Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Life and Times of Journalists

I don't envy journalists. The hours are long and the pay is light. Many of them barely scrape by for years, waiting for a big break that never comes. But it's a relatively predictable tragedy. The problem with journalism is that it's a low skill prestige occupation, which means it's a job where the actual requirements of the job aren't that high but everybody still wants to do it.

Unlike professional athletes, surgeons, concert pianists, and fighter pilots, journalists inhabit a vocational plane that doesn't really require that much effort. The vast majority of journalists are anonymous. It's very hard to tell the difference between the works of two journalists. Success in industry seems to be a function of sheer doggedness (or an especially depressing grade of low-simmering desperation) and a hook (the journalist is exceptionally attractive and can parlay their journalistic experience into a visual media gig), not the quality of journalism itself.

This is probably why journalists are so opinionated. The ones left standing are those who have outlasted all other challengers. Their metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears have been poured into a professional career that they have to believe was worth it. The ones who succeed, most likely with a heavy helping of luck and good timing, don't want to believe they succeeded based on random chance and circumstance. They want to believe they succeeded because they were the best at what they do, which is to report on the events of other people.

And that's why they have such strong opinions. They can't help it because it's their job to interpret reality, and they've spent so long doing it that it's impossible for them not to have strong opinions. This is actually counterproductive to their actual jobs, because opinions aren't the domain of journalists. Facts are. And it appears to be why so many people in the trade, who have spent so much time collating, aggregating, and analyzing, want to jump from reporting to commentating.

The most prestigious positions in a news organization are usually on the opinion side. The Wall Street Journal is a damn good financial newspaper, but its reputation is built on the foundation of their editorial page. When extraordinary events occur, it's always the editor that chimes in with a special editorial. The journalists are essentially written out of the equation. The organization and the readership are essentially telling them that their job is insignificant.

We live in the age of cheap information. Everything that's out there has already been reported on. And it seems what the people really crave are opinions. There's no such thing as a blog that reports the news. Blogs only give their analysis on the news. It's always about the why. Because the why is what makes a good story. And that is, ultimately, what the people crave. A good story.

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