There’s a great cliché about journalists — when there is danger, they rush in when everyone else rushes out. Toward wildfires, riot areas, war zones, even city council meetings. You’ve probably heard the stories about how difficult journalism is as a profession, about how hard it is to break into. So if you’re thinking of rushing into a profession that is purportedly on its deathbed, come sit next to me. You’re in the right place.
When young people tell journalists that they want to go into journalism, old-timers usually give terrible advice: “Run!” they say. “Get out while you still can.”
But I say run in the other direction — run toward the danger and the excitement and the long hours and having to call your mom to cancel Thanksgiving plans because you’re the new person on the desk and have to work Christmas and New Year’s, too.
Our president casts aspersions every day about the press, even declaring the press “the enemy of the American people.” To a young journalist, I would say, “Good for you!” You now have a clear-cut mission to prove him wrong. Coming into journalism during a time when newspapers are tumbling and only a few are figuring out the business formula? Wonderful. Your generation is the first digital native — the rest of us are still reeling from the revolution. Your group will crack this nut. That said, there’s nothing more valuable for your career than tucking under a mentor who is a legacy journalist.
When I started out, I was lucky enough to make mistakes off-camera, or rather away from the perpetuity of the internet. Your generation doesn’t have this luxury. You will be vilified. Everybody makes mistakes. Just make sure you learn from yours. Keep going. And your mistakes won’t hurt as much as those nasty and gratuitious anonymous comments at the end of your story. Stand up straight. There’s a reason those people are called trolls.
You’re going to cover horrible stories about terrible people who have done wretched deeds. Be bougie. Get your nails done or whatever version of self-care you can muster. I credit Frank Sinatra with getting me through a particularly bad patch that involved four young girls who stabbed to death an elderly Bible school teacher. The calmer you are, the better served your readers. Right now, The Mavericks are pulling me through. Find something that calms you down.
Separate your emotions from the devastating stories, or think about another career. Everyone has stories that slayed them, but most of us keep our reactions under wraps. The morning of the 9/11 attacks, a few people cried in the newsroom. Most of us didn’t. It’s someone else’s story, not yours. Tell the story and get out of the way. Let your reader react to the events, not you. That said, stories like the Newtown, Conn., shootings of school children have done us all in, just privately.
Understand that much of what is happening has happened before and will happen again. Be prepared. The mayor of the small town you are covering can be just as much an entitled despot as our current president. And his or her actions will be as detrimental to your reader’s world than those of Congress, if not more.
Treat your readers with respect. In fact, treat everyone with respect. Find the humanity in people. As one of my former bosses used to say: “Everybody has a mortgage,” or is worrying about making rent. Everybody has or has had a mother and a backstory that led to this moment. You don’t have to accept what the person did, but you do have to treat them with respect and humanity.
Don’t trust anyone, and the more you like someone, the less you should trust them. There’s a terrible trope from Chicago journalists: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” I hate that cliché because it presumes that it might be shocking that a mother wouldn’t love her child. Not all mothers love their children, and not all grandmothers are warm and cuddly.
In my early 20s, I had a mentor who was ancient — he was at least 45. One day I was relaying a sob story someone had just told me.
“He’s playing you,’’ he said. “He’s playing at your sympathies, that’s his schtick.” He was right.
He taught me a lot, including that if someone wants to follow you in a car, they will actually drive ahead of you, not behind. If you’re suspicious, go to the grocery store and get some shopping done. If you think your line is tapped, gossip with your mom about some distant relative until you hear the line click. If you’re getting death threats, don’t wash your car — that way you can see if anyone has been tampering with your engine. The only time I ever got death threats was from a religion story about a rift in a church.
You will never know which stories will affect your readers and which won’t. Decades ago, I wrote a six-part series on deinstitutionalization and the mentally ill in the industrial community I then covered. The last story was about a steelworker father whose young son had just committed suicide after a long battle with mental illness. The series didn’t get a single letter to the editor. A few weeks later, a friend wrote about a derelict farm that had 16 emaciated horses that had to be put down. Letters to the editor about these horses went on for months.
You will never be able to compete with mistreated animals. If you remember anything about this article, remember that.
Here’s my last piece of advice: People say they will do anything to be in the business. Hold yourself to that —nights, weekends, small towns, low pay, long hours. I promise one day you’ll get Thanksgiving off.
* Barbara Thomas is The Occidental Weekly staff adviser