Of the past 11 winners for the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ College Columnist Award, bestowed annually upon the country’s top university newspaper opinion writer, fewer than half entered journalism professionally. Only five did. Six did not.
Much criticism has been leveled at journalism’s failure in recruiting and retaining enough conservatives, racial minorities, and socioeconomically diverse writers. Yet another pressing workforce issue with significant detrimental effects on the quality of America’s fourth estate has lurked subterranean this whole time, attracting seemingly zero attention: how many of America’s top young journalists aren’t entering journalism.
Why aren’t they? To find out, I tracked down and interviewed four of those former national winners who eschewed the profession. Their answers may help lead to solutions to the problem, an ailment that has thus far not only gone uncured but perhaps even undiagnosed.
For starters, there were some who never even considered journalism professionally.
“Money, I’m not going to lie, was a big point,” says 2016 winner Jake Schmidt. The University of Texas Daily Texan writer, who won for columns including “Bathroom carry: Don’t forget to wash your hands, grab your guns,” graduated in May with a physics degree. “If you love it, you should be a journalist regardless of how much you’ll make. But it’s not encouraging to know that you’d not be paid a lot.”
“Definitely finances came into it,” agreed 2010 winner Derek Wilson, the Ball State University Ball State Daily writer who’s now president of Indiana-based Lamkin Wilson Wealth Management. “Even people on the bestseller list don’t make that much money. I’m on nonprofit boards, I donate to organizations. The more successful I am financially, the more people I can help.”
Another factor was seeing family or friends enter journalism to disastrous results, like Ebenezer Scrooge glimpsing his Ghost of Christmas Future.
“My wife was a journalist and was shown no value at all,” Wilson says of Stephanie, who now runs a design and branding business. “She applied for a Web position, had the tech background and knowledge, but wasn’t picked over someone with more tenure but no tech knowledge at all.” Wilson cited this moment as critical to his outlook –adding that he initially only joined the college newspaper because Stephanie, then his girlfriend, served as graphics editor.
Worse than seeing a spouse sputter in their nascent journalism career is sputtering yourself.
“Entering journalism was always the dream,” said 2006 winner Fernanda Diaz. The Columbia University Daily Spectator writer, who won the national award as a freshman, landed a post-grad internship at the Huffington Post after meeting Arianna Huffington at the NSNC’s awards in Boston.
“It was really exciting, but there were almost no jobs. And the jobs available were all at the backend,” Diaz lamented. “Technology, doing the right hashtags, connecting it to social and audience and growth and clicks, using PhotoShop and resizing photos, moderating comments. ‘You’re young, do digital.’ You don’t really have time to cultivate your skills as a reporter or a writer.”
Frustrated with her subsequent job at a progressive magazine, Diaz jumped from journalism to the book world with a new publishing company focusing on e-books and direct sales. She’s currently director of marketing at Brooklyn-based digital design agency Huge, Inc.
Cyndi Waite won the 2007 award at University of Nebraska’s Daily Nebraskan, for columns including one about her family’s history of schizophrenia and a father she’s never met. She graduated as a film studies major, uncertain of career path, and interned at Ms. Magazine in Los Angeles.
Then she accepted an offer to teach English in Japan, “and that opened everything up for me,” Waite recalled. “I found out about foreign service and developed a passion for international affairs. So when I came back, I became a producer for a Japanese news company [TV Asahi America]. That was a way to combine the journalism-adjacent professional experience I had with my interest in foreign policy.”
Covering the State Department, White House, and Pentagon, she felt so burnt out after the 2012 election that she switched to media relations. “The hours are insane in that kind of work,” Waite lamented of journalism. She’s now a U.S. Foreign Service officer, preparing for a July posting as consular officer and visa adjudicator at the Lebanon embassy.
Another reason frequently mentioned among interviewees for avoiding journalism professionally was that while they felt qualified to expound their thoughts in a college newspaper where barriers to entry are low or nonexistent, they didn’t feel up to the challenge in the real world.
“Yes, I’m supposedly the best college columnist that year nationwide, but I never felt that I was the best. Part of my reasoning for not being a journalist is I always feel like there’s somebody able to do it better than me,” Schmidt said.
Faced with the retort that by this logic, Steph Curry shouldn’t have entered the NBA because he’d only be the second-best player, Schmidt acknowledged, “Okay, I see your point. But I still think my talent is better applied elsewhere. If writing became my full-time job, I would fall out of love with it.”
“I was writing and it was published in a newspaper, but I didn’t really consider myself a ‘journalist,’” Diaz agrees. “I continued work at the Spectator, which for me became a lot less about writing and more about creating content and digital strategy – which is still what I do now.”
Like Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken,” missed opportunities could have –just maybe – resulted in possible journalism careers, or at least significantly more involvement with the field.
Schmidt recounts a fellow attendee at NSNC’s Los Angeles awards giving her USA Today business card and recommending he submit an opinion column. Yet he didn’t. Asked why not, a pause followed. “Honestly,” Schmidt replied after a moment of silence, “I don’t have a good answer for that.”
“When you’re a quote-unquote ‘young journalist,’ you think there’s no other place where you could have the impact when you write a great editorial. But I learned there were so many other ways that I could fight, have an impact on people, and do good work: being a mentor, leading a team, global initiatives, important campaigns,” Diaz says. “So I don’t think about it with a sense of regret. A lot of the work I do now has nothing to do with me, but a bigger vision.”
In the press release announcing 2010’s award, NSNC’s then-vice president Ben Pollock wrote of Wilson’s economic columns – including one provocatively titled “Recessions not bad, should happen more often”: “Someday, Mr. Wilson is either going to be an honored editorial writer or a millionaire consultant.” Ultimately, Wilson laughs, “I guess I just chose the latter.”
Most winners stress that they continue utilizing journalistic or writing skills even in their non-journalism professions.
Schmidt wants to become a science communicator and popularizer. “It would be great to write a book. In order for my future journalistic endeavors to be valuable, it will require I have specialized knowledge worthy of publication,” Schmidt said, citing Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson as inspirations. “I consider my niche taking very ‘jargon-y’ scientific knowledge typically reserved for experts to laypeople,” said Schmidt.
“I don’t regret it [the decision not to pursue journalism], but I don’t consider what I do a real break from the field. My career path is in the political track, which means I have the opportunity to utilize skills like writing that I honed in journalism,” justifies Waite, who would love to write more publicly again later in her career, “when I have a little more leverage or influence. I’m really passionate about informing Americans what we do and what diplomacy really is, dispelling myths like we just sit around drinking wine, this 1950s image of a diplomat.”
What can be done about this? Concerns cited during these interviews –low pay, grueling hours, professional journalism not being as fun or creatively fulfilling as college journalism, and the true quality journalism itself either being assigned to more senior colleagues or not being assigned at all – all seem unlikely to dissipate in coming years. If anything, given the industry’s economic, technological, and demographic pressures, those trends may even exacerbate.
To be sure, all those interviewed are successfully working in intelligent sectors; you can't win a national journalism contest without having brains. But the point is, they're not applying those brains to journalism. What would-be Woodwards is American journalism – indeed, American democracy – missing as a result of these defections?
Schmidt, Wilson, Diaz, and Waite all represent a problem few analysts have diagnosed. As The Washington Post’s new slogan boldly declares, Democracy Dies in Darkness. The best journalists have the right to enter different professions. But when Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls to play minor league baseball, the success of American democracy was never imperiled.
Jesse Rifkin writes about Congress for GovTrack Insider and the film industry for Boxoffice Magazine and Boxoffice.com.