Many journalists can tell you about their catalyst moment, the one that convinced them to pursue a life in journalism.
My own was reading the work of Michael Hastings, whose reporting in Rolling Stone in 2010 led to the downfall of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the then commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan whose unflattering words about Vice President Joe Biden and other officials were printed in the magazine. President Obama accepted his resignation the next day.
I was a college sophomore and on the fence about transferring into a journalism program. But seeing a young reporter cause such change with no more than some ink on a page cemented it in my mind: This is the career for me.
I entered J-school at a time when even my professors were warning of the end of print and an array of new challenges we would face in this field. They made it clear that life as a reporter wouldn’t be glitzy. We’d have a tough time getting hired, and even if we did find a job, the pay would suck.
Still, I knew no other profession was for me. And when I graduated, I realized my professors were right. I sent hundreds of queries and applications to editors around the country and rarely got any response. When I finally did get hired, at Westchester Magazine in 2012, it paid $27,000—a salary that forced me to live in my mother’s house for years just to afford my student loan payments and the occasional night out.
Even now—with hundreds of bylines in magazines and newspapers—I struggle to feel secure in the journalistic landscape.
So when Kyle Pope, editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, published an article entitled “So You Want to Be a Journalist?” on May 29th, it hit home—and hard.
In it, Pope talks of his own drive to be a journalist as a youngster before delving into what it means to be a journalist today—yes, the low pay, attacks by the president, layoffs, etc—before delving into the question: What would possibly drive young students today to pursue the career?
So I reached out to Pope to talk about it, and through a series of email exchanges, he revealed some interesting tidbits.
In his piece, he presents the bad news first: since 2005, newspaper employment has dropped 50 percent, while pay for entry-levelers has stagnated at $34,150.
“It’s always been incredibly difficult to break into journalism. Now’s no different,” he said by email. “What is different is that the career path is unclear. You can no longer start at small papers and work your way up; many of those papers are gone.”
But it’s not doom and gloom time. You see, Pope points out how—through the technology that the industry itself may fear—emerging journalists can take it upon themselves to break into the world of reporting.
“You don’t need a publisher to publish your work. There’s Medium, WordPress, even Facebook. Just write. Write the kind of stories you want to be hired for as a freelancer or even for your own blog.” Pope said. “When I was running the New York Observer, I hired my managing editor pretty much on the basis of her personal blog, which had the voice and style I was looking for. She turned out to be amazing.”
When asked what newsrooms could do to give more young journalists a break, he implores them to take a page from his playbook. “Newsrooms need to take chances,” he said. “Don’t limit yourself to people with polished clips from big outlets. Look for lesser-known, quieter voices that can grow into something bigger.”
Another problem, as Pope lays out in his piece, is the issue of uniformity within media. As he writes, “Before long, journalism became cool. And people who in previous lives may have been lawyers or bankers or doctors, people who wanted to have a career with a splash of glitz, became journalists instead. That old sense of identity, of mission and of purpose, was gone. The dilettantes blended in with the true believers.”
In a sense, journalism was no longer the job of the outsider. Around the 1980s, Pope writes, those who may have become doctors or lawyers instead pursued journalism. Now, the profession has become overrun with those from well-to-do backgrounds, those who could afford to take low-paying jobs—or no-pay internships—in newsrooms.
“The vast majority of our newsrooms don’t reflect the communities they cover. Not even close,” Pope said. “And that flows directly into the coverage—if you don’t have the right team, you miss stories, you overplay others, you quote the wrong people. Again, the mandate is to be creative. Try out people who may not seem like the most obvious fit. Read outlets you’ve never read before.”
Finally, I was interested if Pope was still that 10-year-old boy who looked up to Woodward and Bernstein now, would he pursue those same dreams: “I don’t know what I’d do. My hope is that I’d try to find a way to make this happen, no matter what. But that’s easy for me to say. I’m here. It’s damn hard. I feel for people. It makes me even more proud and respectful of the young journalists I meet, who persevere.”