What advice would you give to young writers thinking about starting a career in journalism? That was the question posed last week in this space. This time around I have a question that probably should have been asked sooner rather than later: Why would anyone think about starting a career in journalism?
It’s a question that’s been around for a while. My father posed it to me 50 years ago, when I was completing my senior year in high school and looking ahead to college and a career that one assumed would blossom from that college experience.
Hearing me talk about journalism triggered some second thoughts in my father’s mind, even though he was the one who had opened the door on the possibility by urging me to get involved with the high school newspaper. “Think twice before you go into journalism,” he told me. “It doesn’t pay much. You might want to think about engineering instead.”
That reality, which is still true today, of course, meant that the summer job I was offered as a sportswriter at the Binghamton Evening Press paid $55 a week. Not bad, but not nearly as good as the summer job available at IBM, driving a forklift at a rate of $70 a week. With a slice of pizza and a soda going for a quarter, that extra $15 a week was a chance to live the high life. But I passed that up for the thrill of typing up weekly stock car racing results phoned in from Five Mile Point and the Susquehanna Speedway, to write headlines to go above news items that arrived via the AP machine, and to occasionally cover the Triplets, the minor league baseball team.
Today a would-be journalist would hear all that dire money talk coupled with doomsday views of the entire profession. Will newspapers survive long enough to carry a young writer into middle age, let alone retirement age? Will Internet news sites ever pay anyone (other than a handful of celebrity journalists) a living wage? Will the profession of journalism come to resemble any other art or craft, with practitioners being paid by the piece as they are cranked out?
If you Google “how viable is a journalism career,” you will get some very mixed opinions.
An April, 2012, post at Forbes.com by Jeff Bercovici refers to a recent survey ranking journalist as the fifth-worst job to have. As Bercovici acknowledged, “yes, there are too few really good jobs and too many people fighting for them. Yes, salaries start out quite low. Yes, the hours can be long and irregular. Yes, the industry is in a period of extreme disruption.”
From all of that doomsday news, Bercovici was somehow able to extract a silver lining: “None of that changes the core fact here. For those who are cut out for it — and that’s definitely not everyone — journalism is a uniquely rewarding, wonderful career. Here are just a few of the reasons why.” To boil it down to a sentence:
“You’re always learning; you get paid to read a ton; you get paid to meet interesting people; you get to meet celebrities (not necessarily the same as the ‘interesting people’); maybe you get to enjoy a little celebrity; all that ‘stress’ is called excitement; journalists get around (away from the desk); and then there’s the matter of self-expression (for better or worse, the old days of journalists having to put in 20 years of work to earn the right to use the word ‘I’ are behind us).”
In an article for monster.com, the big employment website, a writer named Peter Vogt notes that “when I finished my undergraduate degree in journalism in 1990, I thought I only had two career options: a newspaper reporting job or one at a TV or radio station. I was a journalism grad who was completely uninformed about my career possibilities. Now some 20 years later, job options for journalism grads have only grown, particularly with the explosion of the Internet. Here are 10 of the numerous job titles well within your reach.”
According to Vogt, those jobs include book editor (“you probably already love books”); content producer (“today’s information-heavy websites need writers and editors”); copywriter; grant writer; news service writer (“many colleges and universities have writers and editors”); newsletter writer/editor; public relations specialist; publications specialist (“both for-profit and nonprofit organizations produce publications for employees, customers, clients, donors, and volunteers”); sports information director; and technical writer (“any time clear instructions must be written, a technical writer goes to work”).
It’s a great list, but notice that you don’t see “reporter” on it, or “feature writer.” In other words, the jobs that give you that chance for self expression, to write your own story in your own voice, seem to be few and far between. But some people are still taking the plunge to pursue those jobs.
If you are already involved in journalism you might be flattered by the career arc of Thaddeus Novak. A National Merit Scholar in the Class of 1998 at Tenafly High School, Novak not only earned a B.S. in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale but also a B.A. in English. At the University of Chicago he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. But he was no book-bound lab rat. While working on his Ph.D. he appeared on “Merv Griffin’s Crosswords” game show and won $17,100 in cash and a trip to Mexico.
Then Novak apparently asked himself what was really important, and this very smart young man thought of journalism. Novak earned a master’s in journalism at Columbia. In 2011 he started writing for an online sports website, BleacherReport.com, covering college basketball. “I’m an ex-academic scientist who’s having a lot more fun trying to make a career out of sports writing,” he said in his Bleacher Report profile.
His father, Ralph Novak, a retired People magazine editor who edited some of my stories for that publication back in the early 1980s, noted that Thad “came to realize that a lot about laboratory science is waiting around for things to happen. Sports is a little more lively.”
Between January 20, 2011, and September 14 of this year Thaddeus Novak wrote a total of 1,257 columns.
I have not kept up with Ralph Novak, but a mutual friend from the People days alerted me to his son’s death on November 1 at the age of 34. I found a compelling obituary for Novak written by Jay Levin of the Bergen Record and posted online on November 16.
As Levin noted, some of those 1,257 columns were written from hospital rooms while Novak was being treated for the cystic fibrosis that he had battled since birth. He reached a point where he needed oxygen 24 hours a day but he continued writing. The final columns were written from a hospital while he awaited a double lung transplant that would ultimately be unsuccessful.
As his father said in the obituary: “His goal was to live life like he didn’t have cystic fibrosis.” He succeeded. The journalists in the audience can go back seven paragraphs or so in this piece and strike out the word “flattered.” Make it “inspired.”