Loic Hostetter

Why I still see a future in media

Published: Sunday, Jul. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1E
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jul. 30, 2013 - 11:38 am

It was a terse, worrisome text message: "It's pretty grim in here."

A friend had begun an internship at a metropolitan newspaper. Within days of her arrival in the newsroom, more than 30 reporters, columnists, editors and photographers were laid off.

Despite the uneasy mood of the newsroom following the announcement, she has enjoyed the compelling, sometimes quirky assignments editors have sent her way.

Stories of newsroom layoffs and turmoil surrounding the American newspaper industry have become familiar to prospective journalists. But even with the persistent, joking advice to "get out while you can," it's a warning I continue to ignore.

Young journalists are often asked by professionals and by their peers why they would enter a field notorious for its insecurity, one in which more is being asked of fewer and fewer people.

It's an issue I've danced around for some time, particularly with like-minded classmates, but it's one that's hard to address with a pragmatic response that isn't born from personal experience and a certain degree of idealism.

As with everything in journalism, the answer begins with the reader.

Readers of my generation are reluctant to pay for news. Having grown up with the Internet and thousands of news outlets at our fingertips, it is easy to decide that free news is good news when faced with a pay wall.

Hand in hand is the widespread – and misinformed – belief that repurposed articles produced by websites that aggregate news are viable substitutes for the precise local and regional coverage of a newspaper.

Increasingly, the perception has taken root that the newspaper reporter who covers a specialized beat and produces firsthand reporting carries out the same function and offers the same service to readers as the writer who repackages wire stories just to rack up online page views.

A young reader's inclination toward online news is understandable. I've encountered only a handful of college-age journalists with subscriptions to a printed paper.

In lieu of newsprint, most of us are comfortable scanning Google News, navigating around pay walls and watching our Twitter feeds churn out new headlines every few seconds.

While we worry about a difficult job market – the number of newsroom workers at American daily newspapers fell by more than 6,000 between 2008 and 2011, according to the Pew Research Center – younger journalists inevitably play a part in the same consumption pattern that has forced the news media to rework its structure and mission.

Unfortunately, hopeful journalists are asked, now more than ever, to weigh their conviction that journalism is a necessary public service against the personal cost of job insecurity and low compensation.

In defense of the industry, my first instinct is to restate the broader moral mission of journalism "to oppose the plunderers and predators of a free society," as James Squires, a former editor of the Chicago Tribune, wrote in his book "Read All About it!"

But the motives are often more subtle and personal in nature.

I entered journalism as a result of my ambition to tell stories. The son of classics and art history professors, I was raised on a diet of Odysseus and Achilles. Personal expression was always part of my career checklist.

With only three years at my student newspaper and a couple stints at metropolitan papers, these experiences have been enough to justify an uncertain future.

You walk in to work every day and you never know what task you'll be given. I have covered local crimes and trends in orthopedic surgery. This summer I've written about interest rates on student loans. And two weeks ago I covered the University of California Board of Regents as it confirmed UC's first female president, all while tweeting incessantly.

My first day as managing editor of the UCLA Daily Bruin began with an inconspicuous start until reports of a fatal shooting in Santa Monica broke on Twitter. Already faced with producing a 48-page edition, our new team of managers dealt with its first major breaking news story in which six people were killed not far from campus.

The reporters and editors working that Friday began putting out calls in a rush to confirm and post new details on the shootings. By that evening, we had found a UCLA student who had been at a Santa Monica College campus building when the shooter entered and opened fire. The student agreed to speak with us for a story and described how she froze at the sound of a gun being fired, and the moment when, as another round was fired, she realized it had passed within inches of her head.

It was a marathon day of work in our windowless newsroom, but we had found the thread in the story that would make a traumatic story tangible for our student readers.

The few newsrooms I have inhabited have pushed me to understand journalism as a process and an act capable of deep emotional resonance and one that, if successful, creates a direct and lasting connection between members of a paper's community.

In many areas – health care, higher education or veterans' issues – my worldview has been shaped by the interviews I've conducted and the subjects I've encountered.

Whether discussing the Arab Spring with a Tunisian graduate student recently returned from protests in his country's capital, or sitting on a canvas cot listening to a former Seabee recount the struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder that eventually put him on the street, I've been lucky for the chance to tell a few stories that reflect our changing world.

While there isn't a clear remedy for the industry's ills or a sure-footed path to a full-time job, I'll ignore the warning label on a career in news.

Not only because I believe that good journalism makes us all a bit more informed, but for the opportunity to pen a few more stories.

Loic Hostetter, a UCLA student, is an intern this summer with The Bee's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @LoicHostetter.

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