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02.23.09

hack

THANKS TO MY FRIEND KATHY'S rattling of the tin cup - my own, not hers - I've come out of the weekend with another $100 in my PayPal tip jar, thanks to a generous reader in Calgary, another in South Carolina, and a friend closer to home. I am, with every clink and plunk, touched by your generosity, especially as the job search is looking like it could be a long and difficult one.

It's hard not to notice how many job postings at newspapers, TV stations and wire services specifically ask for a college degree. It's also hard not to notice that they don't specify what kind of a degree they're looking for, and following that line of thought, why they don't stipulate a degree in journalism.

Losing your job is probably not the best time to wonder if you made the right career decision, but it's rather inevitable - much as contracting a venereal disease might make one reconsider promiscuity. Taken a step further, you might wonder about the advisability of sex, which is making me pursue the metaphor and wonder about looking for another job altogether. This means freelancing, which is what I did for many, many years before a downturn in that market and an unexpected opportunity dropped me behind a desk for seven very unanticipated years.



Right now, it looks like freelancing is what I'll be doing whether I want to or not, since I seem to lack the necessary B.A. that most of the job postings I'm seeing demand. I left college just a month after David Lee Roth left Van Halen, and around the time Microsoft demonstrated Windows at Comdex and Ronald Reagan visited Bitburg cemetery - I'd spent my third undergraduate year working for two student newspapers, and knew that the marks in the envelope I never opened revealed the fruit of two terms of near-perfect absence from classes. I'd already done some writing for money, and decided that was probably an altogether better way to take a running leap into my 20s than spending the next year - or two, or three - putting together the random component parts of an arts B.A.

Journalism schools existed, to be sure, but they were either part of community college curriculum offerings - and barely better than vocational training, as far as the industry was concerned - or rarified elite graduate school degrees like the one at Columbia, whose annual output could barely fill the night shift at a second-tier city paper. People who made a living in journalism, whether on salary or freelance, tended to do so either because they'd built up years of expertise on some subject, or because they could write, plain and simple. (Oh - and pitch stories. No one can ever teach you the imperative of that skill.)

(I've neglected to mention a third class of journalism stalwarts - the children of industry veterans and the famous, a small but prominent subspecies that seems to be native to this country, though like Canadian Geese and the snowy owl, they do make appearances down south.)

Writing well, however, isn't the golden ticket it used to be. I can't explain why - perhaps it's because popular journalism is either wedded desperately to an ad-delivery system, a ruthlessly-vetted though indifferently managed political content-purveyor, or both. In any case, the days of talent wars to attract the best reporters or columnists are over, and it's been a long time since I've seen magazines and newspapers trumpeting their tally of awards or their stable of esteemed contributors.

Journalism has become one big dysfunctional newsroom, where the last round of cuts have taken place far enough in the past for everyone to be anxious that the next round is coming, where there's been a change of management, and a stranger's been put in the editor's office whose intentions no one can read yet. The big names are worried that their salaries are too conspicuous to avoid the accountants' scythe, and everyone else is trying to keep as quiet as possible in their cubicle, while secretly tallying up their seniority and position in the newsroom pecking order and, if worst comes to worst, how much of a package they can expect in their buyout.

With quality of writing either difficult to judge - it's been so long, after all, that people have forgotten what it looks like - or immaterial, the only way to evaluate a new hire is by their qualifications, which means the resumé (that they've probably padded) or their degrees (which are easier to verify.) J-school has gone from being a probable liability that a decent editor will do their level best to train out of a promising hire, to the only certainty you have that the poor schmuck you're plugging into a copy editing desk or the night local chair that was recently vacated by a 25 year veteran will at least know how to get multiple sources, do a line edit or work the layout software.

I'm not saying that good writing or a solid resumé won't get you a job - the industry's not in that terminal a state, regardless of what Jeff Jarvis might want you to believe, though it may be, thanks to a herculean effort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Turnover and churn-through in newsrooms has been gruesome over the last decade, though, and the industry's finally caught up with its own dire predictions about itself, and the urge to either speed along the radical reinvention or go turtle and hope that there's still some beach left when you poke your head out again means that mere verifiable competency is more valuable than idiosyncratic talent, or a veteran's jaundiced and possibly disappointed perspective.

Which basically means that, once again, I'm wishing I'd had the discipline, resources and inclination to have opted for law school, all those many years ago.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

e-mail:
rick -at- rickmcginnis.com

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rickmcginnis

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