Thursday, April 25, 2013

Confessions of a Happy Journalist

My name is Blanca and I’m a happy newspaper reporter.
It feels strange to write that statement, partly because whenever anyone says they’re “happy,” the rest of the world looks on in disbelief, scorn or general apathy. Also because yesterday, I learned that newspaper reporter ranked at the very bottom on a list of 200 careers. Newspaper reporters, notably some at the Wall Street Journal, jumped on this news and there was plenty of reactions and personal anecdotes of former newspaper types lamenting the days they were overworked and underpaid.
I am responding a day late, but I have a reason: I was on deadline. Our weekly print deadlines fall on Wednesdays, but these days I, like many reporters, are pretty much always on deadline because you can't seem to update a newspaper website frequently enough. Or blog. Or tweet. Or post on Facebook. I didn’t have much time to reflect until today.
Anyhow, I’m a happy journalist mostly because I have a job. Perhaps you envision newspaper reporters as cynical, bitter people easily incensed when sources don’t call back or “decline to comment,” stressed out by deadlines, pissed off because an editor changed a sentence, and anxiously awaiting the next scoop like a crack fiend awaits the next hit. Well, yes, I do experience all of that, but frankly, it’s part of the reason I’m happy — the angst is part of the ride.
I recently sent a note to one of my former editors at the Baltimore Sun, Trif Alatzas, to congratulate him on his promotion to executive editor and mentioned that I feel grateful to still be working as a journalist and not miserable. When I graduated from college ready to start my career, I wouldn’t have imagined that ten years later that kind of statement would feel like an accomplishment, but it does.
The “at least I have a job” sentiment might sound naïve or complacent, but considering the state of the industry, I do feel fortunate to continue working in a field I love. I remember Trif once telling me that being a journalist is the best job in the world and one of the most competitive. You have to love deadline pressure, the unreasonable demands and the reluctant sources because the thrill of breaking a hot story or seeing my by-line on a story I worked hard on hasn’t gone away.
I began my newspaper career when I was 15 years old working as a newsclerk for my hometown paper, the Tri-City Herald. I had my first front-page story before I even had a driver’s license. I went to work for various dailies throughout the country before landing at the San Francisco Business Times five years ago. I’ve enjoyed working for a niche publication that has a core, growing audience that still makes money — something most daily newspapers can’t say. My current publication has plenty of challenges and as my editor knows, I’m not afraid to voice what I’ll call “suggestions for improvement,” but like a soldier in the army, I report for duty. Even during the high times before the days of the Internet and free Craiglist ads, journalism wasn’t all that peachy either. The industry had buyouts, layoffs, papers closing, and plenty of reporters going to the “dark side” for better pay and hours in public relations, media relations, communications or other field ending in “-tions.” The industry’s decline has, of course, exacerbated the exodus and the trade-off between high job satisfaction in exchange for crappy work conditions is losing its appeal.
I feel relatively stable in my job — I’m the child of immigrants from Mexico who taught from an early age that just like there’s no such thing as life security, there’s no job security, so all you can do is work hard. I live and work in an amazing city and part of the country. I frequently meet readers who tell me, “I read your paper cover to cover every week.” Nothing is ever perfect, but I can’t help but consider myself one of the lucky ones.
When I meet journalism students, however, I find myself at odds with what to say. Do I encourage them to enter a field in which jobs are dwindling and those that remain aren’t as good as they used to be? Do I tell them that you will probably never earn as much as your siblings or friends who chose other paths like engineering, finance, teaching or sales, but that’s OK? Do I tell them, set yourself up for disappointment?
I asked a friend and fellow journalist, John Diaz, editorial editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, about this during a recent function organized by the Bay Area chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. We were there to celebrate the retirement of Ysabel Duran, who had worked in broadcast journalism for 42 years. I was amazed at the length her career (I hope I last that long!) and all the college students there aiming to follow in her footsteps. John agreed it’s much harder for the today’s rookies, but he said, “If this is what you want to do, you’ll find a way to do it.”
I often think about my career and ask, what’s the next step? Is there a next step? By admitting that I’m happy, am I jinxing myself and setting myself up for a speedy demise? I don’t know. Nobody knows. And that’s OK because for the moment, I’m happy.

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