During the Iowa Newspaper Association's annual convention last week, I got a chance to have lunch with college students who are considering careers in the journalism field.
I've attended the networking luncheon nearly every year since I moved on from DMACC's Boone campus. Mainly because I remember how I felt when I was the student, sitting at the table.
Here I am with someone telling me the hours stink, the pay is terrible and I'll probably gain 50 lbs. in the first four years (it was more like 30) from the stress and bad eating habits that come with the job. And all I could think was, "I picked this for my work-study job over scrubbing toilets with the night janitors?"
It's easy to understand why today's students might actually have similar concerns. A study conducted last year by CareerCast.com found "newspaper reporter" to be the worst of 200 jobs surveyed.
The report's logic is sound, but I'm still not sure I necessarily agree. Let's take a look at each of the three key reasons why my job is apparently the worst, and perhaps look at it more closely through my own experiences.
• Pay — The median income for an entry-level newspaper reporter at a weekly newspaper is $25,000; at a daily, it's about $27,500. Those are the national averages, by the way. College advisors won't tell them that, though, especially when their students will leave with about $30,000 in college loan debt.
I still have the stub from my first journalism paycheck, not that I would need it to remember how much — or more accurately, how little — I was paid. My starting pay was $8 an hour, 40 hours a week.
After taxes, I was lucky to bring home $400 every two weeks. Rent in my one-bedroom apartment was $385 a month.
But, I gained invaluable experience at that first job, and in less than a year, I moved up to a new job that came with a healthy increase in pay. Three years removed from that first job, I was making almost 40 percent more money and I was beginning to develop a healthy rainy-day balance in my checking account.
• Stress — You're always on deadline, even at once-weekly newspapers. And, you're always in the public eye. Always. You can't "leave it at the office," either. When you're in the checkout line at the store, it's not unusual to have someone stop you and tell you what they think (good or bad) about your work.
At a previous job, I had the unenviable task of reporting upon a domestic dispute that arose from the discovery of two high-level county employees who were having an extramarital affair. That it involved a department that had already had its share of bad press in the two years leading up to this incident was not lost on anyone, especially the head of that department.
For months, everywhere I went, I had to hear about that story. Sometimes, it was to tell me how horrible I person I was for "invading the privacy" of two highly respected members of the community. Less frequently, it was just to tell me they understood I was merely doing my job.
But, behind the scenes, I was quickly developing a solid relationship with that department head. What resulted was the strongest and healthiest relationship that newspaper had ever had with that department.
• Hours — News doesn't happen on a 9-to-5 schedule, and when it happens, our readers expect us to be there, finding out what happened, and telling the rest of the world. You may be home, relaxing, at one moment and rushing out the door to cover breaking news the next.
One warm summer night, after a rather lengthy production day, I sat down to enjoy my comfy recliner and some much-appreciated air conditioning just as the scanner squawked. Two young people had been swimming at a popular spot on the local river, near a low-head dam, and had been pulled under.
Without time to change my clothes — I was still in business casual attire — I headed out the door, camera in hand. Five minutes later, I was wading through chest-high weeds, moving toward the scene of what would eventually be a tragic drowning. I stayed on the scene until they recovered the victim's body from the river.
When I got back home, I changed my clothes and immediately began writing the first write-through on a breaking story for our website, as well as for the next morning's edition of the large regional daily, which was one of our sister papers. I got done shortly before midnight, and I was back at work the next morning at 7 a.m.
But, that story lead to a public awareness campaign to warn swimmers about the dangers of the low-head dam. It also launched a fundraising campaign to get the money to replace the low-head dam.
No, it's not the easiest job in the world. The pay isn't great, and sometimes you have to dig deep to find your rewards in this profession. But, I can't help but remember I decided 16 years ago there was a job worse than this one.
I wonder where I'd be today if I'd decided to scrub toilets instead.
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If you're reading this, thank a teacher. If you're reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.