Friday, 9 August 2013

An ode to journalism

Ok ok, I understand that if you're not in Romania, then my whole backwards-and-forwards of 'I'm coming to Romania, I'm not, I am again!' doesn't really have much relevance.

Good thing then that I've got something else I have to talk about: what being a journalist means to me. I've gone the whole hog: four-year University degree, and over five years' experience since writing for both newspapers and magazines, now culminating in me being a magazine editor.

Journalism isn't one of those sexy careers, is it? Everybody knows that all journalists are cynical hacks who'd sell their mother up the creek for a photo of Kate sunbathing topless, and you'd better never trust anything you read in any newspaper - those are all written by spotty interns fresh out of school, or retired people who couldn't find any other job to keep them in a fresh supply of cat food.

To understand why I'm a journalist, you have to go back to High School, where I was always a strong writer, managed to get a couple of poems and short stories published in some anthologies, won two separate writing competitions which got me an all-expenses paid week-long trip to visit the journalism department of a University a long way away, and then a year's worth of free tuition at that same University (no prizes for guessing that's where I ended up studying). My grandfather - the father-figure in my life after my parents were divorced and I was raised by my mother - was also a newspaper editor, so you could call my fate sealed.

Only it wasn't that clear-cut for me. I actually was good at accounting as well, really good. I chose as my venue for job shadowing PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where I spent a week trailing after a chartered accountant trying to figure out what was going on. I had my heart set on studying a B.Commerce degree at an entirely different University.

One snag: during the whole week I job-shadowed that position, the only time the accountants in the office laughed was when one threw a stapler across the office to another, and that guy dropped it.

Now you might consider that a really weird deal-breaker, but remember in High School none of us know what we want to do with our lives, once we grow past the fantasies of working for NASA (yes, I seriously had that one). I knew I didn't want to be a vet, or a doctor, or a fireman, or a policeman, or any of the other off-the-shelf careers you're shown in those little 'pick your career' handbooks which are meant to help but only make the decision harder.

I don't actually intend to give you a blow-by-blow of my career here. As careers go it has been pretty exciting, starting off at the newspaper my grandfather founded (sadly the year after he died), then moving from a sleepy coastal resort town to the big mean streets of Johannesburg, then getting tired of chasing fires in the distance and having to photograph people seconds after tragedy (my personal worst commission: being asked to rush off to the site of a reported drowning to see if I could get a photograph of the boy's body being wheeled out by paramedics).

Needless to say I grabbed the chance to enter the higher-paying world of automotive journalism in a heartbeat, and the job contradictions haven't ended: I've often reflected on my peers pathetically describing cars they could never afford on their journalists' salaries as 'affordable', and been frustrated myself by driving luxury test cars which I myself could never afford on my present trajectory. Breaking into being an editor before I'm thirty is another nice step up, but it's another glass ceiling as well: from here there's divisional editor, and then nothing ... not at my current company, anyway).

I don't think my challenges are unique by any means: I'm pretty sure all careers have their own inherent contradictions (the old adage of the shoemaker's children never having shoes pops to mind). I'm not trying to discourage anybody from journalism either, because in retrospect I do think that I've got the type of personality which would have suffered if I was pinned behind an office desk endlessly trying to achieve balance in the corporate ledgers.

Here then, for would-be journalists, are the best parts of journalism:
- Being granted front-row or behind-the-scenes or VIP access to pretty much anything
- Walking through town the day your newspaper is released, and seeing people everywhere at coffee shops reading and discussing the news stories you have written
- Seeing the pride that people you interview take in pinning up or framing stories you've written about them, or the relief they feel when you pay an interest in exposing the injustice which is troubling them
- That moment of unbridled creativity while you're pondering the best way to write the intro to a story, or a catchy headline

That's pretty much it, I'm afraid. Depending on who you are, it might just be enough. If you're genuinely curious about everything, if you genuinely have a do-gooder attitude about recognising others' accomplishments and righting wrongs, and if you're genuinely extroverted enough to walk up to anybody and strike up a conversation for them (what helps is realising that they're more intimidated by you than you are of them), then journalism might just be your thing.

There's a long list of negatives you have to deal with as well. This starts with ageing editors with their fixed mind-sets and unreasonable expectations, to those sub-editors from hell who will re-write any story of yours no matter how well it was written, to the universally poor salaries relative to your other professional colleagues, to the relatively flat career path (you're a junior or senior writer or an editor, that's it), to the general dearth of feedback from the readers you write for (you'll slave over a story and have it forgotten in time for the next edition), to the moral and ethical objections towards advertisers dictating copy results.

These aren't the sorts of things you'll get any value out of, if anybody came to you in high school during one of those career talks, and tried to warn you and encourage you simultaneously. What do we know in school of finding creative means to express ourselves in jobs which can easily become mundane?

The biggest risk journalists currently face is the lack of respect publishers (their employers) have for their skills. At worst, you'll be treated as somebody to fill the space inbetween the adverts, and at best you'll be viewed as a multi-tool capable of performing all odd-jobs. The requirement for journalists to start selling advertising, leveraging their relationships with corporate decision makers, is simultaneously common-sense (companies in difficult financial climates need all their employees to contribute to the bottom-line) and ridiculous (you wouldn't ask a salesperson to write a story for you, so why is the inverse acceptable?).

That's before we get to the requirement for blurring of journalistic roles. If you can write, you can also take photographs, hold a video camera, engage in social media, update websites, put out press releases and think up advertising copy ... right? As a journalist you'll end up looking at your publishing company's accountants or designers or salespeople with a measure of jealousy, as their talents in their individual fields are satisfactory to your company, and you're asked to keep on producing and performing far beyond anything you were ever trained for.

Thinking about this last night, I realise it's a sign of our changing times. We don't want expensive speciality stores anymore: we all frequent mega-stores which discount everything from socks to salad. We don't want a cellphone to make (gasp) phonecalls: we want one which takes great photos, browses the internet, sorts our e-mail and edits our documents. Is it any wonder that our employers are treating us as employees in the same manner?

When it comes to traditional careers like accounting or clearly-defined roles such as designers, these new-thinking employers are a bit flummoxed. Should they be asked to help with the office admin, or should they assist with packing boxes? Would their skills better translate into also making coffee for guests, or decorating the reception area? All of these are seen as lowly tasks, and nobody would dream of asking an accountant or designer to try to sell an advert to a client.

How about that guy in editorial? You know, that guy who knows those people, with the out-going personality and the flair for writing? Sure, he can sell! Sure, he can help produce multimedia content! He can do anything (but we'll still pay him peanuts *wink wink, nudge nudge*).

Welcome to the new and scary face of journalism. It's everywhere.

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