In 2021, I acknowledge my first professional year outside daily journalism since the turn of the century, when I gave it all up for a second life in the music biz (L.A. stories for another time), then returned for another beating.
During this transition (will I ever truly recover?), what amuses me most is that despite a nationwide hatred of my tribe, people have no trouble self-identifying as journalists, especially if they think it gets them out of trouble during like, say, attempted insurrections at the nation’s capital.
They rail at “fake news” and combat it by establishing dubious agencies to peddle their own perspectives. They break out cellphones to take pictures of car crashes and house fires, posting them to community Facebook pages under the rubric “BREAKING,” like they’re Cronkite in civvies. Sure, they detest journalists, but damn if they don’t wanna be ’em. Speak their language, adopt their tone. Damn if they don’t want that “firsties” thrill (albeit without the follow-through).
If you think that capitol example’s some wild exaggeration, I’ve got news for you. At least one participant did, in fact, claim to be covering the event for a credentialed site. Was this someone with ink-stained veins and a scrapbook of clips, mastheads and awards? Does this individual, from an advanced age, have a lifetime of field achievements upon which to reflect?
Nope. Nada. Zero.
But that’s what’s great about Now: You can call yourself whatever you want. Got a camera? You’re a great photographer. Have access to borrowed memes? You’re a deep Internet wit. Wanna be a journalist without the necessary background? Who cares? You can incite violence at a city park, then duck behind a press pass you laminated that morning for your WordPress blog.
Rally among instigators and tell police you were, in truth, an impartial observer “blending in.” Drive cross-country on your own dime to yell slogans through megaphones and bash through barricades, maybe stomp a few brains to sluice, then turn your cam on yourself and solemnly report, “Pandemonium has erupted on American soil.”
Ho, boy. Look at me, defending journalistic integrity. Me, the very definition of a novice turning pro in a single step. A non-college graduate who fell into the gig. The vituperative brat superiors watched to ensure I didn’t slip the eff-word into pulp. A guy who literally grew up in a newsroom, drinking and carousing between deadlines. And here I am today, the august old man yelling about Rules.
Somehow, it’s true. I’ve been in the biz for nearly three decades. Yet I’ve never called myself a journalist — at least, not with a straight face. Strikes me as a bit hoity-toity. I began my career covering track meets and ’90s punk shows, then gradually worked my way into the editor’s office.
In my lifetime I’ve spoken at length with senators, representatives, administrators, press agents, publicists, physicians, contractors, coaches, executives, restaurateurs, athletes, professors, musicians, celebrities, public information officers, police and fire personnel, and average citizens, publishing their misadventures, tragedies, and triumphs under my own byline since I was too young to legally purchase alcohol. I’ve got the physical hardware to back it up. I didn’t decide suddenly in midlife that this was my calling. I knew it from the git-go and reacted in the moment.
Granted, journalism ain’t all that hard. But it ain’t all that easy, either. At heart it requires an insatiable curiosity, the ability to write (which you pick up from reading and absorbing until you develop a rhythm), and a grasp of story structure, built on a foundation of basic literacy. You don’t need a college degree, though it certainly helps (plus, I hear the parties are unreal). Patient editors too.
That said, I’ve encountered great, naturally gifted citizen journalists. But most have nothing on the genuine article, forged through years of fire and verbs. And it kinda makes me mad when fly-by-nighters don the “j”-word like an off-rack sweater, wearing the profession as a fashionable lie when it suits their purposes — basically, “You can’t arrest me; you can’t judge me based on my presence or behavior here; I’m a professional on assignment.” I put the actual time in and took the job seriously. To you, it’s an occasionally cool costume you can shed after the novelty subsides.
What’ll inevitably kill the industry? Poor operations? Corporate shenanigans? Everyone’s favorite punching bag, the next generation? Nah, it’ll be agent provocateurs like these dopes, following their own religion and cheapening the form. Google scholars, faux intelligentsia screaming, “Do your research!” while vastly overestimating their talents in that regard. Visitors who practice a twisted fantasy of the Fourth Estate without understanding its nuances.
If you’re going to call yourself a journalist, go all in. Listen. Learn from craftsmen, plumb stories for truth. Devote your whole core to the chase. It’s not a weekend camp, a means to promote your prejudices, or a convenient excuse to throw at angry cops. It’s a life. Live it with all you’ve got.
(Cory Frye is publisher of Mid Valley Noise. He can be reached at email@example.com).