How I Once Failed Spectacularly at Journalism

Working at a newspaper made me a better writer.

In a recently released list of the top 200 jobs in America, the website CareerCast included this note:

As we get to the bottom of our rankings, these professions all have a varied mixture of physical labor, declining job opportunities, lower incomes, poor working conditions and high stress. While not all of them have the physical demands of a firefighter, cushy would not be a word to describe any of these positions. For most of the jobs in this group, the salaries are very low with an even worse hiring outlook. Opportunity to grow in these job is minimal.

Coming in at 196, beaten out by such glamorous positions as dishwasher and taxi driver, was “reporter (newspaper).”

My first thought upon seeing the ranking was, “That sounds about right.” I speak from experience. From June 2000 to July 2001, I was a daily reporter at New Jersey’s Courier News, which covered primarily Somerset and Middlesex counties. It was my first writing job out of college.

I had worked part-time in newspapers for nearly two years, mostly at the Times of Trenton. After some time on the obit desk, I wrote news-features, which was a dream job for a college student. So, essentially, you’ll pay me to go on a field trip and then write about it? And then you’ll publish it so thousands can read it? You never met someone so happy to be working in Trenton.

Jobs, as I’ve learned, are always better in college. You aren’t there all the time. Supervisors, rightly, give you just a taste of responsibility. Any journalism major with a shred of talent believes he is the next Gay Talese or Susan Orlean or whoever now lives on the luxury real estate that is the New York Times non-fiction best seller list. And if you land a summer job writing rather than manning the fry machine, and if your tie-wearing superiors offer praise, well, the script demands that you’re profiling celebrities for Esquire by age 25, right?


I was so clueless.

Working at the Courier News was like running on a treadmill for 12 straight hours with the speed increased every five seconds. In a month, I was assigned a municipal beat—or more accurately, half of Hunterdon County. I spent my days surrounded by piles of meeting minutes and press releases, praying the police scanner kept announcing benign violations so I could get home by 8 p.m. My nights were spent at zoning board and town council meetings, where I observed democracy in painful, artery-clogged inaction. On weekends, I wrote about fairs and charity fun-runs. At home, I dreaded picking up the phone to hear a desk-bound voice order me to cover a fire or a hurricane or some disaster requiring me to mumble questions to a freshly grieving widow.

Great newspapermen thrive on that pressure. God bless them. They end up writing books and appearing in fancy suits on serious talk shows. Me, I died each day and rose again to face the same vicious monotony—for $30,000 a year.

Squeezed by deadlines and multiple assignments—you have an enterprise story due tomorrow; we need a news brief—I misspelled names. I garbled facts. The harder I tried, the worse I got. My failure was so thorough that editors requested I fax them my questions before I started stories. My biannual review actually had a minus sign next to the number. “It’s not as bad as it looks,” my metro editor said, as I reviewed the company-sanctioned proof of my incompetence. It was and then some. One morning, in the wake of another mistake making print, the paper’s managing editor and the county prosecutor (separately) gave me fierce, soul-deflating lectures over the phone. My sobbing only stopped when another call came through. That this person didn’t want to chastise me was sufficient proof that there is a merciful God.

Believe it or not, all that aggravation made me a better writer. It taught me to process information fast and write faster—but not too fast. You need to be certain about everything you write, because once a story is in print, that’s it. I learned to approach writing like a job. There’s no time for inspiration. Be observant, ask good questions, file the article. And get ready to do it again tomorrow.

Anybody who writes professionally needs those skills, which make newspapers such a fertile training ground. And, because you’re exposed to journalism in its most ragged, desperate form, newspapers provide the ultimate test of whether writing is a passion or a passing fancy.

The earlier you know, the sooner you can start washing dishes, which I hear is a real growth industry.