Life in the newsroom: expectation vs. reality

Life in the newsroom: expectation vs. reality

Editor's Note: A couple of weeks ago, Muck Rack monthly contributor Adrienne Erin wrote a fantastic post outlining the expectations and realities of working in PR. Here at Muck Rack, we like to keep things fair and balanced so we put a call out on Twitter to our journalism friends asking if there were any takers to write a similar post from a reporter's perspective. Journalist Sierra Shafer enthusiastically responded. Enjoy!

I was 13 when I decided I would become a journalist.

Why? I wanted to make an impact, to inspire the masses. I wanted to change the world.

Was I naïve? Maybe. But even on the first day of J-School, I remember chills running down my spine as my professor stood before 400 would-be journalists commissioning us to go into the world and make a difference. We were inspired. We had dreams of how it would be. Some turned out to be true, others still might – and some certainly won’t. Adjusting to the reality of working in such a dynamic, changing field takes time. But with so much to love, making the shift is well worth the effort.

Here are five expectations about a career in journalism – and the (sometimes) opposing reality.

Expectation: Journalism is glamorous. As a journalist, you will jet set around the world to tell moving stories, expose scandal and phone in breaking news just before deadline.

Reality: At some point in your career, likely in the beginning, you will sit in an old office with outdated equipment and be required to report on an uninteresting board meeting or the tragic death of child.

The articles you write will not always be interesting to you. Other times they will be emotionally challenging to write. There will be days that you spend eight hours making phones calls and checking emails. The work can be exhausting and uninteresting, but if you can push through, there are sure to be days that make it all worth it.

As journalists we are given access to people and places that we otherwise wouldn’t be. We get to tell stories that matter and provide the public with information they want and need to know. Being free to write the good, the bad and even the boring is what gives value to freedom of the press – something not everyone is fortunate to have.

Expectation: You will start at the bottom and have to schlep your way to the top.

Reality: If you can harness a broad skill set, veteran journalists may look to you for help.

Because of the changes traditional journalism is going through and the addition of web content and social media, veteran news people are looking to younger journalists who are more familiar with the new tools available. You may find yourself in a leadership role helping your superiors become familiar with them too. Do this with grace and humility, and it will be remembered the next time there is an opening up the ladder.

Budget restrictions have also pushed news employers to hire journalists with a varied skill set. You can’t be a one-trick pony anymore. A willingness to take on more than one facet of news production will serve you well and may move you through the ranks faster than you expected.

Expectation: Everyone will respect you and appreciate what an important role you play in society.

Reality: You’re going to have to explain what you do, how journalism works and what purpose it serves. Often.

Just because you spent four years studying the theory and ethics of journalism, doesn’t mean everyone who reads your work has the same understanding. I put gas in my car and drive to work every day, but that doesn’t mean I understand how to build one myself. Journalism requires a great deal of patience. Whether you write for a weekly community newspaper, a subscription-based magazine or a fast and furious web-based news source, there will be people who love and appreciate what you do and the service you provide. There will be others who have no idea why you didn’t publish the 12 blurry photos of their son’s safari-themed birthday party on the front page.

People will make personal attacks on you and your work. Readers will be critical for what you do and do not cover. Remember that we do what we do because the public has a right to know what is going on around them in order for them to make informed decisions. By focusing on providing complete and accurate information, you will learn to brush off the negativity and continue to do your job well. Those who understand that it is our job to the ask right questions and to provide as much relevant information as possible will appreciate you for it.

Expectation: You have a degree and landed a summer internship. That will be enough to get you hired.

Reality: Real-world experience far outweighs your degree.

Even for entry-level positions, employers are going to want to see examples of your work. While your degree represents years of hard work, late nights and taking in countless amounts of knowledge, it is important to show your potential employer that you have some experience applying said knowledge.

Having a portfolio of work, whether from internships, freelance gigs or even student publications, helps to demonstrate your abilities as a writer. By remembering that quality is more important than quantity, you don’t need to stuff your portfolio full of everything you’ve ever written. Select your best work, keeping in mind what is most relevant for the job at hand. Even if you’re currently employed and have been for a while, keep track of your published work so when the time comes to make a move you will have your clips readily on hand.

Expectation: Journalism is dying.

Reality: If you’re willing to continue learning new ways to use your skills and your tools, you will be part of an extremely exciting and historic era in journalism.

People have a lot to say about the state of journalism as an industry.

Even as a working journalist I am constantly met with shock and awe when I share my profession, often followed with disbelief that journalists still exist in the digital era. (Side note: who do they think writes online content? Robots?).

Yes, journalism – especially print – has certainly seen drastic changes as of late. If taken at face value, the future of journalism may appear bleak. But journalism is changing – not dying. As the delivery shifts from print to digital, the need for effective journalism remains. Content is what matters most and if we can willingly bridge the gap between the old and new, the press will remain as important as ever and we very well could change the world.

What did you expect from your career in journalism? Anything I missed? Share your thought in the comments!

Sierra Shafer, the lifestyle reporter at a weekly newspaper in Southern California, is most often found at trailheads, departure gates. To see what else she is writing, check out her blog and follow her on Twitter @sierrashafer.

Photo: Reality check ahead on the road via Shutterstock

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