The Ins and Outs of Journalism

Journalism is all about paying your dues. Degree(s) are not enough. Clips alone won’t seal the deal either. It takes persistence, tough skin, accepting that you will hear the word ‘no’ frequently, sleeping about 5 hours a night, being in the know about everything from politics to the latest celeb to adopt another African baby and knowing there are 1,000 people in line ready to take your spot. You must have a passion for what you do.

I know my life wouldn’t be complete without writing. But I’m starting to question if my passion is really in journalism.

Not moving to NYC was not an option. I will rob Peter to pay Paul to be here because it is truly the hub of the media industry. I’m far from attaining my goals, but they are at least in my peripheral with me here. But do I really care about chasing a story? Reporting hard news doesn’t exactly tickle my fancy. My dream job, I can’t believe I’m writing this publicly, is to work as a columnist, which is under the journalism umbrella. Thing is, you don’t just skip to columnist status without doing extensive reporting throughout your career. With the end goal being to eventually publish a number of books, I often wonder if I should just get to writing a book and screw all the hobnobbing of trying to join the inner circle of journalists.

In today’s world of blogging, citizen journalism and the burgeoning of online magazines/newspapers (even if the websites traditionally wouldn’t be considered credible journalism), it is apparent people don’t really know the difference. Everybody with a laptop and WordPress account considers themselves a writer. An opinion + a blog does not a writer make. And people don’t get that a blogger isn’t necessarily a writer or journalist. I’ve laughed countless times at readers online that have called me a “journalist” as if I am a poseur. It slightly annoys me knowing I’ve gone to school for a certain skill, have executed this skill through actual reporting clips, then someone basically attempts to discredit what I do. At the same time I brush it off because I understand the lines are so blurred.

Then there is the big O. Objectivity is such a crucial component to journalism. Once you’ve singed up for the rocky road of a life as a journalist, you’re under a microscope for anything that may violate the ethics of journalism. Censorship becomes one with your daily conscious. Should I tweet this? Can I say that?

Commentary pieces are not exactly objective and tend to be completely subjective with facts thrown in here and there. We all know I’ve been all commentary everything for the past year. At least 75% of my clips are Op-Ed. Not only do commentary clips amount to the equivalent of an unsigned check, commentary can get you in trouble. A fellow journalist told me last week, “You know you should be careful with your Steve Harvey piece. He is cool with a lot of the top people at big publications. And what if you have to interview him one day?” *turns up Jay Z’s “Can I Live?”*

Writing for Free

Not something I’m willing to do unless the NYT called me up tomorrow. Not only would I write for free for the NYT, I’d do it under the most dire circumstances. Other than that writers should be compensated. Again, you have to pay your dues in this industry with blood, sweat and tears. But you also have to know when to start setting a standard for yourself. Print journalism is one of the only fields people expect you to provide a service for free. A broadcast journalist wouldn’t be expected to come in and assist the Producer of the news program for free would they? It’s not that I’m above writing for free because I’ve done it. I interned at VIBE magazine for free. In fact, I had to pay my University to get credit for that internship AND pay to rent a room in Jamaica, Queens. But that’s how bad I wanted it. I’ve written countless online articles for free to build my portfolio and gain exposure. I never once complained because you got to do what you got to do. At some point though a publication has to respect the time you’re putting into writing articles. I was told any reputable publication will pay its writers. Ha! Tell that to Huffington Post.

Honestly, the rejection takes a toll on your self-esteem. You can be the best writer or journalist in the game, which I would never claim to be, but it will not make you immune to getting pitches rejected, writing a wonderfully written piece only for it not to be ran by the publication at the last minute, not getting emails returned from editors, having to persistently pursue editors at pubs you want to write for without being annoying, having folks not know who you are so they won’t want to take a chance on you, seeing people get opportunities in your field who aren’t technically journalists. It all happens. But I promise you will see the fruits of your labor if you are built to take the blows, get back up and keep at it.

Journalism is one of the hardest industries to break into, but of course I say that without ever having really attempted to succeed in any other field. When I interviewed CNN anchor Suzanne Malveaux she said this much without even being prompted. You know it’s hard. Now the question is, is it worth it to you? I’m still trying to figure that out. Writing definitely is. I just don’t know if journalism is where my heart is. And if that’s the case I’m in a shitload of trouble.

