I’ll admit it: I got into journalism for the money.
Columbia Journalism School dean Nicholas Lemann has said: “I’ve never met a single person in 35 years who went into journalism out of pure economic reason.”
He never met me. While my motivation wasn’t purely financial, I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the primary reason I chose journalism instead of, say, trying to make my way as, say, a poet or a professor of religious studies.
I had just graduated from college with an interesting but totally impractical major in what amounted to postmodern philosophy. I needed a paycheck, and the ice cream shop that hired me for twelve hours a week wasn’t cutting it. I liked writing and had enjoyed working on some college publications, so journalism seemed like a good way to earn some money and have fun while I was doing it. And who knows? Maybe I would grow up to be a famous writer.
But to be honest, my literary aspirations were secondary to the need to make my monthly rent and my lack of obvious qualifications. So when, after a long, hot, nearly-jobless Boston summer, Chris Shipley offered me a job as an editorial assistant at PC Computing, I jumped.
I was lucky. I got into tech magazine publishing by accident (there was a recession on, and neither Mother Jones nor the local newspapers were interested in hiring), but it turned out to be a really good time to be covering technology. Over the next decade and a half I worked for InfoWorld, Business 2.0, Wired, a mobile tech startup called Mobile PC, and a bunch of others. I got to witness — and help cover — the second half of the PC revolution, the rise of client-server computing, the earliest days of online services, the dawn of the commercial internet, and the onset of the mobile era. Those booms fueled a lot of advertising, too. Through the 1990s and the early 2000s, tech publications were awash in cash, so we enjoyed plenty of perks, like offices with killer views, lavish Christmas parties and generous travel budgets. Okay, so I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was doing fine. My wife and I bought a house. We built an addition to the house. We started a family.
So yes, Dean Lemann, I’m willing to stand up and be counted as someone who went into journalism for the money. The bet even paid off.
Along the way, I learned that I love the work: I love the tech and the science stories I cover, I love talking to people to learn how they do what they do, I love telling stories and watching as people read and respond to them in real time.
I’m lucky in a different way, too, which is that I get to be a journalist at a time when the profession is being reinvented and turned inside out.
If going into journalism for the money seems ridiculous now it’s a sign of how attenuated the opportunities are becoming for traditional journalists. Needless to say, the perks dried up long ago. The four years I spent as a freelancer, from 1999 to 2003, were a steady downward arc of income, corresponding to the beginning of the end for the news business. There’s a good chance that I’m making as much money now as I will ever make — without changing careers — and that’s a sobering thought. Every morning when I go to work I think about how lucky I am to be working at all — let alone working in one of the most progressive and open-minded newsrooms in the world. I’m grateful for the opportunity for as long as it lasts.
What’s happening right now is the aggressive reinvention of journalism. Many of the most innovative journalists working today didn’t go to J-school, and some don’t even consider themselves journalists at all. They’re bloggers and writers first of all, and don’t necessarily pledge allegiance to the same motivations or values that inspire traditional journalists. The skills that make them stand out can be learned on the job, or through networks of like-minded writers, not through expensive graduate programs.
But the job remains the same: to tell true stories that inform and entertain.
I’m not convinced that journalism as a profession will even survive the next ten years. The economic conditions that enabled newspapers to support huge numbers of reporters have dried up, and I don’t see any credible way for internet advertising or subscriptions or micropayments to make up the difference. Somebody may invent a really lucrative business model that works, and I hope they do. But I’m not holding my breath.
The writers who are successful at telling true stories will still be around, and may still choose to call themselves journalists. Or they may adopt some newer moniker, or none at all.
In the meantime, though, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing for as long as I can. I’m excited about the new tools that we have for telling stories, and I’m glad to be in a place where my job is to figure out how to use tech to find and deliver the news better. I still get excited about the possibilities of technology, and I like writing about it. So I’m not going anywhere just yet.
I may have come to journalism for the money, but I’m staying for the stories.