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Ink-stained newspaperman offers advice to journalistic hopeful

Logan Jenkins
San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego, Ca.

June 2, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a North County high-school senior, a young woman on the brink of graduation, who needed to interview someone “who is actually involved in the career we are considering pursuing.”

These are the sorts of open-faced requests one refuses at the risk of eternal damnation.

When we hooked up on the phone, the aspiring journalist asked prepared questions that I answered off the top of my grizzled head:

• Where would you recommend a graduating senior go for education/training?

Though the media landscape is changing — at a torrid pace — a name university remains the default choice for anyone who wants to succeed in a fiercely competitive profession. But any high-school graduate who hasn’t already worked for some kind of publication is off to a slow start. My son, who writes for Sports Illustrated, started covering prep sports for a community weekly when he was 14. But he would have had a tough time standing out if he hadn’t also attended Vanderbilt, a college with a rich tradition of sportswriting.

• What courses beyond high school are most helpful in preparing for this kind of work?

Everything. To be a journalist, you have to know enough to ask smart questions about whatever comes up. A statistics or political science class is as relevant as literature or history. Journalism classes are fine, but they’re no substitute for a liberal arts education.

• What is the beginning salary range for this and other related fields?

Terrible. Think church mice — or minor league baseball. The vast majority of journalists have to work their way up the economic ladder, one byline at a time. With a shrinking labor pool, the competition for internships and entry-level jobs is more intense than ever. If you can’t imagine playing Single A for a pittance, consider another field.

• How many hours do you work per week?

Honestly, I am never not working. And that’s how it should be. Even if you punch a time clock, your brain is always on the job even if your body is surfing. You never know when a turn of phrase — or an idea for a story — might hit you. And in the event of a disaster, we’re on call 24/7. I recall when 9/11 hit, I called to inform my son, who was working for another newspaper. Though a sports writer covering UCLA, his first thought was to head out to campus to start reporting. He knew it was all hands on a burning deck.

• How important is working with others in performing day-to-day tasks?

If you don’t like working on a tight-knit team, find another line. Everyone pulls together to make the newspaper/magazine/station/website look good, but, at the same time, you have to accept that you’ll be judged on your performance, not your amiability. Think baseball again. Teamwork is essential, but if you can’t hit or pitch, you’re cut. It’s a cliché, but you’re only as good as your last story. You have to want the team to succeed while living in fear of personal failure.

• What are the most important personal characteristics a person should possess to succeed in this field?

Competitiveness, coolness under pressure, sympathy for the endless variations of the human condition, precision, wariness of adjectives, attention to detail, and, of course, luck.

• Do you have any regrets about choosing this career?

Remarkably, I don’t. I was fortunate to start out when just about anyone who could read and/or write could land a job as a reporter or copy editor. Despite my short attention span — or perhaps because of it — I haven’t looked back in 30 years.

• If you had to choose again, would you enter the same field?

Yes, but I’d study and work harder than I did after I graduated from high school in 1965. Hitchhiking around Europe would not be an option today — unless I was getting paid to write about it.

• What are the future growth prospects in this field? Will there be positions available in five years?

In five years, fewer print publications will be serving fewer readers, but more websites will be appealing to more online viewers. It will be a new — and very brave — media world for those with the talent and skills to rise to the top.

After the interview, I turned the table and asked the soon-to-be graduate what her plans were. She hesitated, perhaps suspecting I wouldn’t love her answer.

She said she’d been accepted to Columbia’s journalism school, but it was way too expensive. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do. Probably community college.

That’s OK, I said, trying to think of what I’d say if she were my daughter at this critical crossroad.

You’re smart enough to get into Columbia, I said, one of nation’s best schools for journalism. That’s great. Go to MiraCosta or Palomar and clean up in a big way. Straight As. Soak up media-related opportunities on (and off) campus. Transfer to Columbia or another top school. Clean up there, too.

And then come out fighting.

Copyright 2011, San Diego Union-Tribune. Reprinted with permission

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