“Why don’t you go to any professional development seminars?” my boss asked me once. She wasn’t just my supervisor; she was the division head. Since our division was relatively small, I had frequent interaction with her. Rarely did she ask such a pointed question.
I mumbled some reply and moved on to another subject. But it was a valid question. I had done little in the way of career development training and it left me with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. And now I know why.
I didn’t know what career I was in.
Back in 1994, I joined a journalism organization with the intention of becoming an environmental journalist. Think Bill McKibben. I started as a researcher but figured that, before too long, I would be able to move up to more prominent writing positions. Years went by, however, and I ended up not doing much journalism. I am partly to blame for that because I was, I now realize, ambivalent about journalism in general.
In college, I worked on my student newspaper but never took a journalism class. After graduation, I tried to write for newspapers, but never applied for a staff position. Writing held an allure for me, but pursuing journalism for its own sake–all that interviewing and beat reporting–did not spark my interest.
After college, I saw two paths to where I wanted to go. One was that of the environmentalist who was also a writer. The other was the journalist who specialized in the environment. I preferred the former but left myself open to the latter if the right opportunity presented itself.
I once asked an editor whether he was looking for the environmentalist writer or the specialized journalist. “Journalist,” was his answer. I was dismayed because I did not believe that journalism was the only path to being an effective writer.
In the area of nature and the environment, some of the nonfiction writers who I admire the most–Annie Dillard, David Gessner, John McPhee–do not consider themselves journalists at all.* And in spite of that–or because of that–I feel they have contributed the most to the conversation. Not needing to fit into the constraints imposed by modern-day journalism, they are free to push the boundaries.
Journalists appear to believe that they have exclusive access to the facts, and that writers who are not journalists are sloppy or unable to grasp the story. Journalists act as members of a club–the Fourth Estate and all that–and consider writers to be wannabes lingering around the fringe. (Writer Joan Didion refers to “the contempt for outsiders” in her article about journalists and the political types they report on.) Needless to say, I disagree.
To many people, the terms “journalist” and “writer” are interchangeable, which is not surprising since the majority of the current generation of writers came up through the ranks of journalists. But it’s worth asking whether that was just a historical coincidence. Today, when news is published on what one writer calls “the vaguely Soviet-seeming syndication-fed news pages,” journalism and real writing seem to be drifting further and further apart.
Frankly, journalism as a career path for a young writer is dying. The website CareerCast, in its annual Jobs Rated report, lists newspaper reporter as the number one worst job in America in 2013. “The opportunity to climb the [career] ladder disappeared,” says one reporter who was interviewed. Furthermore, according to one recent poll, only 28 percent of the public think of journalists as contributing a lot to society’s well being. This does not make for an enticing career choice.
The writing I’m interested in is less about a recitation of the facts than the finding of greater truths. To do that, writing must have a strong voice and an informed point of view. Journalistic objectivity doesn’t allow for either of those.
I’m no longer afraid to make known my lack of journalistic ambition. Journalism is not my career, and being around journalists day after day has not provided the professional development that one would expect from over 15 years on the job. I’m not entirely sure where I’m headed, but I’m sure of one path to avoid.
*McPhee, in a piece in the July 2, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, refers to himself as a “writer of long fact” and that he teaches “factual writing.” Another writer who I deeply admire, William Langewiesche, studied anthropology in college and “does not want to be viewed as a straight news reporter” according to one interview.
[Do you think you might be in the wrong career? Take The Glenn O’Neill Test and see.]