There I was, a cum laude graduate of a top liberal arts college, standing in line at a temp agency in downtown Chicago with people who were twice my age with half my education. My crisp white blouse and pencil skirt standing in stark contrast to the listless ensembles of my visibly resigned fellow job-seekers. How did I get here? It wasn’t for lack of ambition. This was the consequence of my decision to pursue a career in journalism.
My story begins in the summer of 2006, a few weeks after I graduated college. On a hot afternoon in June I sat on the floor of my new, sparsely furnished Chicago apartment and made a career game plan. The goal: an entry-level reporter position. The means: an internship. I made a list of all the Chicago newspapers that I could think of and began cold calling.
At the outset I was very optimistic. Why wouldn’t I be hired? I had been a staff writer for my college’s paper and done very well as a Communication major. I was young, bright and eager; the stuff that apprentices are made of. But days stretched to weeks, and weeks stretched to months with no internship offers. Most papers ignored me, but the ones that didn’t seemed skeptical and almost suspicious of me. My youth (and resulting inexperience) were always viewed as a liability, not an opportunity for mentorship.
In February 2007, I finally landed an internship as a production assistant at a major radio station. Along with specifications about hours and job duties, my internship director made one thing clear: I was not to expect a job at the radio station post-internship. It seemed an odd thing to emphasize, but I was relieved to finally be in my field. Because the internship was unpaid, I took a temp job at a fast-paced and high stress corporation. For three frigid winter/spring months, I worked 40 hours a week as a temp and 16 hours a weekend as an intern. The combination of stress, sleep deprivation and lack of down-time made me near-delusional. I tried to maintain a fragile sense of balance, but agitation and exhaustion were just beneath the surface.
As promised, I wasn’t hired at the end of my internship; but I did manage to get an unpaid gig with a local newspaper, covering arts and entertainment on the weekend. Having learned from my near-death experience at the radio station, I decided to quit my demanding corporate temp job and take on something less stressful so that I could focus on my weekend reporting.
And this is how my story began, with me standing in line at the temp agency; $100,000 worth of college education in my head and a burning desire to be a journalist in my heart. After I got to the front of the line and filled out my information, I slumped into a plastic lobby chair, trying unsuccessfully to be inconspicuous. As I waited to take my Microsoft Office diagnostic, the weight of despair hit me. It seemed like such a waste. Why weren’t newspapers seeing the potential that was so obvious to me, my parents and my college professors? What more could I do to convince a paper that taking on an inexperienced journalist wasn’t a mistake?
Luckily my story ends happily. During an Internet search I stumbled upon a part-time reporter position at a Chicago paper. After calling the editor every day for a week, he agreed to look at my samples and eventually hired me. But I know that I am lucky. This city holds many aspiring writers, more talented than I, who work as receptionists at magazines or in the mail room at newspapers, clinging to the notion that they are in some circumvented way, advancing their careers because they work 20 feet away from people who are doing what they dream of. And this waste of talent is something that the journalism industry should be ashamed of.
In the summer of 2006, while I was banging on the door of the journalism industry begging to be let in, notable accounting, law and engineering firms were tripping over themselves to snatch up my schoolmates who graduated with degrees in business, pre-law, mathematics and engineering. They were eager to bring in fresh talent, and many even had entry-level mentorship programs built into their company structure.
Because journalism is an image-based industry, many media outlets are hesitant to take on recent college graduates who, in the early stages of their career, might not immediately sync with the company culture. This caters to seasoned journalists, who are more familiar with appropriate media etiquette. They monopolize creative space while young journalists are starved out, losing opportunities to gain experience.
To compound this situation, many media outlets are content to let older journalists speak on behalf of the younger generation. I have read too many articles written by sarcastic middle-aged journalists, making condescending quips about the latest Lindsay Lohan scandal and reducing youth culture to its most inane parts. Their focus is narrow, and they are not reliable navigants of youth culture because they have not made a fair effort to understand it.
Mine is a post 9-11 generation. Out of necessity, my generation has gained an enhanced sense of the inter-connectivity of the world. We spend as much time in virtual communities as we do in physical communities. And while the generation above us wages war in the name of religion and economics, the shared symbols and venues of global youth culture (such as networks like MySpace and LimeWire) allow us to communicate and share with each other.
If the journalism industry insists on viewing inexperience as a liability, they should begin to view youth as the valuable commodity that counterbalances it. The voice of young journalists cannot be replicated. Room must be made for it.