6 Things to Never Say to a Journalism Student
April 3, 2014
Jessica Suss


I’ve stopped counting how many times a kindly adult has given me career advice.

Suddenly, it is totally appropriate for some people to dissuade me from my chosen profession using vague statistics and laughable logic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I were to mention to somebody I had just met that accounting was a dying profession due to the invention of the calculator, would that not be similarly rude?

I’m fully aware of the challenges facing the journalism industry, thank you so much for mentioning them, but there are more effective ways to give meaningful advice.

Here are just a handful of the absurd things I’ve been told. Never say them to a journalism student.

“Oh, you know that’s a dying industry, right?”

Someone struck up a conversation with me at a recent street fair in a Chicago suburb. He asked me about my college major. My response was journalism. And his response was that delightful gem. I politely told him, “Well, it’s changing more so than dying.” And FYI, nearly 5,000 new jobs have been created in the past few years thanks to new digital startups.

“The future of journalism? It doesn’t look good.”

This came from a nationally acclaimed journalist who spoke recently at my journalism school. My response? Maybe it doesn’t look good for him. But Melanie Stone, a journalism major from DePaul University, who wrote an article entitled, “Why I’m Majoring in Journalism Even Though Everyone Tells Me I Shouldn’t,” sees it differently.

“Things are improving for the media industry,” Stone wrote in her article, published in October of 2013. “In PayScale’s most recent wage index, media and publishing jobs experienced the biggest wage growth over the past 12 months, according to Business Insider. That category grew 3.9%, compared with 2.3% wage growth among people working in information technology.”

Why aren’t the professors and speakers citing these and other reassuring statistics when asked about the state of the industry? Wouldn’t these cold, hard facts be more useful than dour faces and sour words?

“Hahahahahaha!”

This was the response I heard from someone at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party when I said I was majoring in journalism. Yup. I got laughed at. And then the person walked away. On an unrelated note: I also wish people would stop asking me why I’m not married yet.

“You should probably learn technical writing.”

In class, I kept my mouth shut, but in my heart I knew I would rather chew on bricks than write for Construction Today.  I want to be a food writer. Why do people keep telling me that’s not an option? Why don’t we talk about cool, under-the-radar publications like the Lucky Peach or artistic powerhouses like Saveur? That sounds like a lot more fun to me than Caulking Weekly.

“Be well-rounded. That’s how you will get jobs.”

This is another one I’ve heard in my journalism school. While I’m fine with learning photography, and in fact I really enjoy it, I don’t want to do broadcast journalism. Don’t force me into it. I am awkward on camera and watching myself on film depresses me. What I want to do is write about food: cooking it, eating it, ordering it, growing it, feeding it to others. I’m a woman obsessed. Shameless plug, by the way, if you want to read any of my (more than slightly) vinegary work, check out my food blog Bite Me. But seriously, how will learning how to shoot and edit video help me with food writing? It won’t.

“I hope you’re not in it for the money.”

I hear this from everyone, all the time. Of course I’m not in it for the money. According to a Buzzfeed ranking of the lowest-paying jobs that require a degree, a reporter or correspondent weighed in at a meager $36,000 salary, and this is not news to me. I’m in it for the places I want to travel, for the people I want to meet, for the restaurants I want to discover. I’ve already had the chance to interview several famous food writers thanks to my journalism school, and how many people can say that?

To be fair, I’ve heard some things from my professors and mentors that I absolutely love. Here are a few:

“Get ready for a long hard slog. It will be hard for you to find jobs.”

I heard this from one of my professors, who accompanied the declaration with a package of resources: websites to search for journalism jobs like Mediabistro, a list of things you should never ask on an interview (like how much vacation time you’ll get or when you can move to New York City), a list of things you should always ask on an interview (what was the best thing you learned from your first job?), the names of people in the industry who may be willing to talk to us. Yeah, it scared the crap out of me, but at least I had a roadmap to navigate it.

“You’re never going to see more than you will as a journalist.”

A writing professor had this message, along with stories of her life: She was on Capitol Hill when 9/11 happened and she wrote about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash, just to name two of the stories she covered. Her class inspired me to see and experience whatever the field of journalism throws at me.

“I can’t wait to read your writing.”

I heard this once from a rabbi’s wife in Florida.

Now that’s what I want to hear.

Comments
  • Pembroke

    I’ve been in journalism for almost 20 years, and while some of that outside advice you refer to could be stated more diplomatically, most of it pretty accurate. Ask any editor how much his/her budget has been slashed in the past few years. Ask how much the staff has been reduced? Ask any freelancer how pay rates have changed? I’m not saying not to go into journalism, but you should go into it with realistic expectations. As far as being committed to being a food writer–that’s a wonderful goal and I wish you luck, but the advice to be well-rounded is very good advice. Some day you will need to decide between holding out for the job you want and taking the job that pays the bills.

  • Randy Foster

    I had a high school student apply for an internship. I warned her that there was not a lot of money to be made in journalism. She said she knew and that she was OK with it. Then she asked, How long would it take me to work up to six figures?

  • http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/author/richardhorgan Richard Horgan

    How old (roughly) was the person who laughed at you at your grandmother’s birthday party? And did they really not say anything else before walking away!?

  • A Multimedia Journalist

    I agree with a lot of what you said, but I strongly disagree with your rejection of the advice to be well-rounded. Just because you don’t want to do TV doesn’t mean the skills you learn for broadcast journalism won’t be useful. I was like you at first. “I want to write, so why should I care about video?” I got angry when my J-school forced me to do audiovisual stories. Later on, I realized it was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me.

    Here are two reasons why:
    1) The world is moving online. I write for a magazine but because I can do audio, video, graphics, etc., I can create some great content for the web. That’s what got me a writing job. Those new media jobs you’re talking about? They’re going to people who are fluent in several forms of media.

    2) To do video journalism, you have to think visually. You have to think about what kind of details you want to show. Training yourself to have a good eye for that translates into writing good, visual, evocative text-only pieces.

    • Beau Yarbrough

      Yeah, my newspaper news group asks all reporters to shoot video and photos when our photographers aren’t available (and there are never enough photographers for every story, in any media organization I’ve been a part of).

      You can either learn it in college and decide it’s something that adds to your story or be forced to do it later on and be “that reporter,” which is a self-defeating choice in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

  • Melody Kelly

    As the mother of Journalist, I encourage you. The field of journalism is expanding, stretching, reaching out. In a world where everyone seems to feel free to share an “opinion”, trained journalist are more and more important! Yea You! (I thought the questions regarding your single state was hilarious. I know my daughter hears that way too often.) Keep on…you will do well!

  • Craig Schmidt

    The most negative people you’ll meet are in the newsroom, and it was that way in 1976 when I began writing professionally at 16. It’s who we are. You are asking us to no longer be cats, but become dogs. On the other hand, it remains a fulfilling way to work and it’s something different every day. Only a fool — young or old — would try to predict how the biz will go because a lot of it is out of our hands and always has been a collaborative effort dependent on other departments. (Editorial takes too much credit when business is good and too much blame when it’s bad.) Usually on a newspaper (or newspaper website), a position as food writer goes to someone as a reward for excelling at something else first, like covering some towns. Then you have to fight the question of why your opinions are more valid than scores of other general-assignment reporters and editors who can cook well (and demonstrate such at newsroom potlucks over the course of years). Separate yourself by getting to know farmers, cheese makers, butchers, restaurant owners, etc., so you have a slew of go-to sources that the other good cooks on staff don’t have.