In the last six years, I have both fallen in love with journalism, and been completely beaten down by it.
My love affair with the industry started simply. Before I left high school for college, I wanted to know what I was going to be working toward, and somehow stubbled upon the idea of journalism.
In my rosy colored vision it was the ideal career. I would be a travel writer. I imagined myself traveling the world, taking photographs and writing articles, all for a magazine where I would be a full time employee.
Then I got into college and realized that that was realistically never going to happen. Yes there are travel writers who make their living that way. But it’s not easy, and rarely are they full time employees for a magazine. Rather they freelance. It’s not impossible, but it’s not an easy life.
I also discovered, that while I’ve always had a bit of a natural knack for writing, in the real world, that doesn’t cut it. You need to care about style, and grammar. You need to be able to spell. I like to tell stories. I like the sound of my fingers hitting the letters on a keyboard. I enjoy watching the words appear in sync with that sound. But I have never given a rats ass about grammar and spelling. Can’t someone else check that stuff for me?
Writing was now out, but there were still the photos. Making great photos that tell a story isn’t easy. But generally shooting photos for a newspaper is a lot easier than coming up with the story ideas, talking to people and writing the articles.
I decided I was going to be strictly a photographer. After a stint shooting for the campus newspaper, I knew I wanted to be a daily newspaper photographer. So I set off to peruse that career. I followed the correct methods and paths. Indiscriminately I applied to internships everywhere.
The first one I landed was for no pay, in a huge city, at a large paper. It was a great experience and I learned a lot, but I hardly remember it. I do remember being wildly uncomfortable in the huge office, but less timid to approach people on the streets after taking their photos. From my perspective at the time, everything went fine. It was my foot in the door of a career I was sure I wanted.
However, in retrospect my future realization that I am not meant for traditional journalism was there. Very rarely did I actually read the paper I worked for. I had no desire to wander the streets in my free time looking for stories to tell. I remember one of the other staff photographers getting frustrated with me when he realized I hadn’t even bothered to learn the name county I was in. I really wasn’t interested in discovering news.
What I liked was being forced to approach strangers, and meet new people. People are fascinating. I think everyone is just curious about other people, it’s human nature. Photography allowed me to strike the right balance between experiencing and learning about new things, and silently observing behind my lens.
After graduation I landed a paid internship at a newspaper that was in the middle of trying to figure out how to capitalize on the digital world. I was one of two photography interns and I showed up bright-eyed and enthusiastic. I stayed at that internship a year, and left completely unsure if I wanted to continue in journalism.
In that year I saw and met the people who were meant to be in the profession. The people journalism needed. They were always working at bettering their craft. Always taking photos and looking for stories through images. Their work was beautiful, and meaningful. Seeing it made me appreciate the craft and taught me something new about the world. The work they did was great. In a media saturated environment, that’s what we need. Great journalists, doing great work. Opening up the curtain on things the rest of the world isn’t seeing, and making us look.
They made me feel awful.
That wasn’t what I was doing, and it wasn’t my passion. For a while I told myself that it was okay, and not every photojournalist needed to be that way. I could work at community newspapers. Filling holes on newspaper pages with photos of whatever was just happening around town. The work wouldn’t help spur change, or educate people, but it needed to be done.
What bullshit — and I knew it.
When I left that internship I felt lost. I wasn’t happy and I had at least figured out my job wasn’t going to make me that way. I could have stayed in that town. If I had, I would probably still just be shooting pictures for a news organization. Going where I was told and coming back with a minimum of five passable images to get fill space on pages, and get clicks on a website.
I spent the next five or so months trying to figure out life. I thought freelance photography was my new destiny. I romanticized the idea in the same way I had travel writing, and was woefully unprepared to make a living that way.
Eventually as funds ran out and I hadn’t booked a single gig, I became incredibly discouraged. I went out looking for employment and took the first job I was offered at a grocery store.
At that point I was still thinking journalism is not the place for me. But I also didn’t feel like I knew how to do anything else. I hoped that maybe any entry level job I took would help me figure it out.
It didn’t. Instead I felt wildly over qualified with my bachelors degree working a job next to people who had barely graduated high school. It was a selfish, high minded feeling, I know. Thinking that I was too good to be in that position. I blame society for the stigmas in my head and the notion that a bachelors degree elevates you somehow. But that is a topic, for another essay.
Unhappy, I looked back at journalism. I didn’t romanticize it like I once had, but at least if I worked my way back into that career path I wouldn’t feel like I had wasted four years of my life and a ton of money on a journalism degree.
So I decided to give it another shot. I was desperate, and committed to living where I lived, so when I saw a job listing for a do-it-all at a weekly journalist I went for it.
At first the new job, as one of only two employees at a small town newspaper was great. For the most part I chose the stories I worked on and set my own hours. It was new and exciting — for a while. Eventually all the thoughts that had made me want to move away from journalism in the first place reappeared, and became more clear to me than they ever had before.
What I was doing, could be called journalism I guess, but it wasn’t good. Not even remotely. For a while I told myself that small community newspapers were the future of the industry, the hyper-local.
It’s not. At least not in a traditional format. Again, that is a topic for another time.
Despite feeling like journalism is not my calling, falling in and out of love with journalism and working in tiny town has taught me a lot.
It has allowed be to reflect on the purpose of journalism and to think critically about the state of media today. It has introduced me to the delicate balance between what people need to know, and what is none of their damn business. It’s shown me that while grammar and spelling are important, people care more about the content of your writing than the quality.
Most importantly it has made me appreciate the people who are meant for the field. The people with innate curiosity, who will go to great lengths to seek answers to their questions. The people who practice journalism with high ethical standards, and will continue to produce good work despite the challenges journalism has faced in the digital age.