I wouldn’t exactly say my parents encouraged me to go into journalism, but when I decided that would be my major in college, they didn’t fight it – too much anyhow.
“It’s a pretty tough job, you know,” my dad said.
And he was right. Fourteen years later I can definitely understand how some who have left the field can say that newspapers chew you up and spit you out and never look back. It is indeed true in many cases, including mine.
Both of my parents reminded me journalism probably wouldn’t be a lucrative career unless I went to a big publication somewhere, which they knew was unlikely since I was a mama’s girl who hated being far away from home so much I picked a college about an hour and a half from where I grew up.
These warnings came 20 years ago. I can’t imagine what the warnings would have been had I announced I was going into journalism in 2019.
“You know you will have to pick a side – conservative or liberal – and only cover the news from that angle, right?” my dad would have said.
“Run as far away from journalism as you can, okay honey?” My mom would have implored.
Even by the end of my college career, a degree in hand, it was clear my being in journalism might be a challenge for my family when Dad commented that the BS initials for “BS in Mass Communications with an Emphasis in Journalism”, which was what final degree was in, was fitting for more than the words “Bachelor of Science” when it came to the term “journalism.”
By the time I’d graduated, I already had a full-time job at the smalltown newspaper near where I’d grown up. My last semester of college I commuted, taking classes mainly in the morning and then going into work at the paper, working until midnight some nights, then getting back up the next morning, driving the 90 minutes to school (60 minutes if I really gunned it … um…which I didn’t because I’m a good, law-abiding citizen. The previous sentence was added for Mom), and starting it all over again. I survived on fast food and coca-cola and chocolate from the vending machine in the basement of the paper, near the pressroom. I also survived on very little sleep. It’s no wonder my thyroid died years later and I started to pack on weight on like a pregnant manatee.
How I ended up working at three newspapers in our small county of about 60,000, in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania throughout my journalism career is a long story. I met my husband at one of the papers. Shortly after we married we cut ties with the first paper I had worked at. That story is a bit long but I’ll summarize it with this: boss with a lazy eye yelling at me (or the wall, I’m not sure which) that my husband and I had neglected our “professional responsibilities” by driving one day down to my grandmother’s funeral 600 miles away in North Carolina, staying one day, driving one day back and getting stranded in a snowstorm in a suburb of Philly, therefore delaying our return by one day.
“You had the responsibility to be here when you said you would be here. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, I do,” I told him.
I understood he was a horrible man yelling at a person who had just buried her grandmother. I walked out of his office to the front desk, picked up the phone to call my husband at the satellite office he worked at for the paper and told him “I’m quitting.”
“I am too,” he said.
A couple of weeks later the editor who had tortured us with constant yelling and berating received two two-week notice letters on his desk. I started job searching and my husband started working at the competition, which was actually the first paper he had worked at but was now under a different editor than he had worked for before.
I finished my career at the same regional paper my husband ended his career at about a month ago, though I walked away almost seven years before him.
In many cases when you leave a newspaper your co-workers don’t celebrate. They don’t feel sad either. You aren’t given a cake or a party. Sometimes you get a card and they wish you luck, but honestly, after so many years working with the public, there is little left inside a person to feel true emotions, even when a long time coworker finally escapes.
My husband worked at the paper 16 years, and a few years beyond if you count the years he worked there right after high school. On his last day, he received a card on his desk, signed by his co-workers. No cake, or well wishes.
He did, however, receive a kind farewell, complete with gifts and cake and streamers, from the coworkers at his part-time switchboard job at the local hospital, where he had worked off and on for seven years.
What was not surprising about his departure was the snide comments written on the newspaper’s Facebook page about him when he departed because one thing I’ve learned working at smalltown newspapers is there is no shortage of people who want to tell you that you suck.
I have less than fond memories of working at newspapers, mixed in with a few positive ones. I remember once, as a new reporter, after misidentifying someone in a story, apologizing to the person I had misidentified and being told my apology wasn’t accepted and that I didn’t, I quote, “deserve to breathe anymore.” I remember writing a lifestyle column and having someone scribble their dislike of it all over the newspaper with a black marker, which they had folded over to make sure my column was on top and shoved in the front mail slot with the words “No one cares about your stupid teddy bear or your stupid kid.” To make sure I saw it my “kind” co-workers propped it up on my computer so it would be at face level when I sat down. I tried to pretend I didn’t care, but I went home later that day and cried and wished I had listened to the career test I’d taken in high school which listed journalism as the top job I should never take.