  • cconnley

    Yay another post! Love it! This is definitely a topic that needs to be discussed as many people do not know the exact definition of a journalist. I am currently a junior, journalism major at the University of Maryland, College Park, so I am still getting trained in the field. However, I do know that being a blogger does not make you a journalist, having a tumblr does not make you a writer, and that many people do not understand all of the hard work that actually goes into succeeding in this field. Thanks a million for this post because it is definitely something that I need to hear so that I can handle the "no's" that are being thrown my way now and the millions more to come in the future.

  • Awesome POST! When I first went to college my major was journalism then I realized it lacked creativity for me then I changed my major & finally settled on English Literature. Although, if I tell the truth English Lit chose me. I am so thirsty to write & to be read that I too, will write for free for numerous publications, but I have been way too chicken to pitch my ideas to any mags or online mags because I feel the market is over saturated with folks with a laptop & opinion. I don't want to be another blogger pontificating. Plus it seems that only certain trite topics are sexy like dating, vilification of Black men, & plain ol haterism! I don't write about those topics and refuse to do so. All I want to do is write the books, articles, & essays that I want to read if I can paraphrase sister Morrison. I will say this, I love to read your writings and as long as you write everything else will fall in place. I appreciate this post & for you keeping it REAL!

  • Drew-Shane

    I was debating the interest and how am I going to peak or just drop it all together. After majoring in journalism in college and having tons of internships at newspapers, I always thought I wanted to work for a newspaper but that changed. Especially with the job market. I was thinking the other day how I dreamed of being a Layout Editor. HA! Times have really changed.

    I stopped writing after college and just worked for corporate. I always had a job in sales so I knew that was my backup. I just think at times you do get burned out because of what you outlined so beautifully in this post. I'm glad you wrote this. Really makes me feel like I'm not the only one.

    So much goes in but so little comes out slowly over time…

    • WrittenbyBene

      Thanks for sharing your story Drew. I thought I was the only one. lol. Everybody I know in journalism, most of the broadcast people, love it. They knew from day one they wanted to be journalists. I was an English major undergrad and J-school for grad. So I never knew for sure I wanted to do journalism, but I knew I wanted to write. There's a part of me that loves interviewing people, hearing their stories, seeing the story created, fact-checking, all of that. But my goal is not to be the EIC of a magazine one day so I'm just wondering if all the work is going to be worth it.

      As you know newspaper is so different than magazine. I've always known I'd want to do magazines in opposed to newspaper. Your story is common. And if you did decide you wanted to pick it back up you always have the skills and experience. There are a lot of writers at heart out there who have gone into PR, Marketing, Law etc because they just can't pay the bills doing this. It's tough.

      • Wow. This post really sad something to me because I can relate to knowing what it is you want to do, but not knowing if the path you're taking is the right one. I replied to this comment because I am one of those "writers" who went into Marketing with practicality in mind. Inherently, I know that people who actually followed their dreams probably weren't the most practical but they are some of the most courageous. Thanks for this post and for sharing your feelings. I'm sure many can relate and I happen to be one of them

  • Whether you stick with journalism or not, you're not in trouble. You're a writer, and a good one. And that's a transferable skill. As we grow and develop, our passions change and refine themselves and we need to be open to that. It's scary, but so is sticking with something you're no longer sure about just because you're afraid to abandon something you've worked hard for. Maybe you'll discover journalism really is for you after all, maybe not. But let passion, and not fear, be your deciding factor…

    • WrittenbyBene

      Thank you for this sis. I needed to hear it. 🙂 I think you're absolutely right and have said so much here. Thanks again.

  • Tricia

    I definitely feel your pain, though I always knew that writing creatively was what interested me more (which, really, is part of what being a columnist is about). I majored in Journalism too (Communications with a Journalism focus) but I can't tell you the last time I've written a journalistic piece.

