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Journalism—My Field of Dreams—Chose Me

August 10, 2012
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The Watergate Hotel

For some of us, we don't choose our field, our field chooses us. I feel that way about journalism.

In junior high, I read the play Inherit the Wind about the 1925 Scopes Trial, and I was captivated by the E.K. Hornbeck character. It was modeled after Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken, who wrote about the actual Tennessee trial that dealt with teaching evolution. There was something about the way Hornbeck, that is Mencken, covered the case that fascinated me. Unbiased? No. But there was a tell-it-like-it-is authority to it, and I liked it.

I knew fairly early on that few journalists ever make a lot of money in the field, but it is a job where you can make a difference. Autonomy reigns. In fact, I chose the word "field" purposely over "profession" because many people argue, and I agree, that journalism isn't a profession. Professions are regulated at least to some degree and they're exclusive, but journalism, at least in the U.S., is centered on the First Amendment and free speech.

There's a lesson to be learned there for all employers, I think. To help workers thrive in this "work-more economy," it wouldn't hurt to factor in an inch or two of independence. As author Daniel Pink argues in our most recent 90th anniversary interview, companies "must now provide a greater degree of autonomy, more freedom, more opportunity for challenge, more flexibility and so on."

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had that autonomy. They captured the watchdog spirit of the media when they broke the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post 40 years ago. To mark the June anniversary of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters (registration required), the journalists got together and wrote about their reflections on the events that led to the resignation of our 37th president. One thing that struck me about the account was a Vietnam War quote attributed to President Richard Nixon. He said, "In the short run, it would be so much easier, wouldn't it, to run this war in a dictatorial way, kill all the reporters and carry on the war."

In other words, shoot the messenger.

Do workers in your company have the power to challenge even the highest-level executive as Woodward and Bernstein did? Are whistle-blowers ostracized or supported? Woodward and Bernstein had executive editor Ben Bradlee on their side at the Post. "The key to working on a story like this is the editor at the top, and that's Bradlee," Woodward said in a recent interview. "He gave you running room. You were an independent reporter—go dig, go look."

Sometimes I feel like journalism itself is being killed, and this story on Monster about jobs that died in 2011 does nothing to alleviate that fear. Call this self-serving if you will, but the field of journalism means a lot to me. I try to steel myself when I read about journalists being laid off, but it's very hard and very frequent nowadays. Since the end of the dot-com boom, it seems journalists have been under siege with news organizations laying off thousands.

And so-called "new media" is no different. Recently, Rupert Murdoch's iPad publication, The Daily, announced it was going to lay off a third of its staff. I thought tablet news was what everyone wanted these days … or maybe that was tabloid news. I get the two confused, you know.

As this research from the Society for Human Resource Management suggests, layoffs might not be the best way to save a buck or two anyway. Thankfully, Laura Lang, the new CEO at Time Inc. seems to get that.

Despite the setbacks and job cuts in journalism, I'm confident the field will survive—although it might look a lot different from the one in which Mencken thrived. Maybe that's me being optimistic, but what choice do I have? Journalism chose me, and I choose to defend it.

James Tehrani is Workforce Management's copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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