A field one's kid shouldn't enter lightly

July 18, 1997

Every day for the past six months, our mailbox has been filled with brochures from colleges from all across the United States, pamphlets so elaborately produced that they might be mistaken for come-ons for cruises or luxury resorts. They're addressed to my son, a student who has scored well on his SATs and made honor roll grades, all with little or no help from me.

And now, as the time nears to make a decision about careers, he's decided that he might want to be - a journalist!

Now the doctor whose son wants to enter the medical profession might be a happy man indeed, but I'm not at all sure I want my child to follow in my footsteps. Several colleagues I've polled agree - we love what we do, but we wouldn't wish it on our children as a career.


So here's my best advice to my son:

You know your mother and I would support you in just about any lawful venture that you wanted to try, but there are some things - drawbacks and advantages - that you should be aware of before you commit to journalism as a career.

Let's go with the drawbacks first, The first one is that to get to fun parts - writing a column like this, for example - you must first do a lot of stuff that isn't fun. For example, in the early 1980s during the administration of Hagerstown Mayor Don Frush, I covered 120 council meetings over four years' time.

Frush spoke slowly and deliberately in what seemed to be a calculated strategy to numb everyone into submission. A meeting that might have taken two hours could easily stretch into four. I took up smoking again just so I could have a periodic nicotine rush to keep me awake.

Proceedings in court don't move all that quickly, either. The news story it takes you five minutes to read required hours of a reporter's time watching a proceeding that moves toward a conclusion like an icicle is formed - one little drip of action at a time. And in contrast to those TV dramas, in several years of covering court, I only saw a few dramatic moments.

One came when a man who'd beaten his wife's face to a purple pulp threatened the sentencing judge in court. Another came when the state's attorney persuaded an accused child molester to confess on the stand. More typical was the case I saw not long ago, in which the tearful defendant in a theft case made some ludicrous excuses from lapsing back into the criminal behavior she'd been convicted of twice before. Watch too many of these, son, and you'll start believing that there aren't any sincere or honest people left.

And then there are the editors. When the relationship between reporter and editor works well, there's nothing like it. At best, it's a partnership like the one between quarterback and pass receiver, in which both realize that neither can succeed fully without cooperation and mutual respect. Each day, each story provides a chance to pair those skills and create something great.

But then, to continue the football analogy, there are those editors who are content to let things plod along, grinding out the yards on the ground in an offense that never surprises, never takes advantage of all the creative skills the team has. Learn what you can from them, my boy, and move on as soon as possible.

Which brings me to the next point: Success in the business almost demands that you move from place to place. It's not like the plumbing business, where if you don't like how things are going at Joe Jones' company, you can try for a job with Sam Smith. In journalism, you've got to move from town to town if you want to climb up the ladder. Knowing you, you'll make new friends in every city, but you won't get to keep any of them close to you for very long.

And speaking of friendship, if you become a journalist, people will treat you differently - better than they ordinarily would, in fact. This is not because they care about you, but because your paper or your station has the power to affect them or their business, for good or bad. If you forget that, and start believing they're giving you access (or returning your phone calls) just because you're a great guy, you're just kidding yourself.

But there are some advantages in this business. Like driving a pick-up and wearing blue jeans? That's great, because getting your business done, at least outside the big cities, depends far more on your brainpower than your wardrobe. No matter how much money or power your interview subject has, a well-researched question will cut through all that like a waxed nail goes through a soft pine plank.

And finally, there are those times when a story you do makes a difference. It can be anything from a look at how another area of the country has faced a similar problem such as flooding or farmland preservation to an appeal for food and clothing from a family burned out of their home. On that day, you may not be rich, but you won't have a job that depends on lying to the public, or yourself, about what's important.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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