From time to time, usually while hamfistedly trying to finish off one home repair or another, I think, Look at me, a writer. I shoulda learned a trade. But recently, I realized… I actually did. There’s this idea that journalism is just a job, but in reality, it’s a trade, even though journalists think of it only too rarely as such, and it’s less common for The Management to share that viewpoint. Unfortunately, when The Management thinks of journalism as just a job, rather than a trade, it risks producing a weaker and more amateurish finished product, and heading up a staff that never reaches its full potential.
As with any trade, a journalist begins her/his career as an apprentice, then learns the nuances of the craft from the masters s/he works with, elbow to elbow, every day on the job. Eventually, the apprentice journalist gains the skills to be regarded more or less as a journeyman, and then someday, ideally, as a master. And as with any trade, the new guy or gal onsite doesn’t show up on the first day and get to do everything. When you start out as a journalist, you have to demonstrate your skills to the rest of the newsroom, and after proving those skills, you gain not just trust and respect, but freedom and authority. Along the way, if you’re in the right kind of newsroom, you get your pretentions and juvenile tics kicked out of you, and subsequently your writing sheds its baby fat; your more experienced colleagues help you recognize where the real story is, how to frame the story and not just regurgitate it, where you should look to see beyond the spin, how events that happened on your beat five or 10 years earlier inform and color the story you need to tell today. Schooling can teach you what journalism looks like, but your interactions with your peers and superiors while you’re producing the work really teach you how to do journalism.
When I started my professional career, writing about rock bands for an alt-weekly paper, I was a solid writer, if a little too flashy for my own good. Fortunately, as a new kid in my early 20s, I was surrounded by industry vets, masters of the trade. “Don’t tell us what your subject was doing when they picked up the phone — it’s not interesting to the reader, and you could use that space to tell us something that matters,” one editor said to me. “I’m gonna take out this whole bit about what you were going through when you first heard this band,” said another editor, “because, no offense, you’re the only person who cares about that.” One editor and mentor of mine, Christopher Arnott, once pulled me aside and told me something I think every music journalist should hear at some point: “I’m going to give you a challenge,” he said. “Don’t compare a band… to another band. Find a more imaginative way of describing what they sound like.” Other advice I’ve received was perhaps more subjective, but still conveyed a lot about how journalism works: I’m thinking bits like, “The only people ever who call a restaurant an ‘eatery’ are food writers,” or, “People don’t ‘pass away’ in the news — they just die.”
One of the most unfortunate consequences of the rise of digital media is the shift in power-of-pen from the collaborative environment of the newsroom to the inherently solitary blogger. And at digital publications, I’ve found The Management often doesn’t recognize what that shift means. There’s this misconception among those in The Management that they’re just hiring writers for their digital publications: Hire a writer, put her/him alone in a room, and let that person write for eight hours per day. That’s the job, right? Actually, no. The job is to be a journalist, and writing well and often is only one of a journalist’s skills. Isolated from peers and potential mentors, there’s a serious risk that a journalist’s skills will cease developing properly. They’ll indulge in the throat-clearing at the beginning of a story, the gratuitous self-referentiality, the grudges against erstwhile sources who turned cold for whatever reason, the missing-of-the-point. The best journalism happens when journalists call each other on their bullshit, share knowledge, and challenge each other to be better. The solitary blogger can be extremely efficient, but that solitude can produce a lot of mistakes in the short run and can impede the writer’s potential to become a master journalist.
When I was working as a music journalist, a significant part of my job, it seemed, involved trying to listen to a band play in some club or bar while some drunk guy who’d just figured out who I was explained how, if he had my job, he would do it differently. Usually, those differences involved being wildly subjective or totally bitchy for no good reason, and I would take it in, thinking, “Annnnnd that’s exactly why you shouldn’t have this job.” A beginning journalist, working with experienced journalists, is taught to shed those novice, ego-driven impulses and create something meaningful and relevant to the reader. And the journalist learns those lessons on her/his feet from masters of the trade, not from pondering alone. Would you expect anything different from your electrician?