Journalism as a Calling

dailyIn the 1970s, when I was state editor for United Press International—owned at the time by the Scripps Howard company—my boss would summon me regularly to corporate headquarters on account of my dubious practice of discarding the bureau’s AT&T bills. The reason was simple. If we paid them, we couldn’t afford to do the news—at least the news worth doing—public affairs, election coverage, and enterprise and investigative reporting.
The legendary H.L. Stevenson, editor-in-chief, would chew me out and then send me packing, not to the unemployment line, but back to the bureau, knowing I would do this again. And again. And again. He covered for me and overdue bills.

Stevenson led the wire service during Watergate and the Vietnam War. He put deadlines above bottom lines just as I did above phone lines. We believed in the one shared indisputable truth: journalism was a calling, not a career. “Deadline every minute” was our slogan, and also the story of UPI, literally, as in the 1957 book by that title, written by World War II correspondent Joe Alex Morris.

In the past few tumultuous decades, during which newspapers had to adapt to the digital era, deadlines are every minute now for most of us. But bottom lines also take precedent, not only in the board room but increasingly in the classroom … because of student debt.

Last year at our two regents’ universities with journalism schools, average debt for all majors was about $30,000. That was too high, I said, for those seeking newspaper careers. Starting salaries remain in the low to mid twenty-thousands, depending on the community. That might discourage prospective students from seeking careers in our industry.

A few years ago the issue of student debt had not penetrated the social conscience. Now everyone is aware of it and at regents universities, doing something about it.

Which brings me to the topic of this year’s address: journalism as a calling.

This remains the mantra at Iowa State’s Greenlee School. Even in my UPI days, journalism salaries were atrocious when compared to other professions such as business, finance, engineering, physics and chemistry. But few people then made those comparisons because most reporters and editors were imbued with zeal. We were the Fourth Estate, watchdog over the three branches of government—executive, legislative and judicial—which required a calling because the country was founded and dependent on it.

News flash: The country still is.

This is the message that journalism schools must send to parents of prospective students who worry that newspaper salaries are too low when compared to the cost of a degree. Salaries have always been too low. The return on investment is not in the IRS W-2 Form but in the experience.

Today I am asking reporters, editors and journalism instructors to reflect on their own calling and experience and convey that in your communities, especially to those in high school seeking career advice.

If you have lost some of that zeal or are questioning your calling, I invite you to read the late Eugene Patterson’s final thoughts on journalism. You can find it on the Poynter Institute’s website. Upon his retirement, Gene Patterson, former managing editor of the Washington Post and editor of the St. Petersburg’s Times, wrote a farewell column on whether there were better careers than journalism.

Here is a snippet of his 1988 commentary:

To the young who may choose a life in the news business, I wish them all the breadth of experience that came my way, from the blast of the rockets’ liftoffs at Cape Canaveral to the tumult of 15 national political conventions, from the silence of patrols through the Vietnam elephant grass to the thunder of Dr. King’s ” I have a dream” rolling down from the Lincoln Memorial.

“Don’t just make a living,” Patterson said, “make a mark.”

That is why students choose journalism as a major. If you have that calling, you will make your mark, not only in your career, but in society, too.

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