important stories and share them with your community, and hopefully help give voice to people whose concerns might not otherwise be listened to. You get to give people a platform to be heard. You make sure everything is working as it should by sitting through long, boring meetings so other people don’t have to.

It’s not an easy profession to stick with in 2014, and I think my brief speech to those kids made it sound like reporting is, on the whole, not that great. But when I’m able to make the pay work and see past the hours and the stress, I can honestly say there’s no job in the world I’d rather be doing right now.