So you want to major in PR or journalism?
It's both encouraging and terribly depressing to see how many college students head for majors in PR and journalism. They don't really know what they're getting into. They just see jobs that seem fun, exciting, somewhat glamorous and with a tinge of the show biz. For the young journos, curiosity and maybe a desire to see the world are part of the allure. Being a reporter allows you to explore just about any subject you're interested in--as an observer, if not a full-on participant. You're allowed to ask questions of the rich and powerful, the beautiful and the damned. And then you get to see your name on the byline or the magazine cover. Feels good, yes, it does.
I won't get into what draws people to PR. I've never understood it. Like many on the journalism side, I figure they think it pays better and requires fewer hours and less work than reporting. That would be wrong, but you can't convince a college PR major of that.
What nobody ever tells students in either major is that their career will have a time stamp on it. I've written about this rather ugly aspect of media before. But it's come back this week in two sickening examples from friends of mine who are facing the reality that at age 50, they're starting to age out of their profession.
Both of my friends work for major daily newspapers in large cities. Their papers are extremely profitable (one turned a whopping 40 percent return on investment last year, double the projected profit of most dailies). And both of my friends are real pros at what they do. Both write feature columns. Both are also in management, having put in enough years on the job to earn the seniority and the higher paycheck of that tier of employment. One of these columnists also edits extra sections of his paper, writes a number of arts reviews every week, mentors new reporters and designs special pages--when he's not attending meetings and weekend "retreats" to hear the higher-ups talk about how he should be "taking ownership of the paper" and working "as if you owned the product."
These guys work like dogs. Willingly. Professionally. They win awards. They are respected by their peers at other papers.
And both guys have recently had to fight for their jobs. One says he was called in for a meeting with his new section editors, all of whom are a decade younger than he, and told he had to re-audition for the writing job he's held for the past 15 years. Despite never missing a deadline, never being sued for libel, never having to run a correction, he just wasn't doing what they were looking for. The editors now want him to get an OK for every column idea, every interview--and, oh yeah, there are earlier deadlines in place. Columns are now to be finished at least a week ahead of publication. So much for timeliness.
My other friend, who spends many off-hours hosting charity functions in his city, serving on arts boards and visiting high schools to talk up the paper, was informed by his editor/publisher that his salary was being cut by several thousand dollars per year. They'd decided he was making too much money. And even though he doesn't earn overtime (that's why they make you management), they didn't think he was earning his salary.
These are guys who've spent more than 20 years in their jobs. They're the consummate professionals. But they're also right at the dangerous age--50--when newspaper owners start looking at older, well-paid employees as drags on the profit margin. "They could hire two new reporters for what they're paying me and they know that," said one of the guys. "They don't take into consideration how much it costs to train new employees or that guys like me do our jobs so well that maybe we make it look too easy."
Hearing that his salary was being cut, my friend worried about making his mortgage, about continuing to help his ailing mother and a sibling who's battling a serious illness. My other pal, the one dealing with editors who want to babysit him through every column now, is putting children through college.
"I'd love to quit but I can't even look for another job. Nobody in the newspaper business will consider hiring a 50-year-old man anymore. I never thought I'd get to a place in my career where I'm not marketable. They know they have me by the short hairs. I'm trapped," says the friend.
This is the reality, kids. In your 20s, you're fresh meat in the eyes of the media outlets. They want young, fresh, cheap talent that will make their products look vital and cutting edge in the eyes of the young consumers they so slavishly court (to little effect). By the time you're 30, you're either on your way up or you get drummed out. You either start to feel like a star or you realize you're forever going to be one of those drones behind the scenes (not a bad place to be, actually) who earns a salary and doesn't move much farther up the food chain. At 40 you're either there or you're not--you're a columnist with your picture above the headline; you're an editor or designer or junior executive with stock options.
At 50 you're a liability. You're starting to use more of those health benefits. You get a lot of vacation time that they make it hard for you to take in more than three-day chunks. Your editors and supervisors suddenly start looking very young. They want to hire their friends and to do that they have to figure out how to get you out of the way.
I saw this play out again and again in newsrooms. I saw one group of editors reassign a longtime columnist to a new job--as a receptionist. A TV critic suddenly found himself back on the county news beat, asked to drive hundreds of miles a week gathering farm reports and rural school news. They shame you out of the job you've earned and done well, hoping you'll just quit and go away.
Certainly they try their hardest not to let you make it to retirement and a full pension. The massive layoffs at the Dallas Morning News in 2004 cut loose dozens of writers and editors with as many as 30 years on the job. Some severance. No pension. They're out.
And who'll hire a 57-year-old who was making $65K or more, with four weeks vacation? Nobody, that's who.
I'm a freelancer. I'm lucky enough to work for editors who don't care how old I am. Several publications that I write for are based in other cities so I've never even met the editors I'm writing for. I was assigned stories based on my experience and my good pitching abilities. They haven't seen my gray hair and crow's feet. They have no idea that even though I can write like a 24-year-old, I haven't been one in a very long time.
Know what? You're young now, but 50 comes fast. And you don't suddenly get stupid at 50. If you're good in your 20s and 30s, you're even better in your 50s. This is the time of life when you actually believe you know what you're doing -- and just when you get the kind of confidence in your abilities that you only wish you'd had 20 years earlier, BAM! The business wants to shove you aside. (On-air journalism does it even earlier. With women, it's when they start to show those first signs of age in their 30s...with men, it's when the hairline recedes and the jowls start to droop.)
So you've been warned, young media majors. The sooner you know the truth, the better. You have a time stamp on your ass in this business.
Fifty and over need not apply.