Why be a journalist?
As ever, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything apart from course notes. Again, I’ve slipped back into university – lectures, reading, friends, not enough sleep – and out of writing. I don’t know why it’s so much harder here; I don’t know why all the ideas I had in the summer have disappeared like a well running dry. If this is what I do, who I am (and I firmly believe that it is), shouldn’t it come a little easier?
In a New York Times’ op-ed this week, Hector Tobar, a journalism professor, writes of his students’ resilience in the face of the looming question: “who’d be a journalist?” With everyone seemingly keen to question the wisdom of entering a industry that is ‘dying’, from friends to family to the voice in my head, it would be easy to say “not me” and turn the other way. It would be easy to take that job in the civil service, policy analysis or think tanks. It would be easy to do something that would pay the bills. But it would be impossible not to look back and regret.
Because whenever anyone asks, I point to the reporters showing us the world’s forgotten people; I link to the columnists questioning an unjust world; the people telling their hard and uplifting stories, all in the form of newsprint. I open up the New Yorker and find an exquisite sentence, a unique viewpoint in the Guardian. Everywhere in journalism I see people being brave, speaking truth to power, asking the questions no one is answering. How could I not want to do that?
People misunderstand journalism as simply relaying events and opining on them like a public school debater. Some merely think of the gutter press and write it off as immoral. But that’s the bad journalism, the stuff just written for page views and sales, and that’s fine, because it props up the profound stuff. I genuinely, wholeheartedly believe that words are power, power that can do so much good. That’s why people write, that’s why people stare down the barrel of long hours and low pay and ‘we’re not hiring’ emails. Because of a passion for story telling and a determination to be heard. I may never go on a protest or find an answer to any of the world’s problems, but I will always – always – stand up and be counted.
But despite such fierce belief, and no matter how much talent or effort you summon, writing is hard. Writing is painful. It is so full of self-doubt that sometimes it’s easier to just get on with all the things that don’t require you to look inside yourself quite so much. Strings of letters cannot be but an imperfect rendering of the idea they flow from. And it happens so very slowly, each decision considered and reconsidered. It cannot be done in a hurry, and yet time must be made. Writers are known to be neurotic and it is easy to see why. Writing is as much about guilt and fear as freedom and hope. But get it right, and what a sense of satisfaction. What a relief.
When people come to understand the effort, conviction and bloody-mindedness required to be a journalist or a writer, they are wont to say that they “don’t know why you do it”. I try to explain the passion and the inability to imagine yourself doing anything else. Still, they say, why not choose something else, why take the risk of endless disappointment? “Yes,” I say, “it’s hard; you have to really want it. And I really want it.”