Paul Knox is an associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University and collected his first pay cheque for newspaper reporting in May 1968. He writes a spirited defence of newspaper reporting, and that it ain't all that bad.
So being a news reporter is the worst job in the world?
Worse than cleaning toilets, collecting garbage or checking out groceries?
Yes, says a clickbaity nugget from CareerCast, a U.S. job-hunting site that’s been conducting an annual career-rating exercise since 1989. Ranked low for many years, Reporter (Newspaper) plunged to the bottom on the list of 200 occupations for 2013.
Gallows humour being a newsroom staple, the ranking stands to inspire a lot of water-cooler talk. (That is, if the water hasn’t been outsourced, and if anyone has time any more for jokes.)
With competitive pressure, tight deadlines and zero tolerance of inaccuracy, news reporting was never a low-stress occupation. The proliferation of digital platforms, tools and techniques isn’t making it easier. Nor are the famously uncertain business prospects of traditional news.
But last out of 200? Does anyone really believe that?
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To understand how Reporter (Newspaper) could lag behind Garbage Collector (160) and Typist/Word Processor (111), you have to look at the factors CareerCast uses to derive a score for each job and how it weights them. The job’s characteristics – what the worker does; when, where and how it’s done – aren’t that important. Two-thirds of the score comes from salary data and estimates of the field’s potential for growth in jobs and income. To compile the remaining one-third, CareerCast (actually a research team at the University of Wisconsin that produces the report on its behalf) considers 20 “stress” and “environmental” factors. These include hard physical labour, risk of loss of life and exposure to toxic chemicals – things most reporters don’t have to worry about. But they also include elements that attract people to news work.
“Meeting the public” and “Travel (amount of)” are considered stress factors. “Degree of public contact” is an “emotional factor.” “Necessary energy component” is also bad – the more energy your job requires, the higher its score, and the worse it is.
And deadlines? Ugh. A story by Kyle Kensing accompanying the rankings says: “Newspaper reporters, who typically face daily deadlines, received the maximum of 9 points in this category. In contrast, biologists, who seldom face deadlines, received no points.” (Individual factor scores aren’t included in the report.)
Actuary tops the CareerCast ranking this year, followed by Biomedical Engineer, Software Engineer, Audiologist and Financial Planner. Nuclear Decontamination Technician (65) is rated more highly than Nuclear Engineer (80). Disc Jockey (179) is a notch above Military General (180); both rank below Taxi Driver (141). So does Corporate Executive (Senior) (168). Others ranked higher than Reporter (Newspaper) include Loan Officer (64), Cashier (169) and Maid (181).
What the jobs aren’t rated for is routine and repetition, much less boredom.
For CareerCast, the ideal position seems to be one that not only pays well and offers security but also is predictable. A job that can be done on autopilot will score better than one requiring creative problem-solving (and therefore stress-making uncertainty). Excitement, if you care for it at all, is a hobby best pursued on weekends.
CareerCast publisher Tony Lee confirmed as much in a phone conversation. He offered the example of lumberjacks (second worst ranking after reporters), who tell him they love their jobs despite the danger and tough working environment. “You may decide [that] is what gets your adrenaline going,” he said. “That means it’s your best job. But it’s not everyone’s best job.” Lee, who spent 23 years as an editor and writer on careers for publications associated with The Wall Street Journal, was asked whether reporters really have it worse than restaurant dishwashers (187).
“I think comparatively it’s a worse job than dishwasher,” he replied gamely, citing conversations with former colleagues still in newsrooms. “You don’t know what the future holds tomorrow. With a dishwasher you do know what the future holds.”
If the bar is that high, it’s unlikely that news reporting would ever clear it. But even accepting the arbitrary weighting and value judgments, CareerCast’s methodology is a bit of a black box.
It uses data from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to calculate the stress and environmental factor. Salary and employment figures come from U.S. labour department and census reports. But Lee said privately generated salary surveys and estimates are also used.
Some factors, such as “income prospects” in both the Income and Outlook categories, appear to be counted twice. At one point a percentage increase is converted to a numeral and added to a dollar figure. The research doesn’t include asking workers what they think of their jobs. Anything uncertain about the future is considered negative, even though technological change can actually boost the quality of certain jobs.
Even the job definitions are sloppy. Until the error was pointed out to Lee, the description of Reporter (Newspaper) included reporting for magazines and television. It was changed to: “Covers newsworthy events for a print newspaper company.” But that ignores the fact that there are few pure newspaper reporters left and few businesses whose sole product is a newspaper. Oddly, Kensing’s worst-job story says “online reporter” is “a different job from the newspaper reporter.”
There’s a lot to criticize in contemporary news work. Salaries and benefits have lagged. There's too much reliance on unpaid interns. Reporters’ ability to improve their game is often limited by poverty of resources and imagination. It’s no fun watching newsrooms shrink and seeing smart, capable people cajoled into leaving for no reason other than cost.
But every year I watch young reporters I taught plunge into the fast-paced, mysterious and yes, sometimes a bit scary world of news-hunting. They get interesting jobs in Toronto and beyond, in big newsrooms and tiny ones. They not only adapt to established patterns but also discover new ways to deploy their skills.
They’ll probably have to reinvent themselves more frequently. Employers may not take care of them particularly well. But news hasn’t stopped happening, nor will it. And the world is as fascinating as ever – perhaps more so. Show me the legions deserting newsrooms for telemarketing, or fruit picking, or roofing, or personal support work. Then maybe I’ll think about the idea that news reporting might be anything close to the world’s worst job.