Expert Commentary

Clues for young journalists: Looking back into your future

2012 overview of Stephen Hess' book and research project, Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012, exploring journalists' career paths.

Stephen Hess (Brookings)

The following is an introduction to a Brookings Institution research project and 2012 book, Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012, examining the career paths of journalists. Also see the video conversations with journalists at bottom.


By Stephen Hess

Many young journalists must wonder what their careers are going to look like. Although the profession will undoubtedly change in significant and unpredictable ways in a digital world, looking back on a generation of journalists offer clues into your future.

In Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012, I report on the lives of the 450 Washington reporters I first surveyed in 1978. With my students at George Washington University and my interns at the Brookings Institution, we located 90% of them between 2006 and 2011, and re-interviewed 283. We found them in 19 states in addition to the Washington area, as well as Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France, and the UK. So our findings reflect more than the Washington job market.

The biggest surprise may be that you are apt to be a journalist for life!

When I started interviewing in 1977, journalists claimed “I’ll stay till my legs go.” This referenced the high energy level of the job. But also the low pay. When you start worrying about how to pay your kids’ college tuition, it’s time to move to public relations or some other occupation where you can cash in on your skills, knowledge and contacts.

But this didn’t happen for two-thirds of the journalists. Even beyond a 30-year career, a quarter stayed in journalism for over 40 years, 13 for over 50 years, 3 worked 60-plus years. (Sorry, I can’t predict you will live longer than those in other lines of work.)

This is especially nice news because these happy warriors are notorious complainers. Contended Albert Hunt, Bloomberg News, who has been a journalist for 47 years, “We complain because we are quasi-creative workers.” Creative people are supposed to complain.

Why the longevity?

Because you love what you’re doing. Journalists keep volunteering that they are having “fun.” This is the most repeated word in our interviews. (Contrast this with those for whom fun is what they do after work, not during office hours.)

Because you are likely to marry someone like you. That is, in socioeconomic terms: college-educated, possibly with a graduate degree. So your spouse (if he/she is not a journalist) probably will be a lawyer, doctor, professor, or someone whose income, combined with yours, means that you will not have to quit journalism to send the kids to college. And since you love your work, why quit?

Yet some young journalists will dropout. Why?

Because some go into journalism on a fling. It’s an engaging job before going to law school or into a family business or for those who just don’t know what else to do. In short, these reporters treat journalism as a short-term adventure rather than a serious career option. (Note: There are some flingers who stay for life.)

Because some leave journalism for the same reasons that people leave other types of work. They have a fight with the boss. They feel trapped in an organization that isn’t going to work for them. They are caught up in a reorganization. Or for personal reasons that might relate to the health of a child, moving because of a spouse’s job, or the needs of aged parents.

Here’s something else for young journalists to file for future use. You will live a long life and you will retire and you will wonder about what will be life-after-journalism. Then you discover that people with journalism skills, the ability to write fast and accurately, are in demand for short term projects in the worlds of business, foundations, and associations. There are even retired journalists who insist on writing their memoirs. And there are those who simply wish to do good. Aaron Epstein, after 42 years as a journalist, decided to help fifth- and sixth-graders put out a school newspaper. Its motto is “Thou Shall Not Bore the Reader.”

Stephen Hess is a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution, former professor at George Washington University and Shorenstein Center advisory board member.


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