10 Years Since I Left Journalism

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On December 30, 2005, I finished up my shift on the sports design and copy desk, stepped out of the office building of The Herald-Sun shortly after midnight, and walked away from journalism — the career and craft that had been my calling since the summer between high school and college.

It has been 10 years since that night, and I have now spent more time out of journalism than I did in it. With each passing year, “journalist” or “ex-journalist” becomes a smaller part of my professional and personal identity. My journalism work has gone from the bulk of my résumé and portfolio to secondary entries. I no longer consider myself a refugee from a profession, but rather a proven practitioner in another.

Here are some thoughts on life in and after journalism, with the benefit of a decade’s worth of hindsight.

Do I have any regrets about leaving journalism?

No, but I do regret having to leave journalism to be able to pursue the things that matter to me professionally and personally, such as:

  • Working in a place that puts me in position to succeed and to keep learning
  • Working in a place committed to putting out the best product it can
  • Having some semblance of stability in my career
  • Living where I want to live, not where my career dictates I must live
  • Having a life outside of work, i.e., a personal identity separate from my professional identity

When I decided to leave journalism, I felt that while I could find some of these things in a job had I remained in the profession, I would not be able to find enough of them in any one job to keep me happy in journalism. Looking back 10 years later, I know I made the right move, and that makes me a bit sad because of what it says about journalism. The financial state of the journalism business was certainly a significant motivation to leave, but even if that wasn’t a factor, journalism is a tough mistress, and eventually I probably would have grown wary of its demands.

What do I think of the current state of journalism?

There certainly does seem to be more enthusiasm now than a few years ago, thanks in part to a few splashy investments in the journalism business from tech barons and the rise of more experimentation. Still, so many of those seem to be happening in the same space — national and international news — while regional and local journalism operations continue to wither for the most part.

It’s an awesome time to study journalism and to do journalism. It’s a crappy time to do journalism as your primary means of making a living if you value anything remotely resembling stability in your career and life.

Look at this advice from a former staff member of Digital First Media’s defunct Project Thunderdome:

“My general advice, hard as it can be to hear, is to always be prepared for a layoff.”

Look, I’m not looking to be in the same job for 20-plus years, but if you have the constant threat of layoffs hanging over your head, it is corrosive for your personal and professional well-being, however exciting the work may be. From where I’m standing right now, journalism looks like an exciting job and a lousy career.

What life lessons have I learned since leaving journalism?

There have been many, but most importantly, never close your mind to possibilities. When I walked away from journalism, I could not have foreseen myself ending up in public relations (the “Dark Side” in journalist parlance) and actually finding it to be fulfilling work. Then, when I started in PR eight years ago, I never could have foreseen that I would one day do PR for Duke (the “Dark Side” for everyone who went to school at UNC). Life takes you to unexpected places, and when you get there, you discover unexpected things about those places, so don’t preemptively shut any doors for yourself with a “I will never …” mindset.

How has my view of journalism changed since leaving the business?

  • I am more convinced than ever that there is a vital role for journalism in our society. Journalism, done properly, may be inconvenient to someone. It may even at times be inconvenient to me. I would, however, accept the possibility of such an annoyance without a second thought, because for every instance where journalism is a pain in my rear, there’s an instance where journalism serves to watch my back.
  • I have, however, noticed how much of the daily journalism output is just not that important (and sometimes just downright awful), and I really wish journalists would stop trying so hard to claim the moral high ground. That is probably what bothers me about the journalistic mindset more than anything — the profession’s attempt to wrap everything it does in a cloak of nobility. I can probably make a decent case that almost every job I’ve held since leaving journalism has contributed more to society than much of the journalism that’s produced on a daily basis (that one job where I designed catalogs for door knobs might be a close call).
  • My other wish for journalism is that its practitioners would do a better job of living up to the transparency standards they set for others. The recent reporting by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to expose the identity of its new owner, who tried to remain anonymous, was a fine example, but one all too rare. Far too often, when the uncomfortable lens of scrutiny is turned on themselves, journalism operations tend to clam up instead of embodying the kind of transparency that they demand from the institutions they cover. Journalism is as much an institution as any governmental body it covers, and journalism outlets, with the vast audiences they reach, wield significant power. Journalists take pride in afflicting the powerful, but far too frequently fail to live up to that credo when they would be the ones afflicted.