Why I Am a Reporter

I'm 58 years old, and I'm a reporter at a small-town newspaper.

The question naturally arises: how did I get myself into this fix?

By the time they turn 58, most reporters have either taken a job as an editor or they've moved on to another job altogether, most commonly (and most remuneratively) as a political shill.

Maybe it's the job security.

Or maybe not.  Since 2001, more than 25 percent of full-time reporters have lost their jobs at America's daily newspapers.  You've read about the collapse of newspapers.  It's real, though weeklies, like the one I work for, soldier on.

Maybe it's the money.

Or maybe not.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics says journalists are the lowest-paid among professions that require a bachelor's degree.  In most places, the local librarian makes 50 percent more than the average reporter.

Then surely it's the fame and adulation?

Lord, I hope not.

A 2009 Gallup poll asked Americans which professions have "low" or "very low" honesty and ethical standards.  Journalists ranked among the bottom, barely beating out lawyers, advertising practitioners, and car salesmen.  (The good news, I guess, is that members of Congress are considered much, much worse.)

In response to previous essays I've published on American Thinker, several readers have written to ask why I am so damn nosey -- under the assumption that all reporters live to poke their noses into other people's business.

In fact, there are three reasons why people get into the reporting end of the newspaper business.  1) They are very curious, with a curiosity that often extends beyond other people's private business.  2) They love words.  3) They want to save the world.

I have varying portions of all three, with the first two holding steady throughout my long career and the last dropping off precipitously.  That is the result of honestly examining one fundamental question -- to wit: "What training and expertise do I have toward saving the world?"

The hard answer is: none.

I know the ethical standards that are -- or should be -- applied to those in government as they conduct the public's business.  That comes in handy.  But the older I get, the more I realize I have no special gift, no way of knowing what our public policies should be.

I have opinions, sure.

Learning to distinguish between opinions and knowledge is a fundamental purpose of education.  Unfortunately, most of my colleagues are poorly educated; they've never been required to consider the question.

That's why reporters simply assume they know what is best for you and me.  The result is both predictable and extraordinarily well-documented.  You call it the mainstream media.

There is much to recommend the job of reporter, but the best aspects are only very rarely discussed.

If you're a journalism student, or if you're thinking about the news as a career, I hope you'll consider first a word of advice: don't major in journalism.  Get an education instead.

Among their many failings, your J-school instructors will attempt to inculcate in you an ethical construct that is so hopelessly naïve and childish that it makes the ethical standards of personal injury attorneys seem Socratic by comparison.

And they will forget to mention certain important facts -- for example, the fundamental fact that newspapers are published to make money for the publisher.

All that said, I really want more conservatives in this business.  I'm writing this essay to encourage you to at least consider the possibility.

I'll start by pointing out that while newspapers are in decline, the information business is booming.  You just have to think creatively.

Additional points to remember:

  • As a reporter, I'm encouraged to follow my curiosity.  When I drive down the road and see a new building going up, I usually would like to know more.  As a reporter, I can pull off and ask -- and I don't look weird doing it.
  • I'm encouraged to ask people who work in government the most discomfiting questions I can formulate.  E.g., "What the hell were you thinking?"
  • I can often do remarkable favors for other people.  Kids, for example, love having their picture in the paper.  I get a big kick out of helping with that.
  • Most importantly, the reporter's job is one of the very few where you're treated like a grown-up.  I have on occasion had other jobs and chafed terribly at the rules -- not just established work hours, but always -- always! -- there is someone looking over your shoulder.

    When you work for a good newspaper you are simply given a job and a deadline.  The end.

    Do the work, and you keep your job.  Don't do it, and you lose your job.

    For many people, this is a recipe for disaster.  Given the rope, they hang themselves.  Me, I love deadlines.  Or to put it more accurately, I can't work without one.
  • And finally, I like reporters.  They are invariably blunt and profane, and they have a wicked sense of humor.

    I admit that they are often tough to deal with.  The thick skin and the blindness to social cues that mark the very best reporters don't stop when the interview is over.  As a result, the ones who last are always slight to moderate social misfits.

    On the other hand, they drink a lot, so that weighs heavily in their favor.

Is it a tough business for conservatives?  You bet.  I have to listen to all sorts of nonsense all frickin' day. 

If you want to keep your job, it's best to keep your head down and your opinions to yourself.

That's the bad news. 

The good news is that your college classes will have well and thoroughly prepared you for that.

Theodore Dawes, 58, is a reporter at a small-town newspaper near Mobile, Ala.  Write to him at teddawesmobile@gmail.com.