COMMENTARY: Journalism ain’t easy, but the good days make the bad ones worth it
Journalism is hard. It’s getting harder. It still matters.
Journalists get a bad rap from the public. Our failures are public. Our conclusions, even when honestly reached, are treated as hostile “fake news” by an increasingly polarized audience. The sacrifices of the job, or even just the hard work, virtually always go unseen by those who consume — I hesitate to say “enjoy” — what we produce.
It’s not a job you leave at the office. It’s disruptive to family life. The deadlines are ceaseless. The end of one day brings no reprieve, just a reset clock. And contrary to what people think, the pay is often crummy (more on that below). And thanks to the wrenching economic forces “transforming” (more like devastating) our business models, it’s getting worse. Smaller budgets mean fewer staff every year, but the workload has only gone up. Quality and comprehensiveness, inevitably, have fallen, and the public notices and assumes it’s because we’re lazy or stupid. We know this because they tell us, loudly and often.
Even the new digital-only news outlets that were supposed to be the hope for a new era of mainstream journalism have struggled to find a viable revenue model, and are now shedding staff with as much gusto as their legacy competitors.
It’s a grim situation, overall. It’s not sustainable in the long-term. Something will have to give eventually. But we haven’t hit that final crisis point. We’re not dead. We are, instead, simply dying. Slowly and in public.
But people don’t realize that. I am consistently amazed by how many literate, well-read people genuinely have no idea about the economic Armageddon crushing the industry. Maybe it’s because we don’t talk about this publicly outside of dry business reports about ad revenue and debt burdens. Is it out of embarrassment? Privacy? Denial? I couldn’t say. But I’m not always sure the modern journalist’s determination to keep a stiff upper lip is doing us much good in the long run.
Oh, boo hoo, Gurney, the reader might be thinking now. Suck it up, etc. It’s true. There are others working much harder for even less money. I count my blessings every day, and they are many. But as the entire industry struggles to adapt into something, anything, that has a chance of surviving this brutal period of consolidation and decline, it can be frustrating to have the public believe that it’s simply because we’re not trying. We are trying, desperately, to do the job with what resources are left. It’s simply becoming impossible sometimes.
But the public doesn’t believe this. Their impression of the media is locked in to what it was not even all that long ago: large, well-paid reporting teams, with all the support editors they need. If only.
A small case in point: I often think back to my first year on the job, as a copy editor at the National Post, proofreading copy and assembling pages for printing for two different sections. The hours were long, the job was stressful. I didn’t have much time to write, but getting a column into the paper — seeing my name in print — every couple of weeks made it easier to put up with the rest.
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I remember one night at the office. It was late. Deadline wasn’t just looming, it was past. Everything had gone wrong that day, and there’d been a bunch of days like that in a row. But I was still basking in the glow of the column I’d gotten into that day’s edition of the paper. Just as I was finally wrapping up, I received an irate email from a gentleman, berating me for being so out of touch. I don’t remember his exact words — this was a decade ago — but it was something along the lines of, “How easy it must be for you to cast judgment from your ivory tower, with your $120,000 salary a year, a pension, benefits, and, what, four hours of work a week?”
I was working closer to 60 hours a week. No pension. No benefits. My salary was $35,000, leaving me with an after-tax take-home of not quite $600 a week. I laughed. It felt better than crying.
I share that anecdote to prove a point: that gentleman was not an outlier. He was a representative sample. The broader public really doesn’t understand what journalism looks like on the day to day level. Even when they mean us well, they simply don’t understand how the sausage gets made. They see only the tiniest piece of what we do — the finished product. They don’t see the prep work, the projects that don’t work out, or the often days of work that goes into preparing a single 800-word report or a single on-air segment. They haven’t had to sit through the meetings where some whizbang industry consultant or another comes in and presents a plan to turn things around, to save us all, while the actual working journalists try not to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it.
Some outlets are starting to peel back the curtain a bit, to let the public in and show them how it all happens. It’s a good idea. But I confess to no confidence it will really change much in the end.
There is a temptation I’ll confess to feeling, and I know for certain I’m not alone in it. There are days when you wrap up for the day and you’re honestly not sure what the hell you’re accomplishing. You know others have left the industry already — a few even of their own volition! — and they usually move smoothly in a fairly normal office job with decent hours and a better salary and much less public abuse.
You look around and you wonder what in God’s name you’re doing to yourself, and to your family. And you wonder what you’re doing it for. To momentarily distract a mob that’ll read part of the headline and then begin the attacks? For a company in a race to lower costs faster than it’s losing revenue, no matter how many employees it has to vapourize?
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And there are also the days when you look around at what a mess our society is in, how divided and angry we are at each other all the time, and you wonder if you’re a part of that cycle. You wonder if all your energies and efforts are just making things worse for everyone, feeding a machine that’s ruining our democracies. Your heart breaks for the mighty news organizations that are shadows of their former selves, for the good managers who are burnt out too young, and for the stories that deserve better coverage than they get. For the people who deserve someone to listen to their story, but for whom there’s simply no one left.
There’s a lot of days like that. More now than before. Sometimes the only good news is that we’re at least working in a part of the world where journalists aren’t routinely locked up or killed for doing their job. It’s not much to write home (or your editor) about, but you take the wins where you can find them. There aren’t many.
But then there are times like last month when I watch, in almost literal awe, as my colleagues from across Global News (and, yes, other outlets, too) responded to the disaster that befell the Humboldt Broncos. They brought an entire nation together via professional, passionate coverage. There are days like the recent one last week, when a deranged attacker wreaked havoc in my hometown, and the city’s news agencies responded with calm and restraint, providing excellent coverage. And there are mornings like mine just last week, when I interviewed a woman turning her family’s tragedy into a force for positive change, an interview that left me so moved I was almost unable to speak by the time I’d wrapped it up.
There’s a lot of crappy parts to being a journalist these days. But, like those rare columns in print 10 years ago, there’s also enough to make the crap worth it. Most people probably wouldn’t see it that way. But journalists do. That’s why we keep at it. And that’s why, when the time finally comes to move on, we know that we’ll miss it.
Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.
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