A journalistic cri de coeur

On multiple occasions in recent days, I’ve spoken to young journalists about becoming a reporter. As I’ve reflected on my decision to change careers and enter journalism, it makes me smile. It says something about how awesome journalism is that I chose to do it at a significant cut in pay. In my mind, the fun of finding new topics to write about and craft a story more than makes up for the fact that I can’t afford anything.

I didn’t go to school to become a journalist and I believe that schooling is in no way necessary for it. I look at it as a trade more than a profession. And I’m very happy to be part of this trade.

Many of the reporters I follow have been tweeting links to a new tumblr called We Are Journalists. The site’s purpose is explained: We are journalists. We are proud of what we do. We are tired of bad press about the press. We are trying to be “team players.” We are terrified of more layoffs and paycuts. We would like to produce quality work without ‘obamasux99′ posting some non-sequitur rant at the end of it. We complain because we want things to be better. We would like some respect, plz. We are journalists.

And you have various journalists post their stories. Some of them are rather earnest. The top one right now, for instance, is from a college media adviser who begins “I taught young people that reporting is a noble profession.” It ends “You bet your ass I am a journalist.” This managing editor had a rather dramatic response to someone who suggested that the newspaper profession was in trouble.

Some might be described as overwrought (e.g. “I collected divorces and heart attacks like trophies. I sat at a desk decorated with cigarette ash in a room that smelled like fear. … My scoops were plump and sexy like Marilyn Monroe and lasted hours, not seconds.”). Well then!

I rather liked this one from a community newspaper editor. And these, from a database investigative reporter and copy editor/page designer/online editor, did a great job of describing how frustrating it can be to work at a newspaper these days (without sounding whiny).

But this being GetReligion, you know where this is going. I have to say that I love the religion-themed posts. Take this one:

I write about people. I write about God. I write about people who do and do not believe in God. I once ate curry while barefoot, seated on the floor of a Sikh Temple, after witnessing three straight hours of prayer. I’ve covered my head out of respect. I’ve mingled with Wiccans at a wand making party, watched injured veterans light a menorah and shook the hands of countless pastors. I can’t count how many times interview subjects have asked me, “What do you believe in?” or “Where do you attend church?” I tell them, “For the job, it isn’t relevant. I write about it all.” I fear my beat is getting phased out of newspapers. I fear my other stories will continue to get more hits. I want to tell stories about the broken and how they heal, about the ways in which religion fuels the human spirit. But faith, like journalism, seems to attract less interest these days. My sincere belief that this is only temporarily keeps me writing.

I am a newspaper reporter with a religion beat.

Yeah! Go team! Makes you want to fight for another day.

There’s another interesting religion angle in these posts, though, and at least one contributor went ahead and named what was going on. Here’s the beginning of a reporter’s post:

Here’s a fact: I’m not a very religious man. But if I had to sift through the events of my life to find anything resembling a religion, it’d sound like journalism. Go figure. But if I do find myself answering to some crusty old editor in the sky, I’d valiantly argue there was no way I was made to do anything but tell stories. Any other way would have been sacrilegious, I’d yell.

I’m not sure what to make of this tendency among some journalists — you’ll recall New York Times editor Jill Abramson saying that the Times substituted for religion in her house growing up — but it is intriguing. I wonder if there is some link between journalists viewing the pieties of some media as equivalent to holy writ and the attendant decline of the newspaper industry. When people use religious language to describe their trade, it indicates they take a very high view of the office.

So I’d probably prefer that journalists pound the pavement rather than their chests. But the site is an interesting window, for good and for ill, into a beleaguered line of work.

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  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    Interesting link — I’ll have to check that out, now that I no longer frequent AngryJournalist.com!

    You have to have a calling (of sorts) to pursue journalism. And if a journalist is otherwise not traditionally devout — the majority of mainstream newsrooms, at least according to reputation? — it makes sense that their work serves as an expression of their beliefs. If I recall correctly, Daniel Pearl expressed some thoughts along those lines, in Marianne Pearl’s memoir “A Mighty Heart.”

    But perhaps this also goes for any other white-collar profession where college graduates choose to be largely underpaid and overworked, though — teaching certainly comes to mind, and I know actors who feel this way, too.

  • R.S.Newark

    Perhaps the central fact is that the people of whom you speak use the New York Times as a religion itself… without realizing it in a religious sense. Ignorance is palpable in their lack of self respect and of course respect for others. Is that it or am I wrong.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

    I am willing to view journalism as a “trade” rather than a “profession,” and I worked as a reporter for two different dailies before entering academia. I also had a number of
    “mass communications” majors in my classes at different times.

    That said, the quasi-religious language might be due to the fact that this is one area where you are every day called to write about something while setting your own feelings and opinions aside. (There are subtle ways of expressing them, though.) Instead, you must try to set a public example in your work.

  • Bill

    Mollie, you conjured up in my mind the image of a Mickey Spillane type religion reporter sitting behind his army surplus OD green Steelmaster desk, working on a half drained bottle of cheap bourbon and an old Underwood with a worn out ribbon. He takes a break to fish out his last Lucky. He crumples the empty pack and tosses it toward the gray steel wastebasket with the caved in side where he kicked it after the editor told him to write an in depth profile on a storefront preacher who grew up riding freight trains with his father before becoming a pimp. “And keep it under 150 words.”

    He leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on the desk. There’s a large hole in his right sole. He takes a long pull on the Lucky, holding the smoke in his lungs until he starts getting dizzy, knowing that with the shape his finances are in, it might be a long time before he gets another one.

    “My name’s Starcross. I’m on the God beat. I get the stories nobody wants to print. And nobody wants to pay for. Michael Jackson’s face? Kim Kardashian’s divorce. They got beaucoup dough for that. But religion? They can’t find a widow’s mite for that. They think God isn’t a big enough celebrity.

    “But I keep coming back here every day, like a dog to his vomit and a fool to his folly. Why? ‘Cause that’s who I am. And that’s what I do. And if I don’t make enough to buy food, I got the names and dates of all the church, synagogue and mosque clambakes in Gotham.”

  • MJBubba

    I have a great deal of respect for reporters who can tell good stories, especially ones that include the religious angles.
    However, as a conservative Christian, I have the overall impression that the media as a whole is an enemy of my faith. The big media is thoroughly secularized; when Bill (#4) says that “They think God isn’t a big enough celebrity,” it is because they think God is fiction and they don’t cover fiction. The local media use their pulpit to preach a civic religion that is universalist and syncretist.
    Whenever I see a story that I find really interesting, I usually stop reading before I finish the article, and go looking for either local media coverage in the area of the events, or looking for Christian or other niche media that I think are more likely to cover the angles I find of interest.