Lost cause?
January 29, 2011 12:20 AM   Subscribe

What's life like after journalism?

I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I was a newspaper reporter for six years. Now a combination of factors--including being laid off, my impending 30th birthday and the increasing questions about how I'll ever afford to raise a child--are pushing me towards exploring what else is out there.

I realize the go-to choices are public relations, teaching and law. If I put my mind to it, I believe I can do any one of those. What I'm really afraid of is committing years of my life to something that my heart's not really in.

Can anyone share some stories about how they got out? Especially if they have any insight on coping with the feeling that they are abandoning their purpose in life.

I have always felt like an outsider, which is why I thought journalism would be perfect for me. I still have trouble envisioning myself in a passionate advocate role for any one cause. Does anyone have any advice about finding that within themselves?

And anything else, please! What was the hardest part? What was the best part? Any schools or specific graduate programs you recommend?
posted by DeWalt_Russ to Work & Money (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Oh me! Me!

So, I was a freelancer for about six years, working in radio and print - magazines largely, only a couple of newspapers.

The lifestyle - fabulous perks aside - was starting to really get to me: I was frequently broke, getting screwed by folding magazines, and most importantly my ethics and writing was starting to slide. I had a fabulous new girlfriend, and I wanted to live a life providing more stability - and money! - with her. I was sick of watching my friends slowly pulling away from me with mortgages, fabulous expensive overseas trips etc.

So. I moved cities and started looking for a real job, using experience I had garnered at university and some contract writing work that *wasn't* journalism. I got one, it sucked, I left in a year and got a job working on comms for a huge multinational company.

I gotta tell you, I was scared. I felt like I had "lost" - I could see other writing colleagues, they hadn't seen the need to abandon their careers; indeed they seemed to be going from strength to strength. I felt like I was giving up a huge chunk of my identity; the pride I felt in telling people I was "a writer", and their badly-disguised surprise when they understood I was making a living (they didn't need to know how bad that living was!). I was worried I as going to get "stupid" - forget how to write, forget how to think critically. Forget my fairly left-leaning counter-cultural roots and become a drone, toiling away at meaningless, unethical work. Entering the rat race and trading in my earrings, my exhibition openings, my free books and movies and shows, my identity.

Buddy, I have never been happier since that day. My imaginings were spent focussed on what I was losing, but the fact of the matter was, I had already lost the most important things, namely:
1. My integrity
2. My talent - it was being steadily eroded by deadlines that forced sup-par work.
3. My love of writing - and that, to be honest, was the thing I was missing most. I thought a "real" job would be the final nail in a coffin I was desperately wanting to escape from.


I gained a whole lot of stuff I never thought about. Things like:

1. Money - sounds trivial. I have been overseas on holidays every year since I stopped freelancing. I went to Namibia last year and BLEW MY FRIGGING MIND - this would never have been possible freelancing. Nor would the two bedroom apartment we now own. Or a thousand other things. I got very sick, it wasn't a problem; paying for my medicine was never an issue. And a regular paycheck, oh how I love you.

2. Tranquility - when you're doing work that is fundamentally pretty trivial, it's fantastic! Because my self-identity is not at all wrapped up in my work now, I do good work, and I go home. That's it. If I work on a project, I don't find myself awake at night wondering what it says about me, my intellect, my creativity, whatever. Who gives a shit? It's just work! The brilliant thing is that most (not all) people in the corporate world understand and share this attitude. Most people in the artsy world do not share this attitude.

3. Ethics - counterintuitively, I have never felt compromised in the private sector. Because the costs of employee shenanigans is so high in the corporate world - and they make plenty of money without it - there is absolutely a focus on integrity and principal at my workplace. There is none of the "don't ask, don't tell" attitude I personally found so prevalent in the world of writing, where plausible deniability was always available for editors, despite their fantastic deadlines and advertorial requests. In the corporate world - in my experience at least - it's very much "ask, and tell". I like that. It make me feel nice knowing my employer goes out of its way to make sure I do everything above board.

3. New skills! Learning new skills as a freelancer was tricky. One, I didn't have a lot of time; two, I was hired on my experience, not my ability to do things I hadn't done. Now, I'm learning new skills all the time, my career options have exploded exponentially, and even better, my learning is either paid for by work, or done on their time, or both! Brilliant! Because I work in a big multinational, I'm also working with lots of people who are *really* good at their jobs (there's still idiots, but not too many). The competence and professionalism is a world apart from the sketchy world of arts-journalism and magazines etc I used to inhabit.

4. More time - time + money to indulge in my hobbies, buy things I want, do things I want not things for a piece. It's nice man, it's really nice. I am getting good at photography, I am able to read the books I want, not the ones I'm meant to review, likewise for movies, shows etc.

5. More freedom for writing. Yes, I still do the odd piece here and there. But because I have a "real" job, I do what I want, how I want, when I want. It's brilliant. I still get to do the writing that inspires and excites me, and there's no expectation, harsh deadlines, cosy editorial relationship because I'm depending on this shit for cash, awkward conversations about cheques that need to arrive, anger at crappy editorial butchering my work, dread at having to write about or review banal, insipid, boring things or people etc etc. It's actually been the most liberating thing that's happened to me since I started writing.