These were the same co-workers that didn’t know I had come in early and was sitting at my desk on the other side of the partition when they called me a liar for calling in sick for morning sickness when I was pregnant with my first child. I almost went over to their desk and puked on them to show them how real the sickness was. I didn’t have morning sickness when pregnant. I had “all day sickness.” I still wish I had puked on them in some ways, though the relationship with them did improve somewhat in the future.
Not long after the note was left on my desk about the column, the publisher called me into his office and told me to stop writing about my kid because no one cared. I stopped writing the column altogether and tried not to look anyone in the community in the eye because I didn’t know who was sitting at home with too much time on their hands, hating me for writing what I thought were funny stories about my kid and his and my childhood. I honestly thought they might like a break from the dismal news that usually appeared in the paper. Apparently, not.
I was walking in Walmart one day with my son in the cart and a woman stopped me and said: “Oh, is this the little boy you write about in the paper?”
I thought she might be mocking me so I was afraid to admit it, but when I did she said, “I just loved your column. It always made me think about the good times I had with my children when they were growing up.”
She asked me why I wasn’t writing it anymore so I told her what my publisher had told me. She told me he was wrong. As the years went by I still had women stop me, most of them with adult children, and tell me how much they missed my column. I always told them ‘thank you’ but that I’d never write the column again. It had been made clear to me what I had to say was “stupid” and “unimportant.”
There is a long list of the cons of my years in newspapers – from being yelled at about mistakes in obits that I didn’t make (we copied them from the funeral homes), from being told more than once to go back where I came from (I had lived in the county my whole life so this one always puzzled me), to being threatened by a convicted murderer’s family (that all worked out, but it was scary at the time); to being told I deserved to die for a misquote; to spending nights crying myself to sleep after I’d had to write about a fatal car accident or a story about two county sheriff’s deputies murdered; that time I was cheated out of benefits by my boss because I had to cut my hours when our daycare provider got busted for not having a daycare license; those times I provided an idea, only to be pushed aside and then have a man come in with the same idea and hear the man congratulated for his amazing idea; and, of course, the many times I got yelled at for writing information provided to us by the police because the person arrested insisted they were innocent.
Throw into those cons that night a drunk guy threatened me because I accurately quoted him at a local school board meeting during the public comment section.
“If you…if you print what I say .. I’ll..I’ll….” he slurred into the phone.
“You’ll what?” I asked.
“I’ll..just …you better not print what I say,” he said.
Mixed into the negative were a few positives – nice people met, friendships formed, appreciation expressed for stories written, a husband met, skills learned (like the ability to compartmentalize emotions, shoving them inside until I could have a proper cry later in the darkness of the night before falling asleep.
I learned how to work fast, how to be semi-organized and you would think I would have grown a thicker skin, and in some ways I did, but in other ways, I simply decided people were better off to be avoided because eventually, they’d find a way to tell you that you suck.
Someone once asked me if I miss working at newspapers. I told them, “Sure. Yes. The same way I would miss a bullet in my brain.”
“Would you ever go back into newspapers full time?” someone might ask me one day.
My answer would be simple: “Not even if I was offered a million dollars.” Okay – maybe only IF I was offered a million dollars.
I hate to sound so negative about newspapers because my husband recently started a new job at a newspaper that I worked at (and have the least negative memories of) and there are aspects of small-town newspapers I wouldn’t mind participating in again – like maybe writing a lifestyle column, although that could bring me hate mail over any tails of teddy bears I might share again.
Newspapers were good to me over the years – gave me a job that was never the same from day to day; helped me learn a little bit about a lot of things; helped me hone my writing skills (yeah, I know – keep honing); led me to a husband and from that to two amazing children; and helped me meet some amazingly kind people.
But I still carry the teeth marks and I can’t imagine ever placing myself back in that lions’ den, especially now with so many lions ready to eat journalists alive.