“Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride”
Published in Nov-Dec 2022
After a five-year hiatus spent in academia, I returned to working in a newsroom in Karachi last summer. I was a little unsure about whether there would be a readjustment period. I was returning to a newsroom in Pakistan after nine years, during which so much innovation and advancements had taken place in storytelling techniques and the nature of journalism (narratives peddling as news, for example). My reasoning for the return was that it was time to put my money where my lessons were.
My first day back in the newsroom was thrilling. It was like returning to a skill you thought you had forgotten how to do, but within a few minutes of doing it, it all comes back to you.
Certainly, there are problems in the newsroom in Pakistan, not least of which is the disruption caused by digital innovations. News managers are struggling to keep up with those changes and do not understand how audiences consume news. It is wholly possible that by the time this piece comes out, Twitter will not be around or will not be the same platform we know. What will editors do if one of the biggest distributors of digital news goes offline?
Having experienced a lot of the disruption caused by digital media, coupled with an alarming economic situation within media houses, which has led to so much job insecurity, and my own recent experiences, you may think I would tell folks to steer clear. While I am worried about the nature of journalism and who gets to call themselves a journalist (I am looking at you Imran Riaz) I still recommend journalism as a career choice – with a few caveats.
It is not for the faint-hearted. It is not for the thin-skinned. It is not for folks who want a rigid career path. It is not for folks who imagine glamour/fame as an end goal. It is not for people who do not read the news. It really is not for you if your only source of news is Twitter.
It is especially good for women. The news industry needs more women than the existing five percent – according to a research paper by Adnan Rehmat in 2017. I doubt that number has risen exponentially. I understand that the challenges women face in the news industry are huge, especially when misogyny is rife and it is hard to break the glass ceiling. However, I still think it is a better choice because it remains progressive – especially compared to other places.
You will likely start as a subeditor or a reporter; no one can – or will – tell you how long you will stay in that position. You may wake up to a promotion but still do the same job. Or you may wake up to hearing you have been made redundant or promoted because your supervisor was made redundant.
All this is possible in any job, even in the corporate sector, which usually has defined career paths. But you will likely bore yourself to sleep in such organisations because let’s face it, you are considering the news media because you are a misfit. You don’t feel like you belong anywhere. You are smart, curious and genuinely interested in a variety of subjects. You are maybe a little awkward; you are definitely analytical. If you are a good listener, you are a shoo-in for a reporting or desk editor position.
Irrespective of how the newsroom morphs during your time in it – because technological advancements are impacting storytelling and their platforms at dizzying speed – I can safely say that no two days will be alike. That is the thrill I referred to when I said I found it on my first day back.
You will not experience boredom though slow news days may appear this way. Unlike other places where there is a lot of action, energy, excitement and stress, you can experience a roller coaster of emotions every day in the news industry. The adage “there is never a dull moment” was probably written for the newsroom. In Pakistan, it takes on a whole new meaning.
You will be witness to history with every piece of breaking news, and likely play a role in how it is shaped, disseminated and investigated. Some of my most distinct memories are being in a newsroom when events like 9/11 happened – pre-social media, so we were glued to the TV in Karachi – and then when Osama bin Laden was killed or we were learning how to factcheck Twitter for news in the Middle East. I was waiting for my Vietnam work visa to arrive when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated and I remember wishing so badly that I was in a newsroom. It never leaves you.
It takes a village to make the news and there is a camaraderie in the newsroom that binds people and creates a familial place – warts and all. There is the curmudgeon in every newsroom, the foreign returned kid, the rich father’s kid, the poet, the revolutionary from the sixties, the leftist, the rightist, the atheist, the maulvi sahab, the one everyone thinks is the management tout. It’s a hotchpotch of folks who would never speak to one another outside the newsroom, but come together every day to create a product that informs society.
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel wrote in the seminal The Elements of Journalism, “The purpose of journalism is not defined by technology, nor by journalists or the techniques they employ.” Rather, “the principles and purpose of journalism are defined by something more basic: the function news plays in the lives of people.”
It is here that you will wear many hats, develop many skills, and work in some capacity to tell many stories.
There is a lot in journalism you can explore. From arts and culture to crime to sports, to beats that deserve attention like technology, climate and religion. And of course, there is a dearth of local reporting. I believe many of the crises in journalism can be solved by focusing on reporting instead of amplifying commentary which does not serve audiences.
It would be remiss of me to pretend that a career in the newsroom – while full of surprises – is smooth sailing. It is not. There are a lot of personal sacrifices, and often relationships with loved ones suffer. You become desensitised, the stress level is a whole different ball game, especially with the pressure to create more content (loathsome that we do not call it journalism anymore) and the rewards are slow to come.
But it is worth the ride.
It is what US journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “Buy the ticket, take the ride... and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well... maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”
Muna Khan is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan. She tweets @LedeingLady
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