There’s some pretty powerful propaganda out there romanticizing my profession.
Whether it’s Blood Diamond‘s Jennifer Connelly scooping the dirt on an evil civil war, dodging bullets and out flirting African militiamen only long enough to fall in love with Leonardo DiCaprio and pull down the greedy international diamond cabal —
or the stoic portrayal of Edward R. Murrow exposing the free-speech hating Senator McCarthy as America watched on the evening news in last year’s Good Night and Good Luck, I can understand why some of my idealistic peers might want to pursue a career in journalism.
But after my first year as a full-time journalist for The Common Language Project, an online multimedia magazine covering domestic and international social justice issues, I feel it would be unfair not to start by trying to dissuade you.
I know: what sounds better than a career exploring the world, challenging power, championing rights, indulging your curiosity, and writing about it? At least once a week I describe my job to someone new and their reply is something like “Ooooh, international journalist! How exciting! I would love to have your job.”
Ironically, the first thing to understand, future journalists, is how infrequently it actually qualifies as a “job” (in the money for services sense of the word).
I can only speak to those of you who are considering devoting yourselves to freelance or independent journalism. (I’ve hear rumors that there is still a scattering of jobs in mainstream news outlets that serve up regular paychecks to a chosen few).
By far the majority of journalists I meet are like me, underpaid and wild-eyed, trying to claw their way to the next grant or random payout from a piece that was finally picked up. Often these same journalists must work multiple jobs because they write for independent sources that can only fantasize of paying more than a token amount to their contributors.
The thing about not getting paid much is you have to work your ass off. And I’m not talking about tromping-through-African-jungles and outsmarting-devious-bad-guys hard work either.
I’m talking about tedious stuff like internet research, cold calls, and scripted interviews with self-important bureaucrats. Most of my time is spent waiting for people who don’t want to talk to me to call back before I wear out their voicemails.
Of course, with any given story there are the days you spend actually traveling to some new place, interviewing a truly fascinating or courageous person, and “getting the scoop”. I’m just warning you, those days can feel awful few and far between, and I’ve yet to meet anyone that faintly resembles Mr. DiCaprio while on the job.
Now that you understand that you’ll work hard and get paid little, let’s revisit the “glory and admiration” you’re supposed to receive.
For every occasional movie that comes out weakly reminding Americans that journalists are the watchdogs of our democracy, there is a flurry of (sadly well-deserved) jabs at how corrupt, sleazy and bought-out the media is. Just last week I was introduced to someone as, “Sarah, she’s a journalist, but don’t worry she’s nice.”
Enthusiastically sharing their disdain for cheap saccharine journalists is pointless. Tutoring them in the finer distinctions between People Magazine and Mother Jones, or graphing media consolidation in the for-profit world of news and information, often earns blank stares.
Seems no matter how you try to define yourself, you’re eternally the “exploitive TV journalist” shoving a microphone up the nose of a defenseless victim or throwing soft-ball questions to a deceitful politician so as not to offend the advertisers.
Just about a year ago, my professor said it pretty succinctly in the final hour of my final class in my final quarter as a media studies major: “Don’t get into this profession if you need people to like you-it’s in opposition of what you’re out there to do.”
OK, I concede that I was asked to write this piece in response to the question, “How do I break into journalism?” and you may notice that I’ve avoided favored the more abstract and rambling Why? Instead of the pragmatic How.
In fact, the How is surprisingly simple (and unfortunately also a corporate slogan): Just do it.
As I mentioned above, if you want experience, really all that’s required is a willingness to go out there and teach yourself. Find a story or subject that interests you and start reporting. If you have a notepad and pen, an audio recorder, a camera, and a genuine curiosity, you’re outfitted.
As for a place to publish, the advent of online journalism has provided countless independent outlets for aspiring journalists, many that are more than happy to help people new to the field shape and develop stories.
I was first published by The Indy Media Center, an online media collective that has offices in American cities and worldwide.
Other online publications abound. A few to start with (specifically travel writing websites and sites that publish international stories) are:
Now back to the Why.
It seems mean spirited that I would spend so much time outlining all of the reasons not to become a journalist, mention a few links if you haven’t been convinced to throw in the towel and leave it at that.
But I’m sure that anyone asking how to become an independent journalist is already afflicted by a passion for this job. This is a career that changes everyday and keeps you constantly engaged with the world, as well as a contributing to what has been called “the first draft of history.”
Maybe you’ve even had the experience of pulling a story from the chaos, shaping it into a narrative and hurling it back to the public in the hope of making an impact.
In short, you probably already know the Why.
Any aspiring journalist reading this is used to hearing that this is a hard profession to break into, that it’s underpaid and underappreciated. I still hear that all the time. But if you’ve been bitten by journalism you’re not going to be discouraged by me or anyone else.
If, like me, you can’t think of anything else you’d rather do you’ll jump right in. I did.
PS. Of course, I think the best way to break into multimedia journalism or travel writing is to write for The Common Language Project. Contact me at email@example.com to find out how.