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Preparing for a Challenging Yet Rewarding Career

Preparing for a Challenging Yet Rewarding Career

By Andrew Harmon


I should have gone to law school.

At least that’s what people tell me when they hear that I’m a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Sure, it’s one of the top J-schools in the country and actually runs bona fide newsrooms in Chicago and Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t stop strangers I meet from divining my future. It will be a hard, impoverished life, they say, complete with a rope belt around my waist and deep crow’s feet radiating from the corners of my eyes as a somatic testament to making the wrong decision.

Many of us at Medill decided to enter graduate school because we thought it would give us the sharp teeth necessary to gnaw our way up today’s journalistic ladder. And in some ways, Medill has delivered. I’ve had new and thrilling reporting experiences, from an exposé on sex between Cook County Jail inmates who have no access to condoms to an interview with The Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini about his formative years in Afghanistan. Since I enrolled, I’ve gotten plenty of clips, and my résumé has been padded and polished. All of this is supposed to give me the pinch of confidence I need to dazzle the recruiter at my first interview.

With so many media jobs on the chopping block, however, my first position out of school may be as far from The New York Times as bologna is from prosciutto. After a harried day of reporting, when we’ve bitten our nails to the beds, Max, a fellow NLGJA student member, and I go back to my apartment, drink a few glasses of the cheapest white wine we can find, and talk about our deep-seeded job market fears. If we are spared the unemployment line, we may end up barely making five figures at a tiny newspaper tucked into a conservative corner of the country, the sort of place where" Brokeback Mountain” was pulled from movie theaters and mega-churches outnumber gay bars 500-to-one. It would be a rough transition, given that Northwestern has the gayest newsroom this side of the Washington Blade. By the end of the first week of classes, some of the straight, single young women sat in our lecture hall with a look of bewilderment and fatigue on their faces, as though they’d just endured trans-Atlantic jetlag ("Aren’t there any straight men?” they murmured).

Moving to a small market is something I’m prepared to do; going into the closet at work is something I’m not. I’ve heard that it might be best to play it safe by omitting any NLGJA references on my résumé, in the same way that it’s easier not to mention that I have a partner of five years when my great aunt in Oklahoma asks if I’ve found a "pretty gal” yet. But is it possible for an out journalist to thrive in a small market? Flipping through a recent NLGJA newsletter gave me some reassurance on the matter, as I was heartened to see holiday party photos of gay and lesbian reporters and editors in several off-the-beaten-path locales. I know that homophobia is no stranger to the big city papers too, but many who work at these smaller publications do not have the luxury of a comrade or two in the lunchroom. For new reporters who find themselves cast as the token gays in Paducah and Lubbock, these small chapters are the ones that matter most. That they continue to grow should be of utmost priority for NLGJA.

I may regret going to journalism school once the first student loan bill makes its ugly appearance in my mailbox in September. Hopefully, I’ll just take a deep breath, force a smile as I reach for the letter opener, and remind myself that I haven’t opted for an easy career, but rather one of continuous challenge, where the payoff comes not from a fat paycheck, but from the pride and exhilaration that comes with seeing my byline atop an article that makes me genuinely proud.

Affirmations aside, it really comes down to this: I don’t know any happy lawyers, but I can think of at least a few happy journalists.

This piece originally appeared in 2006, in the official newsmagazine of NLGJA.

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