I might have created a future journalist at a recent career day at Stanfield Secondary School.
As a rotating cast of students cycled through the classroom where I was presenting, one batch of middle schoolers included an inquisitive boy with spiky hair whose hand continuously shot up when I asked if anyone had another question. He had asked what my favorite part of the job was, and I answered that one thing I enjoyed was that if I was curious about something like dentistry or garbage collecting all I had to do was call a dentist or a sanitation worker and I got to ask everything I ever wanted to know.
The kid’s eyes grew huge.
“You mean you get paid to ask questions?” he asked.
If only all teenagers at Career Day were so easy to impress.
It’s always a balancing act, figuring out what to tell students during career day presentations. There are parts of being a journalist that I love, but I also feel honor-bound to be candid about the downsides.
For one, there’s the money. While top cable news anchors may be making millions of dollars, Payscale.com lists the average journalist’s salary (including editors and broadcast journalists) as $39,235. If you want to give a recent college graduate at a newspaper making $27,000 a year a good laugh, accuse them of being an “elite.”
Then there are the erratic hours, the high-stress decision-making on deadline, mean-spirited criticism from readers (or non-readers who assumed/heard we wrote something we didn’t), and the constant layoffs adding to our workload.
The worst days, though, are the days we lose someone in our community to violence or suicide or a car crash and my job takes me to the scene, or requires me to contact a family member to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I know you are going through a really hard time right now, but we want to let people know who your cousin was beyond just how he died, and I wanted to give the family a chance to share some memories, if you’re willing.”
So why would anyone want to be a journalist?
I do ask myself that on some days. But mostly I know.
When students ask me what made me decide to be a reporter, I tell them about how much I loved writing as a teen, and how journalism allows me to make a steady paycheck doing that.
I tell them about the fun events I get to go to for free while I cover them, like getting to spend a week hanging out at the Umatilla County Fair every August while I interview FFA students and food vendors. I also tell them that the political junkie in me appreciates the chance to spend time getting to know all of my elected officials and the candidates running against them, from the city council all the way up to Congress.
The variety and unpredictability can be fun, too. It’s always nice to get out from behind a desk on a regular basis to see new things and meet new people. And I have some great stories, particularly from my internship with the New York Daily News, which included a visit to Spike Lee’s house, witnessing a surprise FBI raid on an Armenian gang and covering the aftermath of a failed terror attack on Times Square.
Most importantly, I enjoy having a job where I feel like I’m making a difference in the world, fighting for truth and justice and accountability.
So what do I tell your kids when they see me at career day?
If you’re just looking for an easy way to pay the bills, journalism isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to put your dreams of driving a Ferrari on hold, it’s a heck of a gig.
Jade McDowell is a reporter for the Hermiston Herald.