Struggling to make a living

I recently got the following question from a beginning journalist:

I have reached the point where a job in journalism in any capacity seems a hopeless dream. I cannot get anyone to hire me in any field, despite my college degree and experience. I’m getting to the point where I can just barely eat and pay my rent. Do you have any advice?

There is only one question you need to ask yourself: Do you HAVE to be a journalist?

If you DON’T absolutely, no-doubt-about-it, can’t-live-any-other-way have to be a journalist, then you should start considering other careers. Pound for pound, a journalism career is more work, more aggravation, and less pay than almost anything else you can do. Really.

I spent my fair share of time sleeping on folks’ couches when I was starting out, as, I’m sure, have many others. I’ve slept on my grandmother’s couch, on my mother’s couch, on my dad’s couch, and on the couches of three friends that I can remember. (Quite possibly more couches are buried in my past, possibly under an alcoholic haze.)

If you’re one of those people who HAS to be a journalist, then the worse things get, the happier you are (in a sick, twisted kind of way). You think of everything as material for the novels you’re someday going to write, or as seasoning for your writers’ voice.

I know journalists who are proud to have been fired from every paper they’ve worked for. Journalists in the mid-30s who are still just one paycheck or car breakdown away from being out on the street (again).

I know journalists who spend most of their working lives with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Granted, they’re in other countries — most of the ones here have renounced their evil ways, joined AA, and got nicotine patches. But how are you going to renounce your evil ways if you never had any in the first place? Right, right?

Now, it is possible to be a journalist and not lead a life filled with misery and dispair. I can’t think of anyone like that right off, but I’m sure such things happen. But if you want to avoid a life of misery and dispair, then switching careers would significantly increase your odds. For example, I know some pretty happy teachers, archivists, engineers, and librarians.

If you do HAVE to be a journalist, then you’ll get through it. You’ll get a job stuffing envelopes or manning the help line for an insurance company so you can cover school board meetings at night, or you’ll get a job teaching English in China so you can freelance articles about the economic changes over there. As a journalist, you’ll probably live the most interesting life it’s possible to lead.

And that, of course, is the curse as well as the joy of the profession.