Choosing a beat: business, education, or government?

A beginning journalist asked: It looks like you have a lot of varied experience in journalism. I’m dabbling with becoming a business reporter, but also love narrative writing: i.e. Rick Bragg, Tom French, Tom Hallman. Do you have any advice on the pros and cons of covering business than say education or government reporting?

First of all, when I was first starting out, I would not have voluntarily picked either business, education or government reporting.

I got into this business to be Ernest Hemingway, and that meant going out to war zones, which I did. I wrote about business, education and government until then, at the Chicago Tribune, but it bored me senseless.

Then I had to retire from the fun stuff, and started looking around for a second-choice beat.

My criteria was pretty straightforward: at the end of the day, I want to feel like I accomplished something.

Then, no matter how awful the job gets day-to-day, it would have been worth it. I certainly felt that way covering civil conflicts — in fact, my plans to write novels disappeared quickly as I realized that I could make a bigger (and better) impact on the world just by reporting the facts.

(Otherwise, if you just pick a job because it’s fun, you wind up having to quit when it gets boring — and you don’t get far in any particular career if you keep switching jobs because they get dull.)

Here is how my thinking went:

1. There are huge problems facing the world today — warfare, instability, hunger. Most of these problems aren’t in the U.S., but in undeveloped countries. Obviously, one way to address these problems is to write about the abuses, the human rights violations, the genocides and, by bringing public attention to them, help end them. Another way to look at it is to go after the underlying causes of conflict. For me, one interesting (and solvable) cause of conflict is economic uncertainty and instability. People who are saving up money to send a kid to college and have their house mostly paid off aren’t as likely to join extremist movements and start blowing things up. Young people with hope for the future will go out and get business and engineering degrees, not terrorist training.

2. So why are some countries developing economically and others aren’t? How are societies transformed when rapid economic development starts taking off? And what beat is it that covers this, exactly?

3. The answer, for me, was international business journalism, focusing on economics and development issues. So I slowly started to get a business background, starting out in technology, then moving to the financial services.

It paid off. For the last year, I’ve been in Shanghai, China, as the Asia bureau chief for my newspaper — exactly what I most wanted to do.

The “big issue” is different for each person. My husband, for example, thinks that the single biggest challenge facing humanity today is getting to Mars. Really. He’s the president of the New England Mars Society and organized an international conference on the subject, bringing NASA and Russian scientists to MIT last year. He wants to be the Carl Sagan of Mars. To that end, he’s writing about the manufacturing industry, then planning to move to writing about aerospace. He’s in Shanghai now, and, since China just sent a guy into space and plans to send folks to the moon and Mars as well, it’s a great place to start covering the new space race.

(You wouldn’t believe how much negotiations it takes to make sure that his big issue and my big issue are, at least, located in the same country!)

So what’s your big issue? Do you really really care about education reform or campaign finance or business as a driver of local economies?

Say you really care about educational reform. Then you’ll be willing to put up with sitting through 200 school board meetings just to write one great narrative journalism piece about a charter school. (Or what have you.) I personally don’t care that much, and I could live without sitting through another school board meeting ever again. I probably will have to, though, because I just jinxed myself by saying it. ๐Ÿ™‚

I also don’t care that much about the U.S. political process — it kind of seems to muddle along and things keep happening totally against expectations. Kennedy went to Vietnam. Nixon made peace with China. Reagan ended the Cold War. Clinton gutted welfare and balanced the budget. What the *&^*(> ? So I just give up. ๐Ÿ™‚ Too much seems to hinge on the psychology of the individual politician — and what can you really know about someone else, anyway?

Maybe another reporter can — or I will, at some later point in my career. Who knows.

Meanwhile, I’m learning Chinese and figuring out how the Asian economies work. And see — it proves my point. I would never learn another language and move to a different country to cover, say, school boards or town council meetings. Hell, I wouldn’t even want to work through lunch.

And if you’re not willing to put any kind of effort into your work because you really don’t give a damn, well, then your career isn’t going to get too far.

At the last job that I didn’t care about, I used to rush through my work, then go off to lunch with a book. I’d read the book through, then come back to the desk. I took 3-4 hour lunches every day. They figured I was off doing something useful. God, I hated that job. At another job I used to get finished early, then sit and read the wires so I’d look busy. For hours. That’s another thing about not caring about your work — you don’t care about doing it well, and you do the minimum you can get away with, so you get done faster. ๐Ÿ™‚

On the plus side, once you do care about your work, you can often do it no matter the job that you’re in. While at Computerworld, doing boring work I hated, I talked my bosses into letting me go to Russia to write about the restructuring of the financial system there, and to write about technologists going off to other developing countries to help out, etc… I’d be the first one volunteering to go to conferences, so I’d meet all the movers and shakers. And I didn’t mind doing a lot of scut work, because I knew I’d be building up brownie points to do the good stuff — the more scut work I did, the more brownie points I got, the more I got to travel and do fun stuff.

It’s all a matter of attitude.

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