Trying to explain the lifestyle of working journalists is difficult to the uninitiated. Some in the profession might argue that being a journalist — if done well — means having no life other than the newsroom.
In truth, there are dozens of clichés about life in the news business, archetypal descriptions of standard players in any newsroom. Few of the myths of hard drinking, chain-smoking bombastic news environments hold true any longer.
These days, when reporters are rushing to get out the door of most newsrooms, it is more than likely to make a trip to the gym or to attend their children’s soccer game than to get to the bar. The vision from years past of the wheeling, dealing editor meddling in all aspects of city or state politics is also just that, past. Corporate ethics guidelines in most newsrooms would never allow such activity.
In print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, the stereotypes from movies and books long built up in the public’s mind about how journalists conduct themselves are long gone in this new age of group ownership, heightened scrutiny on the media and increasing competition.
What remains the same are much more important stresses. Entry-level pay remains low in our field compared to other professions. Hours remain long. Personal and ethical conflicts abound for journalists today as they always have. Sometimes, our stories scar us almost as much as the people we cover.
As one newsroom manager working in America, let me share with you some observations about how to stay healthy and sane in today’s field of journalism.
Plan for your financial future
This may be the most important lesson of all. Journalists do not choose their profession to get rich quickly. This is a profession that is more about public service than the almighty dollar. That does not mean journalists cannot plan smartly.
Working journalists should live within their means. That is difficult for younger folks as they often see their friends living the good life right out of college — whether they can truly afford it or not. It is important, though, not to get caught up in the typical cycle of debt and overspending that one’s peers do. As a journalist, you probably will not be able to bail yourself out.
Also, contribute to your retirement plan as much as you possibly can afford to. One should max out contributions to things like a 401(k) or a Health Savings Account.
Find a work/life balance
This is as much about choosing an employer as it is deciding that there needs to be adequate time for work and play. Do your homework about respective employers and their newsrooms whether you are right out of school or a veteran editor looking to move up.
If a family is important to you, find out how many people in the newsroom have children. Ask questions about vacation time and things such as long-term disability pay. These are all part of a prospective benefits package.
Some places are lifestyle and family friendly, some are not. Find a balance that works for you. If you are at the point in your career where you need to make a time sacrifice to get to that next level, then make one. But make those decisions consciously.
The job can hurt; take care of yourself
Sometime, this profession leads us into very dark places. Courtrooms, police stations, battlefields, hospitals and highways hold tragedy of all kinds that we bear witness to every day. This is part of the job that will never change no matter the era.
After having covered a damaging or tragic event, journalists need to take an emotional inventory as to whether they have handled the information they absorbed and reported. Speak to supervisors, friends and family if you are upset or not handling something you observed well.
There is no shame in confessing one is burnt out from the job if that is truly the case. Simply tell a supervisor you need a down day or two.
Nothing replaces work ethic
All of the above will have a hard time falling into place without approaching your job with the commitment and seriousness it deserves. It should be an honor to serve your community on the staff of your local newsroom. Treat it that way, and give the job what it needs to get it right.
All of the precautions mentioned here do not change the fact that this is very hard, time-consuming work — satisfying, but time-consuming. Once you have accepted that reality as part of your life, then do all you can to balance it with some of the methods mentioned here.