There’s a funny description about journalism — “It’s a tough job with insane pressure and pretty lousy pay. But on the other hand, everyone hates you.” No question there are much tougher jobs, but I’m not sure the general public quite understands what it takes to do the job of a journalist. It’s fast-paced and pressure-packed with low pay, which is why so many young journalists leave after the first few years. Not everyone can do this job, nor once they get a taste of it, do they want to. That’s why what I’m about to write worries me a bit.
When I left TV news almost four years ago, I almost immediately received messages from journalists wondering two things: 1. When do you know it’s time to leave? 2. How do you do it? But what I’m seeing now seems different. Because of the pandemic, people in all industries are seriously revaluating what they want in their lives. In fact, a recent survey showed 1 in 4 Americans are thinking about quitting their jobs, and journalists are no different. I have mixed feelings about that. I’m always excited to help journalists realize their marketability in the “real world”, yet I’m saddened to see so many quality and experienced journalists looking for a way out. In many ways being a journalist is your identity (it almost has to be if you want to be any good at it) and so when you decide to shed that part of you, that’s a big deal. It’s usually never done without serious thought. Now, the only evidence I have is anecdotal, so perhaps I’m misreading this current climate. But I’m talking to more and more journalists who want out and so are my friends, and I think that’s mentionable. The question is why? Here’s what they’ve told me:
1. EMOTIONALLY DRAINING — “Jay, I’m just tired and I miss my family.” That’s what I hear most from journalists who contact me. It was a tough job when things were “normal”. Now add an historic and unrelenting news cycle and you can understand why many journalists are burned out. Consider the work journalists are doing in the Twin Cities. They’ve reported on a pandemic that not only impacted them personally but professionally. They seem to be reporting on a lot of traumatic events these days, more than usual. That can cause its own trauma. They’ve had to figure out how to do their jobs differently all while covering some of the biggest stories of their careers. On top of that, people just don’t like them. Some of that is caused by journalists, but a lot of it is not. And while that’s not why you do the job, it’s disheartening when people call you the “enemy”. Let me be clear — journalists should be critiqued. They aren’t perfect and when they and the system fall short, they should be called out. But some of what we’re seeing today, and even some of what I experienced a few years ago, can go beyond that and into dangerous territory.
2. PAY — A lot of people think if you’re a journalist, especially one on television you get paid a lot of money. While that may be true for some, it’s not true for most. That’s one of the reasons I left. Not the reason, but a reason. Journalists are realizing their worth outside of a newsroom. Businesses are realizing they can hire a journalist who can do the job of two or three, do it well and for probably for less than someone else. Because to most journalists most anything is a big raise. Put it this way, I had to get a second job early on in my career just to pay the bills. I turned down one job offer because I could make more working at a fast-food joint. Nothing against fast food, but I didn’t attend college and go to J-school for that. My experience is not unique. Also, many journalists were furloughed this year. That’s not new to the industry and it’s better than getting laid off. Yet when you’re also exhausted and reporting on some pretty heavy stuff, looking at a lackluster bank account can add to that feeling of wanting something different.
3. LIFESTYLE — Many journalists I speak to have been forced to work from home during the worst of the pandemic. It’s certainly harder to do your job as a journalist that way, but in many respects, you get a glimpse of what life could be like outside of a newsroom. You have dinner with your family or friends. You’re home at a decent hour because you’re typically already there. I spoke to one friend who said, “I got a taste of what a normal life with my family would feel like and I loved it.” As a journalist you work long hours. Getting a day off sometimes feels like an act of Congress. Getting lunch with a friend or spontaneously leaving early for happy hour does not happen. You have no time. You’re working. You’re always under deadline. It’s not like you can hit the gas one week to finish a project and tap the breaks and leave work early the next. You never make up that time. You aren’t in the driver seat. You’re in the passenger seat. It’s not a normal job. And in some cases, that’s why journalists like it, but more of them are realizing after this exhausting year there might be another way.
Consider this. One of my friends who just left the industry after a very successful career said, “I loved journalism, but journalism didn’t love me back.” That’s not to say all journalists are miserable right now. I know some who are loving their jobs and their lives, and I’m genuinely happy for them and I hope it continues. I still believe journalism is a great career and a noble calling. I loved my time as a broadcast journalist. I lived out my dreams and served my community. I met my wife because of it and thank God for that. Journalism taught me a lot of hard and soft skills that translated into a solid career reinvention for me. I have no regrets and I encourage people to go into journalism. That said, I worry more quality journalists will leave in the next few years than we’ve seen in the past because of what’s happening in the present. If they leave that means fewer reporters telling us what’s happening in our world and that makes me nervous. I could be wrong, but my conversations and the current atmosphere tell me I’m not.