When I give readings or lectures at colleges, after all the boring “future of the novel” talk, there’s always one student who looks around sheepishly and asks: “Would you go into journalism today?”
I have been a novelist for almost 20 years, but I always credit my journalism background for my discipline, for my innate curiosity, for my write-about-anything chops. I sometimes say that my writer friends with creative writing MFAs are like classically trained musicians while I grew up pulling requests from a dirty whiskey glass on the jangly piano in a juke joint.
Of course, the student asking about journalism doesn’t care about my overly elaborate piano bar analogy. And she certainly doesn’t want to hear some old reporter pining for a world that no longer exists: Hot lead! Afternoon newspapers! Advertising! pensions!
No, this questioner is either majoring in journalism, thinking of majoring in journalism or in the unenviable position of defending to her parents why she has chosen journalism as a major instead of something more stable and lucrative like … well, anything.
The real question is: With dying revenues and competition and corporate mismanagement and fewer jobs (that pay less) and declining public trust and social media echo chambers and, perhaps worst of all, a president who overtly attacks the news media — with all of this, would I still go into journalism?
Yes, I tell the questioner. I would.
I loved being a reporter. I learned so much so fast — about systems and institutions — and most of all about people, how they talk, what they want. In eight years I got enough material for stories and novels and screenplays to last a lifetime. And you won’t meet a better group than a roomful of reporters, that brilliant collection of underachievers, the smartest B students in the world. The skills you gain as a reporter are invaluable: the ability to write well quickly, to ask questions and deal with people, to handle conflict. (My wife, a former reporter, used to counsel demoralized colleagues, There’s a world out there that values what you can do…)
Most of the reporters I know see it as a calling as much as a profession. And paradoxically, perhaps, the calling becomes more important as the career gets harder. This is what I tell the young questioner:
We need good journalists now more than ever. You are doing something vital and necessary. Albert Camus in his book “Resistance, Rebellion and Death” wrote about the almost sacred power writing had against fascism during World War II, about the need to confront “the wager of one’s generation” and, in this fact-challenged world, the newspaper reporter is the writer facing the wager of our generation; you are part poet, part watchdog, part philosopher. Thank you, I tell the young journalism student. Fight for truth! Hang in there! Try not to buckle in the face of all that pressure! We need you!
And then, my nostalgic, self-important rant exhausted, I get the inevitable follow-up question: “Can I get the name of your literary agent?”