So, for me, it's been the best change I've made in the last five years. I am still passionate, political, arty etc. I do volunteer work with NGOs, I've worked for political parties in a strategic capacity. I see my friends, my family, my partner more now than I ever did. Am I proud of my work? Well, I'm not ashamed of it, and I was certainly ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed and saddened by some of the work I did as a freelancer.

Is it my calling? Fuck, no. Who cares? Coming home every day to a beautiful home and partner; giving money to causes and hobbies I like; writing about topics that excite and inspire me in the ways I feel they deserve and I'm capable of; having freedom, independence and happiness, that certainly feels like it might be a calling! I tell you what, dude, I'm not proud of my work so much any more, I'm proud of my life - and it's a pretty fucking nice feeling, if I do say so myself.
posted by smoke at 12:51 AM on January 29, 2011 [49 favorites]

Best answer: Yes. This is me. I will give you the very short version and if you want more information you can memail me with specific questions.

I worked as a field producer in network television news for 15+ years and had a blast. I traveled all over the world and met so many great people and had adventures and fun and a few close calls. I also couldn't maintain a romantic relationship because I didn't own my own life - from one day to the next I never knew where I might be sent. I signed up for a ceramics class and made it to one session because it was the only time I was in town when it met. I tried to make it to important family functions, and usually did, but I missed a lot of things in my own life that I just couldn't find time for.

I also got increasingly uncomfortable with the direction the business was taking ... we were chasing the viewers instead of chasing the stories. It reached the point that I just couldn't do it anymore. I just didn't believe it was worthy somehow.

I left, went freelance, got lots of interesting assignments and could turn down the ones that didn't appeal to me. I found a boyfriend, we got married and had a kid, and I now work for a major world-class medical center in their media production department. The work is interesting, absorbing and meaningful. Just recently I did a piece on a cancer researcher who is a fascinating guy and I thought to myself, OK I'm not going to be the one to find a cure for cancer but maybe people will see this piece I do, and be moved to support this guy and so in my own small way I'm working for the better of humanity.

A lot of the people I worked with have moved on also, into a huge variety of different jobs. You could use your skills to work for a cause or organization that you feel passionate about. I mean if you think about it, and are really honest with yourself about the stories you're covering for the newspaper, do you feel passionate about them? If you're a good writer, you can find a way to use your skills for something really meaningful. You don't know what that might be right now, but I am positive that there is something out there for you if your mind and your heart are open to the possibilities.

Leaving was difficult. It took me a couple of years to actually do it. But it worked out well for me. I hope it does for you too.
posted by Kangaroo at 5:38 AM on January 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

i went from journalism to law and am much much happier (especially after leaving a law firm for public law work)
posted by wurly at 6:26 AM on January 29, 2011

I spent two miserable, broke years as a freelance journalist (following a post-grad journalism program) before I realized that I just didn't have the personality type to make it as a freelancer. I got recruited at one of those 'work abroad' fairs for a university program overseas, spent the following year in New Zealand and came back with a teaching degree. I now teach primary school French and have never been happier. Like smoke says, it's nice to have steady money, stability, new skills and all that. And you;d be surprised at how often the writing skills come up. Most of the early primary materials out there suck, so I have been writing my own stories to use with the kids and it's great fun. I still don't have a union job, so the money could be better---but compared to before, it is like night and day and I have no regrets. I still do write a little and sometimes get some money for it, but when I do it's for fun and is a nice bonus.
posted by JoannaC at 7:52 AM on January 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: My story:

I didn't get laid off, but after 9 years as a reporter at a daily newspaper I could see that they were in trouble and decided to get while the getting was good. I considered teaching, but like you, I didn't think my heart would be in it (I really don't like teenagers, as it turns out!).

I'd covered business and econ development at the paper, so I used that to talk myself into a job with an economic research firm, got some prerequisites done for a masters degree, then went back to school. Now I'm in my last semester of an urban planning masters degree program, and working for a city planning agency. I love it, and feel very lucky that things worked out ok.

The paper I worked for did go through two rounds of layoffs not long after I left, and I'm very glad I wasn't there for that. Plus, it had a very conservative editorial stance, and in general the news business turned out to be way too nasty for me. I feel like what I'm doing now is a much better fit. I still do the occasional freelance story, but only when someone asks, I don't go looking for it.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:06 AM on January 29, 2011

A friend who used to be a journalist is now working as an investigator for the public defender's office. He loves it.

