This week, Katie Alaimo took to the staff bicycle — I like to call it Missourian One — to find the guys dealing with the fish kill on Flat Branch Creek. The job for Katie and reporter Elizabeth Laubach was to pedal bicycles on the MKT Trail on a beautiful April day to find the story.
And they say this job isn’t fun?
I want a recount.
CareerCast.com this week released its list of worst jobs, and reporting came in fifth.
That’s worse than butcher. Worse than meter reader. Worse than waiter. Fifth from the bottom is only a little better than oil rig worker or enlisted soldier. Only a little better than the rock bottom: lumberjack.
I covered everyone from soybean farmers to governors as a reporter. I climbed steel beams over the Tennessee River with a bridge inspector. As an editor, I flew in a prop plane over the Atlantic Ocean in search of the menhaden fleet and took off from an aircraft carrier that had hosted the secretary of defense.
I’ve sat through council meetings that lasted past 3 a.m. I’ve seen more festivals – celebrating peanuts and art and patriotism and college fraternities and large families – than I care to count.
I’ve been a dishwasher. It’s an awful gig. Worse than the steam rising from scalding water is the knowing: I will wash that same plate, that same fork, that same pan, over and over.
As a reporter, I got to learn something new every day. They paid me to do it. And my work was in service of community and democracy.
Extraordinary luck is the way I see my lot in life.
Stressful and without much hope is the way CareerCast describes reporting.
Among the Bottom 10, only enlisted military was deemed more stressful. I get that; fear of dying would stress me out, too. Reporters work in a competitive field made more intense by the immediacy of news on the Web. Deadlines always loom. They work in the public eye and meet strangers every day. Sometimes the work is hazardous, which is why reporters are considered “first responders” just like other emergency workers at disaster sites.
But those things have always been part of the job.
What puts reporting so low now comes from tectonic shifts in the business of news, not the journalism itself. Anyone in an industry that has weathered massive layoffs would be depressed.
“Newsrooms have never been wellsprings of optimism, even in the best of times,” writes former Lakeland, Fla., executive editor Skip Perez in the spring issue of Nieman Reports. “But this is different. Unrelenting awful economic news about most media companies has contributed to an atmosphere of fear and insecurity among many if not most journalists.”
I believe the newspaper business is about to turn around as it finds new ways to create value for the products it creates and revenues to fund more journalism. The shakeout isn’t over, I know, but I’m sure there is a bottom from which the industry will rebound.
Right now, regardless of the economics, there’s still a good story to tell about a reporting career.
It begins with the journalism.
I asked a friend how he managed to keep such great reporters in the day of fewer raises and fewer colleagues filling the newsroom. His response: Give them room to tell great stories.
Economics forces the quantity. But he could maintain the quality of the journalism by making hard choices about what to cover.
Perez believes the answer is in training to give staff the tools to do what they’re most passionate about.
“As most editors know,” Perez writes, “a newsroom that aggressively pursues important, hard edged stories on a regular basis is less susceptible to the culture of complaint. The work is noticed and celebrated. It is a wonderful antidote to pessimism.”
In any profession, it’s satisfying to do good work. Even if you’re a lumberjack.
Tom Warhover is the executive editor of the Missourian. Contact him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 882-5734.