Entry-level journalism jobs: expectations and misunderstandings
I intervened yesterday in a simmering conflict between several current and former Stony Brook journalism students on the one hand and their employer, the editor and publisher of a local newspaper, on the other. The students (some are alums, but for simplicity I’ll refer to all as students) were angry about what they perceived as their boss’s arrogant, demanding and inconsiderate behavior – “brutal,” one called it. The boss viewed the complaints as the grumblings of young people unprepared for the reality and responsibilities of the weekly newspaper business. As far as “truth” goes, both perceptions appear to have considerable basis in fact. But in the end – sorry, students – I side more with the boss than with you.
Maybe that’s because I’ve already lived through my share of management decisions that smacked of unfairness. I’ve paid my dues. I’m still paying dues in other ways, and so does everyone throughout life, but that’s another story. For now, I’m talking just about paying your dues in entry-level jobs.
It’s not that I disbelieve the students. I believe them when they tell me about the 10- to 12-hour days, the boss’s seemingly unfair refusal to let them off assignments for important personal obligations, the unfeeling way he edits their stories and his cluelessness about the paper’s website. But difficult, even unpleasant, working conditions are the dues young workers often pay as they’re starting out.
Most entry-level jobs in the news business, particularly at small news organizations such as weekly newspapers and broadcast outlets in small markets, demand long hours. The news happens when it happens, and if you’re going to cover it, you have to be there, whether it’s a 9 a.m. photo shoot or an 8 p.m. board meeting. You have to learn to plan ahead so that you keep your hours to a reasonable level. The day you know you’ll be out until 10 or 11 p.m. at the school board meeting, you show up at the office at 1 p.m. Or you come in late the day after. Maybe you make some calls from home or catch up on work-related reading so that you don’t feel like a slug and a wastrel in those morning hours. And you let your boss know ahead of time where you will be and why you’re coming in late. You quickly come to realize that “full-time” likely means more than 40 hours a week. Fair? No. Fact? You have to play it as it lays.
You might not like having to work nights and weekends. Most people don’t. But news happens when it happens, and on a small staff, everyone takes a turn on the least desirable shifts.
Your boss may be grouchy and unpleasant, peremptory and a jerk, not as smart as he thinks he is and maybe not as smart as you. The editing you get may seem perfunctory – or worse, it may be harsh, snide or sarcastic. You may not get much praise; it may seem that the boss only notices when you do something wrong. In a small office where one person runs the whole show, overseeing both the business and editorial sides, there’s not much time or energy for praise. It’s nice when it comes along, but you have to learn to live without, to find your reward in improving your work rather than from an external source. That famous thick skin that reporters need – this is where it starts to form.
The beauty of the news business is that as writers, photographers and videographers, we can take deep pleasure in the work we create. Self-critique is vital to developing a command both of style and of time management. Whatever the boss’s failings and limitations, in the end, we as writers, if we care enough, are our own best teachers.
And the beauty of an entry-level job is that you won’t be in it forever. You are using the position, just as your boss is using you. The boss is using you to get the news out in a compelling, timely way so that the ad department can sell ads around it. Those ads bring in the money that pays your salary. You’re using the job to get clips and experience. You’ll be gone in a year or two, on to other people and places, on to new bosses with their own quirks and frailties. And you’ll be wiser, then, about what to expect.
Someday, my dears, you’ll get together and laugh about how much you hated that first job. You’ll tell story after story about that boss’s most infuriating attributes. But most of the time you’ll remember the people you met and how great it was to get paid for writing their stories. And you’ll think how far you’ve come as a reporter, as a writer and as an adult, how much better you understand the world, and how young you were then, though you didn’t think much about your youth at the time.