phi beta kappa key pin

The liberal arts factor

Some stereotypes are true. Most journalists, for example, possess thick skins, feel less empathy than the average person, don’t beat around the bush and enjoy the challenge of digging for well-hidden information.

Journalists are also notorious workaholics: their jobs follow them home, on vacation, to the gym, wherever they go. Reporters will pick up their phones in the middle of the night, on their wedding days and at funerals if the newsroom calls. Over the last few years, I’ve seen my peers and coworkers drop everything for a scoop. They’ve bailed on dates, classes, exams and parties to meet deadline or go the extra mile on a story. And although I believe hard work pays off–anyone who knows me can attest to that– I haven’t always supported their decision to skip out on everything else.

phi beta kappa key pin

I’m proud of my PBK key!

It’s true that getting good at one’s chosen profession requires focus, especially in journalism. But must focus translate to tunnel vision?

I remember some fellow students who pulled 50, 60, 70 hour weeks at the student newspaper. The work they did was incredible and invaluable. But their choice to work overtime for no extra pay was also a choice to skip classes, skim important reading and earn a degree with barely passing grades and nothing but minimum graduation requirements. Many of them told me they believed years of hands-on work experience was the most important (or the only) thing future employers wanted to see on resumes.

Like them, I made time for real-world experience. I had five summer internships, three of which were unpaid. I spent most of my college years working full time at the student newspaper, though my stipend covered less than half my rent. I always answered calls from my sources, even when they came at inappropriate times while I was in inopportune locations. I arrived at work too early and stayed too late. I put my life in danger to drive to work during a snowstorm. I left my own birthday party to investigate a mysterious death. (I don’t regret these decisions, but I don’t think I would make the same ones if I were to repeat my four years of school.)

I made all these sacrifices, but most of the time, I maintained much-needed separations between work, play and academics. While I took tens of electives outside my journalism classes, learned another language, contemplated a second minor and had the time of my life writing a thesis, my student newspaper colleagues were crashing on the newsroom couch and plotting how they might avoid their foreign language requirements. When we were all off the clock, my coworkers went home, reviewed notes on their steno pads and listened to the police scanner over a beer; I went to choir rehearsal, attended a play or read a novel. When I shared my hobbies and weekend plans with them, they stared with blank faces and went right back to their work.

I was, and still am, shocked at journalists’ blasé attitude toward non-news pursuits I consider important: a liberal arts education, cultural enrichment, a variety of personal relationships. I was relieved to leave the world of newspaper journalism and find a new company full of people with quirky hobbies, unique passions and different perspectives. These days, I have coworkers who appreciate my ongoing efforts to learn more and stay well rounded.

But these days, a well-rounded resume seems to be undervalued–and I think that’s a mistake on the part of employers. When I consider the leg up I had in stories that required a fundamental knowledge of history, literature or science, I wonder whether my laser-focused journalism colleagues were able to cover the story as thoroughly without a liberal arts education. I think about the friendships and relationships I maintain and wonder, when I’m having fun at a festival or a picnic, whether my old coworkers are still slaving away in the newsroom. When I absorb myself in choir rehearsal and forget about bills, task lists and arguments, I can’t believe underpaid cub reporters my age can cope without a hobby that provides an emotional escape from the stresses of adult life.

Perhaps the decision to broaden my knowledge base communicated a lack of pure journalistic commitment to some of the newspaper editors who saw my resume. But if a love for many things at once is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Advertisements

Hard news, soft news–it’s all good

Western Washington University students work on the Viking 45, their entry in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition. The car gets 100 miles to the gallon. Photo: Sophia McCloy.

This job is the first one in which I’ve truly been a general assignment reporter. Before that, I always had a certain beat. At the Santa Cruz Sentinel, my first internship and my first time working in a newsroom, I was supposed to cover everything but ended up mostly writing feature stories. At the Oregon Daily Emerald, I covered crime and health. At Monterey County Weekly and Palo Alto Weekly–two newspapers at which I worked simultaneously two summers ago–my clips were mostly of the arts and entertainment variety.

So when I got to the Seattle Times and in my first week alone covered four beats–science, crime, health and obituaries–I knew this internship would be an entirely different experience.

The subjects I cover have only increased since then. I’ve worked on stories about land usestate and federal politics, the environment and education. I couldn’t be happier. I always thought beat reporting was more interesting and more rewarding, but I should have known better. Even as a kid, I loved learning–not necessarily in-depth learning about one specific subject, but instead learning a little about a lot of things. As early as high school, I waxed poetic about the benefits of a well-rounded education. In college, while so many around me believed a liberal arts education was overrated and specific technical training was more beneficial, I maintained that I had an edge over other journalism majors with my multiple interests and varied extracurriculars.

It makes sense, then, that I so enjoy general assignment reporting. I get to learn something new every day. It matters little whether I’m calling the police station for information on a shooting in a state park or whether I’m visiting sleepy, pleasant Bellingham to chase the heartwarming story of some college kids who built a car from scratch and may win $10 million for their troubles. I always walk away from my workday satisfied.