Feb. 18, 2009 12:00

Becoming a Journalist in modern times

“Why do you want to be a journalist?” The question came from a 21-year-old bow-tie-wearing student, with a sneer on his lips and his feet crossed on the wooden desk. I was an 18year-old student, underdressed in a T-shirt. My answer, as I said it, seemed a thousand times too honest and stupid.


“I was inspired by Spiderman,” I said. Spiderman, webbed crusader, and his alter-ego Peter Parker, photojournalist, represented to me all the glories of being young and broke in the city. The superhero as metaphor for journalist: He prowls the city in search of stories, crimes, selflessly risking and devoting himself to the zeitgeist of the street — both jobs a two-degree variation on the detective of film noir. And the newsroom! Bastion of journalistic heroes, thick with cigar smoke, clack-clack-clack, sprinting copy-boys, shouts of “Bring me coffee!” and the high-pitched whine of a poor freelancer, say Peter Parker, begging for an advance: “I got pictures of Green Goblin fighting Spiderman, Robbie, you gotta believe me!” Sure, I knew other reasons for being a journalist. There was All The President’s Men, the story of Woodward and Bernstein on offense against Richard Nixon. Citizen Kane, the story of epic greatness and fall in the newsroom. And It Happened One Night, which displayed the bustle and Clark Gable charm of a newsroom. America was in love with the newspaper, and so was I. As I researched daily newspapers for this week’s cover story, approximately four-and-a-half years after joining the staff of my college newspaper, my journalistic dreams were twisted and ravaged, but through it all, preserved.

A lot of the journalists looked at me like, “Who the hell are you?” And said, “So, you really want to be a journalist?” “Yeah, I think so,” I would say. Then their hard shells would break down, enough to let through a wry, incredulous smile. “Well, when you’ve got ink in your blood, it’s the best thing in the world.”

The job started to sound less like a superpower and more like a mutation, more X-Men than Spiderman. Less “With great power comes great responsibility” and more “They protect and defend a world that hates and fears them.” After all, no one knows whether journalism has a future in this world.

Newspapers are moving onto the internet, where their large, moneymaking infrastructure cannot follow. Without that infrastructure, can a newspaper exist at all? But we journalists keep writing and keep printing. Someone keeps reading the stuff. And certain kids, who might have watched too many movies or may be enamored with the idea of putting the meaningful stories of the world on paper, will keep following behind. Even if they have to invent a whole new kind of journalism.

And so it was I found myself talking with a young, aspiring journalist, a brown-haired, idealistic high school senior by the name of Elena Scheider.

I asked her what she thought of her part-time job at the local daily newspaper. “Well, it’s not His Girl Friday,” she said. I never saw that one. “But I feel like I’m doing something really important,” she said, even though her job involves archiving newspapers on Friday night and pays zero. “And I’m paying my dues early, so in college I can get a paid internship.”

Good luck with that, I thought. Maybe she has ink in her blood too.

Newspapers are not a very welcoming place, these days. Most of my calls and e-mails to journalists were not returned. A few said, “Let me ask my editor,” and then, “No, sorry.” Some responded by e-mail: “It’s really not a good time to talk, on or off the record. Sorry.” The editor of one paper said all of three words on the phone: “Hello? No. No.” Click.

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