If you want a stress-free, well-paid job with excellent future prospects, do not become a writer. Do not become a news reporter, specifically. But what kind of life is that?
Working as a newspaper reporter officially ranks as the worst job in the world. This is according to CareerCast.com, which placed it at the bottom of a list of 200 jobs. It is ranked lower than lumberjack, meter reader and actor.
Journalists work too long, for too little pay, in sometimes crazy environments. What tips this particular vocation over the edge is the Internet. As the online world continues its decimation of the old news media business model, more and more journalists are losing their jobs. Never mind that – the chances of a new journalist finding a job are getting slimmer in the face of a shrinking job market, and the huge influx of online writers who will rattle off 500 words for R20.
Tom Lee, the publisher of CareerCast.com, said to the Wall Street Journal: “It’s been low for a while. What probably pushed it to the bottom is that several things got worse – job prospects decreased, the average salary continued to fall, and work hours continued to rise. Those factors also make the job more stressful.”
There is no place on earth that brings that realisation home like the foyer of Luthuli House, the headquarters of the African National Congress in Marshaltown. It’s a small, dark area that is supposed to house the security detail, the receptionists and enough space for people to queue for the lifts. It’s not exactly Soccer City. And it gets terrifically hot. For as long as I have been a Daily Maverick journalist, big press conferences have been held in that space. So often, after having fought traffic all the way to town and found a sliver of shoulder to park on, I would arrive at the building to find the narrow door surrounded by a crowd of reporters, all trying to push their way past the calculatingly indifferent security guards. Then after signing in, I would have to find a patch of floor to sit on. Then we all wait. For hours if necessary. In that baking hot room, surrounded by swearing journalists.
I have been caught in a ferocious hailstorm just outside Ga-Rankuwa on the way back from that magistrate’s court, and even then I did not feel as miserable as I do every time I sat in the middle of that Luthuli House scrum. (Seriously, Mr Mantashe. Please consider investing in an air-conditioned media centre. We will all love you so much for it.)
The thoughts that one has in those moments are depressing. What the hell are any of us doing here? Why can’t the ANC just send us a press release, since we already know that Julius Malema is toast? Does the public even care anymore? Do I care anymore? Why would anyone do this job???
When I was about 13 years old, I did an aptitude test. Up to that point, I was dead set at becoming a surgeon. The psychologist told me that I would hate it, and should consider a job as a teacher, lawyer or journalist. I told him where to get off – in my mind, of course, I wasn’t one of those children – and quietly resolved that I would pursue that medical degree. It didn’t happen. Not even close.
I fell into journalism via blogging. When Branko Brkic hired me, I was on the cusp of finding a job in advertising. I wasn’t even thinking about journalism. It sounded bloody boring, to be honest. “Trust me, it won’t be boring,” said the gruff Serbian voice on the other end of the telephone.
I signed up. It has not been boring.
From the very first time in the field (President Jacob Zuma spoke at a Thomson Reuters press conference about World Cup preparedness) it has not been dull.
I’m glad I never went into advertising. (Like the world needs another ad for foot cream.) I would never have found myself on the top of a hill last year, in the middle of a huge mining complex just outside Carletonville, watching thousands of people plot against the company that employed them. I would never have had cause to see the Ga-Rankuwa Magistrate’s Court. It is difficult to imagine that I would have worked with a similar bunch of mad and wonderful people.
I have the worst job in the world and I love it. I am convinced that I will someday look back to a lifetime of spent pens, broken keyboards, upended bottles, a mountainous cellphone bill, and thousands and thousands of cups of coffee and say exactly the same thing.
I have had journalism students ask me for advice, and to be honest, I haven’t always known what to say. I do now. HL Mencken said it best when he said: “As I look back over a misspent life, I find myself more and more convinced that I had more fun doing news reporting than in any other enterprise. It is really the life of kings.”
Maybe I could have saved the life of a child who would grow up to find the cure for HIV/Aids or cancer, had I become that surgeon. And as a career choice, writing is a bad one. We are a dime a dozen, and if you aren’t really good there is always someone out there who will work for less. Let’s not mention the frightening thought of what will come after I become old and spent and nobody will hire me anymore… But I can’t think of anything else I would rather do right now than write. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.