I left my newspaper job in November, after about a dozen years as a journalist. Before I go any further, I think it’s important to say that I loved being a newspaper reporter. I loved newspapers. Still do.
I didn’t leave the business because newspapers across the country — including the company I worked at — are faltering. Honestly, it was an industry I loved and believed in enough that I probably would have stuck with it until the very end, like captain of a sinking ship.
I also didn’t leave because I believe more strongly in the Internet than I do in newspapers. Well, sort of.
The reason I left is that I realized that I loved my idealized version of journalism, but I’d grown to despise what most newspaper journalism has become.
I read an interesting article yesterday that argued journalists don’t really earn their pay anymore because they’ve failed to differentiate themselves from one another. The idea is that journalists all write the same thing, and in an age where so much information is free, there can be no premium on information. Today’s newspaper journalists whine that they deserve better pay, and that the Internet is basically stealing their lunches. They warn us that when newspapers are gone, nobody will be left to mind the store. Government will run roughshod over the people, they say, if the people are unwilling to support journalists with high pay — and keep those presses running while they’re at it.
Journalists don’t get it. And that is why I left the newspaper industry. It’s why I’ll never go back.
Journalism is not a job; it’s a privilege. It’s what some of us get to do while the rest of the world goes to real jobs. Jobs that suck. Jobs that require back-breaking, mind-numbing labor. Jobs that make the world keep chugging along. They build your cars. They cook your hamburgers. They clean your streets. They keep streets safe, they propose and pass legislation, they educate children. They do actual necessary work.
Journalists do what everyone else wishes they could do. They rub shoulders with bigshots. They get to ask tough questions of people in charge when things are going wrong. They get access to people and places most people will never dream of having. And journalists are granted that amazing privilege by the actual workers of the world — those who have the natural curiosity to crane their necks when they pass a wreck at the side of the road, but can’t stop to ask what happened because they have to get to their real jobs.
The privilege journalists have is to pull over, ask the questions, get the answers that everyone else would like. That is the reader’s gift to a journalist: Go out and see all the great and terrible things I wish I could see. The only thing journalists have to do at the end of the day is tell what happened. That’s a dream job. It’s the reason I woke up every morning — because I knew I’d been given this gift.
And so I wrote stories. A lot of them. Sometimes three, even four in a day. And I soaked up every little thing I could. I didn’t sleep much. I drank a lot of coffee and ate terrible food from a vending machine. But I loved it. The fact that I got paid at all? Bonus. And I wrote every story and every column in gratitude. I covered several murders, including a capital murder trial. I covered an Indian land-claim case that threatened to displace thousands of people. I covered human joy and agony every day. And I loved it.
Looking around in the newsrooms I worked in, I found too few people who shared that way of looking at it. Readers, to many of them, are ignorant cows, who desperately gnaw on whatever bits of wisdom the Journalists feel they’re ready to hear. The more the Journalists get paid, the higher they set themselves above their reader. And then, one day, the pay and the privilege and even the job itself become their right, dammit. And nobody better try to take it away.
Yes, newspapers are losing readers to the Internet. But it isn’t the Internet’s fault; the blame lies with journalists who have lost sight of their mission. They’re being replaced by people who may not be well sourced, who don’t have Newhouse master’s degrees and don’t expect a big paycheck at the end of each week. Those replacements — the hated bloggers — aren’t doing it for the pay or the glory. They’re doing it because they love it. And because they’ve been let down for too long.