    I say go for the book. If anything it's a major accomplishment, and sad to say but it will probably give you more 'cred' as it were, as a writer. At least some people will think so. "Author of book [insert title here]" sounds good 🙂

  • ac dubois

    I am so glad I found this. I graduated last year with my English degree and debated over whether I wanted to pursue another degree in journalism or even relocate to NY to earn my strips. Since longer than I can remember the only thing I've ever wanted to do was write for a magazine (becoming EIC of my own magazine eventually) and when graduation came around I had to make a decision that was practical. I'm still a writer I'm just not doing it for a living and that is fine right now. In my mind, what I am doing (and what I will be doing throughout my career) will eventually lead me back to writing (and by then I'll be paid handsomely to write about my "expertise") lol. That's my positive outlook

  • It's so funny that you wrote this and posted this yesterday. I was actually just talking about this yesterday with Gangstarr Girl and another friend. I understand every last bit of your sentiments. I think as with any career path you need to make sure and think thoroughly if that's exactly what you'd like to do. Think about if the sacrifices needed to be made are worth it to you.

    There has been so many recent changes within journalism and the publishing industry lately. I think we're all trying to find our way and find way to make it work. I think that if we work really hard we can make it work. I'm also a firm believer in thinking outside of the box and creating our own lanes.

    For me all I know is writing. Not to sound cliche but, ever since I learned how to write I was writing. I started out writing poetry, short stories, and plays. From then I joined my elementary school's newspaper, did the same in middle school, high school, my first college. So I got the journalism bug very early on in my life and kept on with it. I also will never forget when one of my aunts bought me a typewriter way before I had a computer. I used to take my grandmother's Essence and Ebony magazines, cut out pictures, type up my own stories, and create my own magazines out of construction paper. I've had this dream for so long that no matter how frustrating it gets I can't see myself ever giving up.

    I do have other areas that I plan to venture off into though like broadcast and film. So a big issue for me is finding balance and being able to make it all work.

    Anyway, Bene I think you are a very talented writer and a sweet person. Don't let a few no's get to you. If you are sure that journalism is what you'd like to do then just be steadfast and strong. 🙂

  • Jamaica LeAnn

    Bene’ I really appreciate you writing this piece. As a 1st year Journalism Grad Student I often question myself and ask is Journalism exactly the way to go. I like the others and yourself have a passion for writing and have always used it as a way to express myself. It hasn’t been until lately that I have had to ask “Is my writing going to serve a purpose?” Because if not then why continue doing it? I feel that you should continue pursuing your dreams you may not realize how many people that you are inspiring through your articles, myself included. After coming across your website and seeing all the publications you have been published in, it has motivated me to continue on obtaining my degree. We came from the same undergrad and seeing that you are out their reaching your goals let’s me know that mine aren’t that far out of reach as well if I stay dedicated.

  • Anon

    Great post. Three words: write that book 🙂

  • I'm truly late with this comment. My apologies! This post truly struck a chord with me though. I know EXACTLY how you feel. When I walked into NYU, I thought for sure that I wanted to be a journalism major. I had been an editor at my school newspaper, met Angela Burt-Murray at Essence right after my graduation, and became set on becoming a magazine editor. Then, I realized that my passion wasn't news, chasing stories, or fact-checking. My passion was telling stories and I had always done that through writing. Fast forward to now, I'm set on telling stories through books, film, documentary, tv, and online media. You definitely don't have to limit yourself. If you want to become an author and columnist, there are many paths to get there. You obviously have a dedicated audience and that's a stand out factor in itself. Keep up the hard work, and whatever you decide, I'm sure your fans will follow you 🙂 Much love sis.

  • I'm so glad I found this post! I'm two years post grad with a communications degree specializing in Journalism and during my last year of school, I totally fell out of love with the idea of one day writing for a magazine. The publishing industry was beginning to falter, everyone was bailing out on the business and I felt my creativity ebbing away. Fast forward and I'm still looking for employment that'll allow me to utilize my writing skills because I realized Journalism isn't what I want to do anymore. You totally have to reinvent yourself, but never give up, keep writing however and whenever you can. Someone will definitely recognize your talent.

  • @writergurl_luv

    Thank you for this post! I am in between graduation and grad school apps, trying to figure out if I really want to pursue a Masters Degree in Journalism or just keep writing articles for different publications and doing internships. However, there is still that need to establish some economic stability. Why does it seem so hard to do what you love? Writing is my passion and I refuse to give up on it so easily; but the stresses of establishing a reputation in journalism and finding a job in the field cannot be ignored. True, this field is not for the weak-hearted. Sometimes, we just have to DO what we want (WRITE THAT BOOK, GIRL!) and let the stress fall where it may.
    Writer to writer, I love your style of writing and I hope you acclaim all the success you're hoping for.