Last week I ran into an alum of my high school journalism training program in the most unusual place. I was getting a tour of the Cal State Northridge newspaper, the Daily Sundial, and meeting a few of the students who work there. One of them looked at me and once she heard where I worked, said, “I used to write for that paper. Do you remember me?” She did look familiar but with 100 students going through our program every year it’s sometimes hard to place a face. Once she said her name though, I could see her byline on the story she wrote about wanting to become a chiropractor.
Even though she wrote for us, I say it was unusual to run into her at a campus newspaper because she’d dedicated an entire article to explaining why she wanted to go into the medical field. So how did she end up in journalism? She explained to me how writing for our newspaper had inspired her.
After she wrote her article for us, she realized she liked writing and joined her high school newspaper. There she wrote a feature on a student with one leg. What happened next showed her the power of her words. After her article ran, the school decided to hold a fundraiser for the student, and a local paper wrote a story about it. Someone reading that article then donated a prosthetic leg to the boy, an incredible outcome she couldn’t have imagined when she wrote her story, which in turn ignited her passion for journalism.
I admit that I have mixed feelings when I talk to former staff members who want to go into journalism. On the one hand, regardless of whether newspapers continue to be printed, journalists and the news will always be important. But it’s more complicated to pursue journalism today than it was when I graduated in the late 1990s. Little did I realize how good I had it. Newspapers were flush with advertising cash and they were opening neighborhood bureaus and printing zoned editions. My first job was a three-month temporary gig with the Arizona Daily Star in their Northwest Tucson bureau. We didn’t have to worry about promoting ourselves as a “brand” on social media and personal blogs. I didn’t have to know how to edit video or take photos.
The flip side is that we were dependent on someone giving us a job in order to get experience. But ultimately, I don’t think it’s bad for people to go into journalism today. Even if they don’t stay for whatever reason (even back in the good ol’ days many people burned out and left the profession), they’ll develop writing skills that transfer to other jobs and be providing a crucial public service. I said as much to another staff writer today. She’s a senior waiting to hear back from colleges who wants to go into journalism but also is interested in politics and art.
Maybe life would be easier for both of these girls if they pursued other careers instead of diving into an industry in tumult. But they both seemed happy about their choice. The one at the Sundial said she dreamed of reporting in Mongolia and was inspired by a quote she read from a photographer who said that his job was “wandering with a purpose.” I don’t think it’s my place to discourage our writers from going into journalism, but I am honest with them about the state of the industry so at least they know what to expect. And from there it’s their choice.