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A Day in the Life of a Journalist

There are many types of journalists, from the local beat newspaper reporter to the foreign correspondent, the magazine feature writer to the freelance book reviewer, and so on. It is difficult to pin down the daily routine of an average journalist. Journalists interview sources and review records to assemble, collect, and report information and explore the implications of the facts. Journalism informs, educates, chastises: Do not underestimate the power a journalist holds. Remember Watergate, when RobertWoodward and Carl Bernstein, two reporters working for The Washington Post, discovered and published information that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon? Professionals must be able to report quickly and accurately. More than 80 percent of our respondents listed time pressure as one of the most distinguishing features of this job. Journalists must maintain a point of view while remaining objective about their subjects, which can be difficult; around half our respondents said that their colleagues sometimes got too involved in the stories. Interpersonal skills, excellent writing skills, and a reporter’s instinct (the ability to accurately assess the significance of obscure and incomplete information) are essential to success. The uncertainty of the daily routine makes it difficult to incorporate family, hobbies, and any regularly scheduled plans; but those who detest the predictability of nine-to-five jobs are attracted to journalism because “no day is a carbon copy of the day before.” Long hours and chronic deadline pressure can be significantly negative factors. When an editor calls you in on a breaking story, you have to be prepared to drop everything; when you’re on deadline, you can get crazed trying to write a complicated story in half the time you need. This ball and chain to the offices leads many to resent, and eventually reject, the reporter’s life. Some journalists complain about being “under the thumb of Napoleonic editors who control your every word based on their own taste.” (Editors are sometimes Napoleonic, but more often, they are simply perfectionists.) Journalists who are protective of their prose rarely last in this profession, since articles are often edited for publication without their consultation. More than 40 million people read newspapers in the United States each day, and more than 50 million people read magazines each week. The opportunity for your writing to reach a large audience is tempting indeed, and many find the initial low pay, uncertain and occasionally dangerous conditions, and chaotic schedule a fair tradeoff to be allowed to do what they do. In fact, many seem drawn by the excitement and challenge of these very conditions.

Paying Your Dues

Most journalists hold a bachelor’s degree in journalism, communications, English, or political science. More than a few distinguished careers have begun at the school newspaper or at a neighborhood magazine or newspaper. Many journalists come to the profession later in life after gaining expertise and connections in other professions. Journalism jobs are highly competitive: Credentials and experience must be accompanied by gumption and hard work. Excellent writing skills are a must, as are computer word-processing skills. Bone up on proofreading skills before applying for any job. Foreign language skills may be necessary for those reporting on the international scene. Persistence, initiative, stamina, and the desire to tell real stories about real events are critical to the survival of the budding journalist. The best journalists have a knack for putting contemporary events into historical perspective.

Present and Future

The first American newspaper was printed in 1690 and was quashed four days later. Since 1776, the number of daily newspapers printed in the United States has risen from 37 to nearly 1,500, not including weeklies,magazines, and computer-generated newsletters. Journalism, like most occupations concerned with communication, is becoming more electronic. Online services and electronic publishers deliver expertly written pieces 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the Internet. But somebody still needs to write those pieces. Competition for jobs will remain fierce, but specialized jobs should increase; those with unique skills, such as technological expertise or foreign language skills, should enjoy a distinct advantage.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Many aspiring reporters begin their careers by pitching story ideas to local newspapers and magazines on a piecemeal basis. Writers who can show clippings from school newspapers or other publications—no matter how minor—begin with an advantage if the prose is good. Aspiring writers may have to survive repeated rejections before a story idea is finally accepted for publication, and the income stream from freelance journalism is so unpredictable that many take more regular-paying jobs. Most aspire to a salaried job at a local newspaper during these scrambling years. As at all levels of this profession, satisfaction is high despite low income.

FIVE YEARS OUT

By now most journalists have held at least two full-time salaried positions. The most desirable jobs at this level are daily newspaper reporting jobs, especially those with a specialized “beat.” It’s hard for a journalist to break past the low $30,000s without daily deadline experience, and this is often what separates “the men from the boys.”

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year survivors in journalism still work long hours, but they have established a strong tone and style, enjoy a dedicated readership, and are finally making a wage commensurate with their abilities. The majority (more than 60 percent) of those who began as journalists do not make it to the 10-year mark, dissuaded by lack of opportunity and lack of advancement. Many turn to editorial duties as well as reporting duties. A number switch their specialties after 10 years to keep their jobs interesting and their writing fresh.