Coming to peace with journalism Part 1

This is a blog post that has been a long time coming. I simply hadn’t known where to start, and I’m the kind of blogger who doesn’t like to leave threads dangling. I need to get over that, and a journalist in the US inspired me with her courage in discussing why she left news. Allyson Bird, a woman in her late 20s in the US, said when asked why she wasn’t married and why she left news, she answered with one word: Money.

I can relate to that. I remember as an early 20-something reporter in western Kansas in 1994 that I made $2,000 less than a first year teacher, which is commonly used as the benchmark for low pay in the US. I remember going to a local TV station in a much larger city in Michigan after that job, and I was shocked to find that a junior producer made $3,000 less than I had in western Kansas.

Allyson then said that journalism didn’t seem like a “sustainable career path”, and she meant not only financially but also personally. She went on to explain:

This is the real reason why I left news: I finally came to accept that the vanity of a byline was keeping me in a job that left me physically and emotionally exhausted, yet supremely unsatisfied.

I did and continue to find journalism quite satisfying, but I know what she means about emotional exhaustion. For me, it wasn’t the hassling by editors late at night or during personal events. I’m probably a little too much of a workaholic for that to have bothered me. I still need to find a better balance between work and play.

To me, the emotionally draining thing was knowing exactly what I should be doing as a digital journalist and being almost completely powerless to do what needed to be done while I was working in a traditional newsroom. I have had a lot more success being an external agitator rather than a Barbarian Inside the Gates, which is what I called myself and was the title of a short lived internal blog when I was The Guardian.

Why did I take a buyout from The Guardian? I often get asked that question. A little over a year after Suw and I were married, I threw myself back into my job, giving myself one more chance to make a difference. I worked from the moment I got up until the moment I went to sleep. Then one day, Suw said to me, “I don’t get to see my husband anymore.” I refused to be a statistic of yet another journalist with a failed marriage.

The real reason I took the buyout though was that powerlessness and its corrosive effects. I was giving into the dark side; I was growing bitter. I knew that the lost marriages were only a side effect, not only because of too much work, but bitterness that I had seen in too many journalists. I was getting into middle life, and not only was I not going to lose my Suw, I wasn’t going to lose my soul. I didn’t want to become that bitter old man I had seen a fair number of times sitting in the newsroom alone not because there was a story to cover but because he had nothing better to do.

Fortunately, I’ve never feared course corrections. I miss being in a newsroom, but Suw reminds me that in the two years in between when I left The Guardian and when I joined the Media Development Investment Fund, I trained and worked with more than 800 journalists around the world.

But I still miss being in a newsroom. Suw has asked me what I miss. That is another blog post. I need to answer that question, but I needed to be honest and open about why I left the newsroom first.

Thanks Allyson for inspiring me with your courage. This is a good conversation to have.

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