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.

  1. One of the primary skills of a manager of people is communication. Heck, I don’t know where communication isn’t a primary skill. Since the relationship between the manager and his entry-level charges is so asymmetrical, the communications burden is on the boss. It doesn’t sound like he’s meeting his obligation for communicating expectations. It also doesn’t sound like he’s meeting his obligation as a manager of human beings in the 21st century.

    • Mark, your point about communicating is a perceptive one. In fact, when I spoke to the manager yesterday, I recommended that he be clearer about his expectations with the next interns or staffers he hires. While he, and other newsroom veterans, may know to expect the kind of workload I described in my post, those long days could come as a shock to young people at their first jobs. As to your second comment, that he “doesn’t sound like he’s meeting his obligation as a manager of human beings in the 21st century,” all I can say is that in the course of a long career, one runs into good bosses and bad bosses, bosses one respects and bosses one doesn’t. Sometimes we learn from good examples, and sometimes we learn from the bad ones what not to do when we have a chance to be in charge.

  2. Barbara, I wish I had read this when I was in my first job out of college. This is all 100 percent true.

    • David Rubinstein
    • July 12th, 2012

    I think you miss an important benefit to these “brutal” jobs, Barbara — something that you and I both benefitted from lo those many years ago. The benefit is this.. on a small paper, with a small staff, you have opportunities to do things you wouldn’t have at a larger paper. This gives you a chance to really find out what you like to do, and what you’re good at. If your staff doesn’t have a photographer to go to those late meetings, bring your camera, and see if photojournalism is for you. A small paper can always use art! If you get an idea to write a column about something, more often than not the editor will at least work with you on it to see if you can come up with something worth publishing — and maybe even help you find your voice. Perhaps you want to cover a ballgame, an art exhibit or write a music or television review — on a small paper, if you pitch them, they will most likely be accepted, since there’s probably not staff to do those kinds of things. So while a newsbie might feel underpaid, overworked and underappreciated, what they can earn in experiences and opportunites cannot be overstated.

  3. Absolutely right, David. Great point.

    • Judy Graham
    • July 12th, 2012

    A very clear-eyed, honest assessment, Barbara. And a real service to the students willing to read this and really listen.

  4. We could have some laughs about the foibles of our first post-J-school boss!

  5. “Ya do it for the stories you can tell.” -Phil and Don Everly

    Starting out in a small newsroom teaches journalists a lot about their commitment to the job.
    If you don’t want it very badly, you won’t tolerate the trade-offs and you won’t be able to endure the indignity of working nights and weekends while your elders get first pick of shifts.
    I used to give new reporters a copy of an interview with a 102-year-old hvac engineer who was still working. His perspective on work (that it isn’t fun until you gain expertise) was a reminder that careers are built slowly and by hand. Read the accounts of people at Politico who hated the long hours, resented the star system and left. They made the right choice. And those who aspired to be stars, worked the long hours and stayed at Politico…they also made the right choice.
    Nobody’s got a gun to your head. If you don’t love the work enough to start at the bottom, go find something you do want badly enough to start at the bottom.
    At work, the only reward worth your loss of free time is the satisfaction of doing something you love.
    Not sayin’ a boss has impunity, just that the perspective of a rookie is hampered by a shortage of context.

    • Great comment, Dean, and beautifully said: “the perspective of a rookie is hampered by a shortage of context.”

  6. Hi Barbara
    In my own experience, recent graduates and new hires seem to have a vastly over-inflated sense of their own work. This comes, i think, from giving too many As and not enough Ds in school. Most of what I see from recent grads (though not all) sucks. And I have no hesitation in telling them that. Our viewers certainly have no hesitation in changing the channel and never coming back.

  7. I started my first newspaper job three years ago, and it was tough. The workload was big and the rewards (pay, glory) were small. I moved on. Now I get to roll my eyes at people younger than me who enter the field with a sense of entitlement, unrealistic expectations and a warped view of the own talents or value. I know what they’re in for. It feels good.

    Your first journalism job should take you down to earth. That’s the only way to learn the REAL joys of the craft, rather than the imagined joys. You should learn to work hard and handle criticism. You should fail and suffer the consequences of failure.

    But if journalists tolerate abuse (borderline or otherwise), unprofessionalism, exploitation by publishers and editors and terrible work environments for the newest members of the field, nothing will change. It’s easy to say “I went through it, so now you have to as well.” That’s why medical residents work 72-hour shifts or whatever. Their supervisors did, too.

    It makes us feel special that our work is hard and that many others are not able to handle it. But in other fields, new hires are treated like serious professionals who are inexperienced, not pathetic wannabes who deserve contempt and can be easily replaced. It is a mark against journalism, not a mark of pride, that we don’t do the same.

    There are other ways to teach the ropes. The current system hangs on because it boosts the self-esteem of older journalists.

    • I’m with you up until your last sentence, Will. Boosting the self-esteem of older journalists may be a factor, but I don’t see it as the primary factor. Supply and demand are the more likely culprits.

      How would you do things differently? How would you initiate the process of change?

      • I think that’s a fair point. It’s probably a small reason. But it gives editors, and even people who are three years into the profession, like me, an excuse to not change things. “I went through it, so who are you to think you’re too good to go through it too?”

        I think talking about newsroom work environments as if they are NOT an inevitability is the first step toward changing them. We can dare to imagine: What would a newsroom with a healthy work environment look like? Why are we afraid to ease up on new hires? Are we afraid the quality will suffer? Are we afraid they won’t learn the right lessons? Do we not have the resources to ease up? Do we not have enough money to give them days off or raises? Maybe the way things are is the only way they can be, after all.

        A final thought about the “gauntlet” of entry level reporter jobs. In extreme environments, Darwinian evolution accelerates. The weak drop out faster, and more people fall into the category of the “weak.” Do we really want to foster an environment in which only people with the most extreme manifestations of a very limited set of qualities become high-level reporters? All other things equal, do we really want only the most driven, the most ambitious, the most eager to please, the most willing to sacrifice other interests and free time? I think we risk warping our pool of future top journalists by filling it with a certain type of person, suffering from his or her own kind of myopia.

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