A history of quitting: My life in journalism.

You asked for more detail. Here you go.

In my first real journalism internship, I wrote and reported pieces for a local alternative weekly. I was paired up with the features editor as a mentor.

This guy was great. He was a great writer, and was actively working to be better all the time. He was actually conceptualizing a book when I arrived, which I thought was awesome. I was too young to know that “conceptualizing” a book usually means that you’re thinking about writing a book but not actually writing. That would have tipped me off about the nonsense yet to come.

A young budding journalist needs two things to succeed: Encouragement and regular reality checks. The Guy was visibly exhausted by my enthusiasm for writing. And my ambition — I was once compared unfavorably to Nicole Kidman’s character in To Die For. That’s more than a little messed up, considering he was supposed to be nurturing me to go out and conquer the world one day.

There were moments when my enthusiasm may have charmed him into reaching above himself. When I was largely working on book reviews for the paper (purely because I didn’t have any other assignments coming from The Guy), I once voiced a desire to read a famous film critic’s upcoming book. About two weeks later, The Guy was dropping the unpublished galley onto my desk with the order, “Don’t scream.”

But in all those months I worked for the alternative weekly, The Guy assigned me less than ten stories. Maybe this was to teach me self direction. But it mostly came off as coldness. I asked him for feedback on an article I was quite proud of, a hard news piece on transportation developments. He marked up only one page (out of five) after two weeks of my bugging him.

The Guy (who quit the paper a year after I stopped being his protege) may have actually done me a favor. I was devastated by his cold nature. But the traditional journalism field was starting to collapse at that moment. I would have been disillusioned sooner or later.

The wisdom of “f*ck it, I’ll do it myself.”

Everyone faces rejection when you write for a living. You’ll probably be rejected most of the time when you propose a new piece. It’s part of the lifestyle. You have to have a thick skin. Journalists are the toughest and yet the most hopeful people I know.

I lost my ability to be eternally hopeful rather early. It was the years after college, when I was trying to make ends meet as a stringer while paying the bills working for an Internet startup. I started to become angry. Why was I expected to put all my hopes and dreams into writing and reporting on a piece which may just be rejected outright? Or even if it was accepted, I would only receive a pittance in exchange for it?

I was working. I was writing. But all the places where you start out as a writer pay you incredibly little. Usually you don’t stay there for long. But the endless cycle of waiting for approval was wearing on me.

Maybe I should have been patient. But eventually, I grew too angry to be patient. I quit writing at one outlet because they had me take a hard line against a study for a hot take, even though the science was wrong.

My fellow journalist friends grew nervous, too. But instead of freelancing in marketing or other ventures, they went back to school. They kept on working at their low-paying stringer jobs and waited for things to change. My heart broke for them.

I worked in-house for a company, doing research and aiding who I thought was a former journalist working in marketing. But no. She still considered herself a journalist. She was just placing articles on behalf of the company in outlets, treading a grey line that left me way too uncomfortable.

It was at this crucial turning point in my life that I discovered Adam Carolla and the concept of the “pirate ship.”

For those who don’t know: Adam Carolla is a Californian podcast host and former old-school radio host who is often in the news for saying controversial things. He isn’t conservative, at least on most social issues. But he’s often pitted against liberal folks in debates and has people from all sides of the political spectrum on his show.

I liked and still like Adam Carolla because he talks like my dad. He’s an old-fashioned Southern Californian who isn’t interested in anything that may waste his time (blame the traffic). I don’t agree with everything he says, certainly. But at this crucial moment in my confusion and anger toward my field, he offered me a way out: Do it myself.

Who said I needed permission to publish anything I thought was worth my time? Medium and Wordpress existed. I could do something with no ideation of lofty ideals of the Fourth Estate (and thus no emotionally devastating paycheck), and then just write. Just make the stuff I wanted to make.

After all, how many times had I quit something because the situation wasn’t right for me? Where I didn’t feel like I was being honored for my time and effort? How many times had I been resentful because I had to wait on someone else’s approval?

So I stopped. I quit.

My final formal piece of reporting was for Marijuana Venture, as part of an issue-wide special they were doing about cannabis tourism. I flew to Alaska to report on it. I took my own pictures. I interviewed locals, including an anonymous cannabis podcaster. It was the perfect ending to my just-journalism career.

Wiser, harder, richer?

Today, I’m a copywriter who writes books. In fact, I’ve written six books already. This latest draft is almost ready to enter traditional publishing as a contender. I will own every ounce of its victory if and when it comes.

Most of my journalist friends have actually come around to being more like me. Journalism’s dissipation into thousands of blogs and channels left a lot of writing orphans struggling to make ends meet by cobbling together dozens of stories every year. So many of them, smartly, have taken to creating their own blogs. Their own pirate ships.

But this begs the question: Why did I initially strike out and try to become a reporter?

The uncomfortable answer: Because I wanted to be an author. This may sound insane, but ask any journalist you know if they’re working on a book (or at least see it as the end goal). I bet you that 8 out of 10 will say yes to that question.

We no longer live in a world where someone can just be a reporter. It doesn’t happen. Any straight-up news reporter you know (with the exception of one great journalist I met in college and will not embarrass here) is likely also freelancing on the side. They’re also likely freelancing at something that is not journalism.In 2009, when I began my formal training in journalism, that was the situation. And even that wasn’t enough to keep me in journalism.

At least when you run your own business, people are honest with you about the quality of the work. There is no “I’ll get back to you” or “we just have a few edits.” Not if anyone wants to get paid. And if you’re unclear, screw you. Pitch someone else.

I can’t say I have more money than I would have otherwise if I had stayed the course of journalism. I have no idea. But I have no one to blame but myself if I don’t. And where I’m standing, that’s worth the trade-up.

Money still matters.

To be a journalist, like a real working journalist, it helps to have sponsors. Today that means patrons. But when you’re younger, that means having parents that will pay for things.

This isn’t to say that you need a rich family to be a successful journalist. It absolutely isn’t mandatory. But it helps. Especially if you’re going the academic route.

I’ve written before about my college experience, and how it was colored largely by the fact that I had to work through most of it. That’s fine. Lots of people work through college to take care of bills and life. But I felt like an imposter working to be a journalist when so much of my mindspace was taken up with: What can I do to make rent and not look nearly as insecure about it as I actually am to my roommates?

I worked really hard at my journalism internships and side gigs. I’m proud of a lot of the work I did at those gigs. But my need to work through college made me hungry and cynical. I wasn’t willing to intern for free forever. Nor was I willing to invest time and energy into jobs that wouldn’t pay me well. At least not for a while.

This made me extremely wary of the “pay your dues” attitude that many journalists possess when they’re first starting out. It’s a good thing! If you want to have the dream career of journalist, you have to work for a while in terribly paying positions to earn the bylines that eventually lead to better things. Because sometimes that one terrible boss is the one that will give you the reference of a lifetime.

Somehow, this essential journalist gene evaded me. If a job wasn’t working out, I would quit. Just like that. I wouldn’t stick it out indefinitely with a terrible boss because I didn’t have the mental energy. Same with assignments — if something wasn’t right for me, screw it. Life’s too short.

This is a terrible attribute for a journalist. But as it turns out, it’s a great attribute for an entrepreneur.

Brit McGinnis

Written by

Copywriter and CEO of Black Bow Communications. Author of several books. Host of the You’re Not Helping podcast. Tips and leads: @BritMcGinnis

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