March 13, 2003

Letter from the Trenches

I received a fair amount of email in response to my piece in American Journalism Review about the difficulties small-town editors have in hiring and retaining quality staff. Here's a letter from one reader (names deleted, emphasis added) who's found professional fulfillment, at least for now, on a small paper.

"I was thoroughly impressed with your article "Vacancies in Vacaville" in the March issue of AJR. Many of the issues discussed are ones that we deal with on a daily basis at our paper in (the Pacific Northwest). The . is a roughly 18,000 circ. paper that feels the pains of every other small daily. The issues you discuss resonate with me especially. The one thing that seems to me is missing from the teaching of burgeoning journalists is warning about the expectations that await them. But students are also not doing the work they need to do when they look for jobs.

"I had a great journalism prof at Humboldt State University, a former Bay Area journalist who spent 10 years at the Oakland Tribune before going to grad school, and he laid it out about the difference between big and small newspapers. At small papers, he said, you worked very hard, for little pay, but came away with an invaluable set of varied skills and experiences. But, he said, don't do it for the money. He said that constantly.

"So, bright-eyed out of college, I started at a paper in (deleted), (owned by the ominous ANG-Media News partnership) and settled in for Top Ramen and gritty experience. What I got was a rude awakening about what Tom Brooker talks about in your article. I felt like the bottom line. Constantly. So, after only nine months, and against my resume's better judgement, I started looking. The pay was low, and the hours long, but that wasn't the principle factor that made me leave. It was the mere fact that the publisher at the time, and the editor, though she had heart, were more concerned with budgets than good news -- because, primarily, that's what they constantly heard from the "front office." I wasn't learning anything about journalism after the first six months.

"What I found, even with trading down a few thousand in circulation at (deleted), was the exact opposite. A publisher, an editor and a company that seems to care more about overall integrity than the bottom line. By no means is the pay much better here. The difference is that I want to work the hours, I want to be proud of the content and look, and I get to hear positive comments from the community. I've even placed in the SPJ awards. As a young pup in the business, these things are more important. Regardless of the money, or the hours. I just want to learn the business. Editors like Diane Barney and my current editor . are the ones we should all look for out of school.

"I would suggest that young journalists take more time, research the company, ask staff members and really be inquisitive about where they want to work. I don't think we do that enough. I've been in on several interviews here, and it is surprising how young journalists don't take the time to ask questions that could make the difference in the early stages of their careers. It's really an applicant's market at our level. They need to be choosy. Otherwise, they will just feel overworked and underpaid.

"The ironic part is that we all are in this business. The trick is to find the place where you can balance the passion and idealism with really "paying your dues" by cutting your teeth in an environment that helps your career.

"I've found it, and I've been here for 2 1/2 years and counting. I don't have eyes on what's on the outside of the revolving door yet. I'm still learning and growing where I am. To a true young journalist, that simply has to be the focus. Hopefully, there are more of me out there. We aren't all whiners ... at least I hope.

"At any rate, thanks for the article. I really enjoyed reading a well-balanced, relevant piece on journalism at my level. Thanks."

 American Journalism Review Vacancies in Vacaville

Posted by Tim Porter at March 13, 2003 08:16 AM