Before you decide to keep law school as a viable option, I strongly recommend you read every askme tagged with lawschool or similar.
posted by rtha at 8:09 AM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I got out relatively early and eventually made my way to government. My writing background has been invaluable, the work is actually more interesting, and I quite enjoy doing the things that are being written about rather than being the outsider looking in. And the job security is fantastic.
posted by fso at 10:35 AM on January 29, 2011

I was a newspaper reporter for about as long as you. The writing skills and skills at meeting a frenzied deadline are incredibly valuable in just about anything. Granted, I was so burned out with media I went straight to a non-profit and eventually became their PR person. I'm not doing hardly any writing now and now at another job but it's a very satisfying multi-tasking kind of job where attention to detail and coolness under pressure is ideal.

I did feel guilty about abandoning journalism completely at first, but now I would never go back except perhaps to freelance a little. Despite going to school for journalism and all, for me I realized it's my life and things change, often we have to change with it. Good luck to you!
posted by Wuggie Norple at 10:53 AM on January 29, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone for the responses. It's very reassuring.

Smoke: That was practically a novel. Thanks.

And rtha, I certainly don't think law school is a cure-all. I'll certainly keep reading the AskMe posts from frustrated students/grads.

Fso, when you say government, do you mean you became a spokesperson for an elected official, or did you follow some other path and get a policy or liaison position?

M.C. Lo-Carb!: How long did it take you to complete the prerequisites for your master's program?
posted by DeWalt_Russ at 11:29 AM on January 29, 2011

I got laid off in the last recession. I currently do a job that boils down to, more or less, data entry. I will second everyone on the "8-5 is great, health insurance is great, leaving your job at 5 p.m. and not worrying about it is great" stuff, but yeah, I'm mostly bored in the day, I don't write all that often (once every 4 years I get to do a writing project, it seems), and have had to learn to work slowly to boot. However, there really isn't much of anything in writing jobs any more and I don't expect to do it professionally ever again, so I'll settle. I prefer eating to fulfilling my soul, and I love job security like mad, and I'm not ready to move out of this town yet (hence why my options are really limited). I don't know what I would do other than this job at this point. Unfortunately, with the way things are going, I probably won't have this job in 2012, so... crap.

Maybe you'll just have to shift your purpose in life to what you do after 5 p.m., or to having a family. You aren't abandoning your cause, it's abandoning you these days. Most of us end up committing to a job that our heart isn't in because we need to prioritize other things, and that's just how life goes.

Of your three choices, I'd say PR is probably the least afflicted of the three professions. Also, it lets you argue for a cause (albeit one you may not care about). Go with that one. And as for "go back to school," think REALLY LONG AND HARD before you do that. Are you ever going to have a job that can pay back your school debts? Especially now when everything is fucked for the foreseeable and unforeseeable future? You don't want to rack up tons of debt unless you really, really have to have that advanced degree.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2011

I'm in the midst of leaving right now, actually. I'm just a little younger than you, and my post-college journalism job has not been the most fulfilling, especially since I stayed in this entry-level position much longer than I should have. (Thanks, economy!) Now, though, I'm on my way to a new job in another country(!!).

Honestly, I think we journalists pigeonhole ourselves into PR, law and teaching. The skills required to be a good, or at least competent, journalist are quite useful in a lot of other jobs.

I used some of my time outside work to figure out what else I liked and tried it here and there to see what made sense for me. You mentioned that there's no one thing you feel passionate about, but how about an industry that you're at least interested in? You don't have to be in PR, either, to be involved with writing/media/editing etc. at a company or organization.

In terms of feeling like you're giving up the good fight: I thought about that for a bit, especially since I (like so many others) insisted that I was going to give it my all to be a journalist, post-college. Yeah, well, it turns out that my job has been frequently unfulfilling, low-paying and mind-numbing, my outside freelancing was frustrating, tiresome and often more work than it was worth, and in the end, the only thing I feel like I'm giving up is a profession that has been trying to shoo most of us out for quite a few years now. Good riddance!
posted by inmediasres at 3:59 PM on January 29, 2011

DeWalt -- it took about a year, I had to take stats and macro econ. I did everything I could to avoid math classes in undergrad, so things may be different for you!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 7:34 AM on January 30, 2011

I moved from the copy desk to nonprofit communications. Knowing design programs, how to talk to reporters (being interviewed and pitching stories!) and being able to interview people touched by our programs has been really great. There's not much I miss about the desk, aside from the specific people I worked with there -- the atmosphere is very different here but doesn't have to be. I'd say most nonprofits have a newsroom feel.

I did give teaching a try and found through volunteering that being in the classroom was not for me. I do volunteer with an after-school program which kind of helps sate that urge to help the world and be with kids in a positive way (rather than trying to snatch away their cell phones as a classroom aide).

Hate to say it, but some nonprofits are really a growth industry these days: hunger and housing, especially.

Good luck in what you do! Your background is sure to be impressive to people in other worlds.
posted by blandcamp at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2011

DeWalt_Russ: I'm a trade commissioner, for which there is no formal training and no hard educational or work-related requirements. The stuff I work on is really quite interesting, the travel opportunities are fantastic, and the steady paycheque and job security are awesome. Like I said above, having good writing and analytical skills are a huge leg up in this job.
posted by fso at 8:25 AM on February 7, 2011

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