Sunday, 14 April 2013

Confessions of a reformed journalist

Unique Selling Point ... everything you spend your time on should have one. What sets this blog apart from countless others is that I'm not just trying to tell the world what music I'm listening to now, not trying to condense my thoughts into 140 characters, and not just explaining what I feel but rather why. In other words, not all posts will be about Romania, mkay? This one isn't. This one's about me.

My grandfather once told me that whatever I decide to become, I shouldn't become a journalist. Which was ironic, considering he was a newspaper editor at the time he told me that. I'd always enjoyed writing, been fairly successful at it, and a few threads conspired to land me studying towards a Bachelor of Journalism degree. 

In the five years I've been working as a journalist since graduating, I've progressed from newspapers (random fact: I started my career at the newspaper my grandfather founded) to magazines, and am now a magazine editor myself. My whole career I've known that my grandfather was right: being a journalist is a hard and often thankless career (financially anyway), and if you're not careful you'll be sidelined into being exactly the sort of journalist everybody hates. 

Luckily I'm made of stronger stuff than the average newshound, so I soon decided that I'd better escape the hard news world before I was burned out. The big question which has plagued me, however, is just exactly why is being a journalist so difficult at a structural level? There are a couple of answers to that: two are obvious, and one just struck me today.

The one obvious answer is that in the average publication, you have journalists, designers, a sub-editor or two, and THE editor. In other words, your career path is pretty stilted anywhere: if you work for a publishing house which has multiple titles, you may be lucky enough to be able to 'grow' from smaller publications to bigger ones. However, once you hit the ceiling - and you will - your only option will be to transfer to a bigger publishing house, and then a bigger one after that, right up until you have three kids, a bad back, a jaundiced view of life and an office chair which perfectly matches your butt.

The second answer is that you're a creative maverick, and that means that whatever you do somebody will have an opinion over how it could have been done better. How many times have I longed for a simple accounting job, where if I get the balance sheet to balance I've done my job well, and nobody could have done it any better? Or a job screwing the caps onto toothpaste tubes. Nope, in journalism you will always have a senior editor pointing out what you could or should have done, or a reader who doesn't like a specific phrase. The art gets drained out of the profession.

The third answer, however, which struck me this afternoon is altogether more depressing: words have no intrinsic value. If you build a chair, it has a value. If you iron a shirt, that service has a value. If you write a story, that story has no value whatsoever until somebody agrees to pay you for it ... or you find somebody to read what you've written and somebody acts upon your words.

My core 'craft', if you will, is about transmitting ideas, and my skill is in transmitting those ideas in a manner which is informative, clear and engaging. If you're still reading this blog post it means I've managed to keep at least a semblance of a flow going, or you're very persistent, but I'll make myself feel better by opting for the former.

That's what journalists are paid to do by most publications: interview subjects, transmit information, and just maybe add a little informed comment - cleverly disguised of course -  for context. In other words, we're all selling ourselves short.

I feel so angry with myself as I recognise this. I work in an industry which doesn't encourage journalists to come up with big ideas. We're encouraged to 'report', not create. That's where journalism really falls short: your mind is constantly engaged in repackaging other people's ideas into neat stories which readers can benefit from. Sure, journalists are sometimes called in to give their 'expert' opinion on some topical issue, but they're always second-rate citizens compared to the real experts who conduct primary research.

Don't believe me? Which person has more impact: the engineer who guides the construction of a bridge, or the journalist who photographs the finished bridge and asks the engineer about the challenges involved?

This is where the distinction between journalist and writer needs to come in. I'm a writer by trade, and I just so happen to be able to sell my writing skills as a journalist. You get so wrapped up in journalism, however, you forget that. And when you do remember, and decide to write something completely for yourself, you've depressingly got nothing to say.

Several times I've determinedly sat down in front of a blank document on my laptop and decided to start writing a book. The majority of the times I haven't even gotten past the first sentence, and it's all because journalism makes you dependent on speaking to sources, gathering facts, and then presenting them. Take away the primary guidance, and you're kicking off air. 

Clearly I'm not the only person in the world to suffer writer's block. There's a whole website with random generators for story ideas. What I'm describing though is something which goes beyond that: it's about the need to create something of value with no context, no frame of reference, and no physical elements to work with. 

It's like trying to invent without having any problem to solve, and no box of ingredients to puzzle over, wondering how to put them together to form a solution. I'm pretty sure that when the lightbulb was invented, somebody was thinking that darkness was a problem. When the telephone was invented, somebody else was puzzling over a pile of physical bits and thinking about pre-defined challenges.

If the challenge of being a journalist is to keep your employer happy, the challenge of being a writer is to define a problem statement for yourself to solve, and to generate an original idea which requires only words for its expression and transmission.

That's why writing this blog is so easy for me. My 'problem statement' is not so much that I want to share my experiences but rather that I want to start discussions, get input from international readers and gather enough readers for world domination. I mean ... bring about some real-world change. Will there one-day be a call to action on this blog? You betcha. Will it be to form a flash mob? Not a chance.

This blog is therefore unique, because it's taking me on a journey while I take you on a journey. I don't know where it's going to go, or have a set list of topics to write about. Today it's a bit of introspection, tomorrow maybe a political rant, and next week a link to another Harlem Shake video.

However, this blog isn't my life. What is really getting to me is that I want to find the ultimate problem statement, and come up with the ultimate arrangement of words which results in something amazing. I don't know what that is yet, but I know I want to find out. I know I don't want to die a journalist. We all die as humans, as creators ... and I want something to create which is 100% mine.

Newsflash: I'm looking for job satisfaction. Aren't we all?

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