On Being A “Journalist”

January 18, 2015

Every time someone calls me “journalist” I feel a bit uncomfortable. The label doesn’t feel right to me, even though it keeps finding me.

More than most, I’ve had the label applied to me in public. Articles in Poynter, Columbia Journalism Review and others have applied the label to me. I’m not trying to brag (although I am proud) but typically if one of those places call you a “journalist”, you are one, right?

I think I’m reluctant to take on the title because I have had such a varied career, not at all the way I thought a person would become a true reporter. A path I could have followed: I was editor of my small college’s newspaper and my school’s director of communications, who had once been on the Providence Journal-Bulletin staff, offered to set me up with a job there (this sort of thing still happened in 1991).

I talked with her and someone at the PJB, and it seemed possible that I could go from a night reporter to metro reporter in just a few years. If I really applied myself, in ten years I could be doing investigative work, my true dream.

But before my senior year I interned at a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm, which lured me to the dark arts of politics. It was brawny, powerful and exciting. I loved the business for a long time.

Skipping ahead fourteen years, I no longer saw my political work making the world a better place, so I switched back to my first love: News.

That’s what I tell people I do. I work in “news.” Because saying I’m a “journalist” doesn’t feel right, even though I’ve been earning my living doing something related to that for almost six years.

A “journalist” to me is someone who did what I could have done back in ’91. The hard work of night reporting, copy editing, being a legman, associate producer. All that. The sucky stuff. But also honing a craft. Following an unwritten code and being part of a tribe.

I admire those who have done it for their sense of belonging and the badge of honor they’ve earned for years or decades of hard, often unacknowledged work.

But those tribesmen are also often the ones who adjust the slowest to the world that’s already changed around them. Their deeply engrained, unwritten code of professional and personal ethics limits them from experimentation.

The banner of “journalism”, I believe, is one of the biggest impediments to the future of news. Too many people on the editorial side of the news business use Big J “Journalism” as a shield from trying new things or adjusting resources to serve audiences differently. Have you heard or read these things lately?

  • Chasing clicks isn’t journalism.
  • Working without copy editors isn’t good journalism.
  • Having openly stated opinions isn’t good journalism.
  • Mixing business side responsibilities with editorial work isn’t good journalism.

I’ve done all four of the above. Repeatedly. Everyone I know that’s busy trying to be a news entrepreneur does at least two of them regularly.

So for me, I’d rather let the fusty people have their “Journalism” label and just focus on doing news work and building an audience. Give me the eyeballs, clicks and moving the needle. That’s the fun stuff.