Column: The Best Worst Job of All

Journalists face stress, don't get rich – but it's work we love
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

This week, a company called “” ranked more than 1,000 American jobs, and determined that the worst job in America isn’t garbage collector, dog cage cleaner or Lindsay Lohan sobriety tester – but journalist.

Yes! Score! Booyah!

They based their rankings on four criteria: the workplace environment, the industry’s future, average income, and stress.

Okay, it’s true: newsrooms usually aren’t pretty places, and the future isn’t any prettier for newspapers. You can make more money doing a lot of other things – and, yes, the stress is very real. The hours are long and late, and many of our customers think they can do our jobs better than we can. They’re often nice enough to take the time to tell us that – even if they’re complaining about a different news outlet that screwed up and somehow we’re responsible. Hey, at least they care.

Journalists themselves reacted to this ranking with all the calm, cool, collected professionalism of Geraldo Rivera and Nancy Grace. But here’s why: newsrooms aren’t for everybody, but we like them – the hustle and bustle and energy and urgency. We like the stress, too – no matter how much we complain about it – because it comes with doing work we believe actually matters.

We get to go right to the action and meet fascinating people, then tell their stories – and ours, too.

Kurt Vonnegut said, “Any scientist who can’t explain to an eight-year-old what he is doing is a charlatan.” But I think that applies to all of us.  For farmers, doctors and teachers, explaining what they do to an eight-year old is pretty easy.  Journalism isn’t as important as those jobs, in my opinion, but our answer would be just as simple: “We tell stories.”

As for the future, it’s true, newspapers are committing a slow suicide, and that’s hard to watch. But my college students read more stories on the internet every day than we ever used to read in newspapers. We just haven’t figured out how to make money from the internet, where everybody expects to get everything for free. But we will. We’re Americans. Figuring out how to make popular things pay is what we do best.

True, the salaries aren’t great, especially when you’re starting out. But everybody I know is doing much better than the average salary the survey cited, and if you stick with it, you can actually make a pretty good living in this business – certainly a lot better than the experts told me I would.

But that’s beside the point. I’ve been to too many funerals, but I’ve noticed that at every single one of them, no one mentioned how much money the guy made. If you think that’s how the quality of your life will be measured, you are headed for a very rude awakening – perhaps after you’re gone.

I don’t know a single soul who got into journalism for the money. And if they did – well, like Rick in Casablanca, “They were misinformed.”

It doesn’t bother me that many adults might agree with the job ranking. But it does bother me that 20-year-olds might think it’s true – and miss out on something immensely satisfying. Journalists, like teachers, preachers and nurses, to name just a few, love what we do for reasons the survey never considered.

These rankings are based on the assumption that work is nothing more a necessary evil, so our goal should be to minimize the pain while maximizing the gain. By this cynical formula, if you can limit your headaches while expanding your haul, you win.

That you might actually be passionate about what you do – or even that you should be – is not part of this equation. But the vast majority of journalists I’ve worked with are extraordinarily passionate about their mission – far more than the corporate suits that closed too many of their newspapers, instead of selling them to investors who wanted to keep them alive.

I caught the writing bug my junior year in college. The same semester my teacher asked me if I wanted to go to a party, and I said sure – not realizing the party was for the entire English department. After I embarrassed myself thoroughly – wearing a flannel shirt and jeans among turtlenecks and bow ties, for starters – I sought out the guest of honor, a distinguished writer named Al Young, to apologize for my ignorance. He accepted my contrition with grace and good humor, so I decided to press my luck: “Do you have any advice for a would-be writer?”

Mr. Young put his arm around me, and raised an index finger. “Only this,” he said. “Don’t want to write. Need to write.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

He smiled and said, “You think about that, son.”

I thought about that during my last two years of college, and my first three years out in the “real world,” until I finally got it: If you can’t shake the writing bug, you might as well surrender and try to make a living doing it.

So, I turned down law school to do this – one of the best decisions of my life. Most of my colleagues turned down similar opportunities to pursue something we consider not a career, but a calling. If you’re lucky enough to find something you love doing that much, you’d be a fool to trade it in for a job. (And if you think the higher-ranking jobs on this list will be magically protected, you haven’t been paying attention. At the end of the day, the only security we have is our own ability.)

When you spend your life doing something you love, you’re probably going to do it better, and with better people. The University of Michigan’s late professor Christopher Peterson discovered that the biggest factor in job satisfaction is not pay or prestige, but having one great friend at work. In this business, I’ve already made dozens of great friends, people I admire and respect immensely – and I’m still making them.

Another bonus: I am never bored. Let me repeat that: I AM NEVER BORED. Ever. I don’t need more vacation, just more hours in the day.

When you’re facing most decisions, analysis and feedback are crucial. But in the two most important decisions of your life — your work, and your partner – the heart has reasons of which the mind knows nothing.

When it comes to love and work, Freud said, you must follow your heart, and not your head.

Find work you love, and forget the rest – including moronic rankings in business magazines. Because if you apply their priorities to this vital decision, you might find yourself in a joyless job compiling moronic rankings in business magazines.

And that would be a terrible waste.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” – both national bestsellers. His upcoming book, “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2013. You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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  1. By Dan Meisler
    April 26, 2013 at 10:38 am | permalink

    Nice piece Mr. Bacon. I agree that one should not let magazine rankings dictate one’s profession (much less stifle one’s passion). However, one should have clear eyes when choosing a field that does not, at the moment at least, have the ability to sustain a significant percentage of its practitioners over a full career. There are hordes of former journalists around Michigan and the country (I am one) who can attest to the lack of space in the field for mid-career people loaded down with inconvenient encumbrances like a house and family (that is to say, we cannot afford to follow our passion if we want to pay our bills). I think that is the truth the magazine ranking is reflecting, regardless of the rather silly question of whether hauling garbage can in any way be said to be a “better” job than newspaper reporting.

  2. By bob elton
    April 28, 2013 at 11:33 am | permalink

    This is some of the best career advice I’ve ever read, and not just for journalists.

    I’ve worked for years in a business that’s full of people who started because the pay was good, and the security great. But when that went away, it left a lot of people whose passion was elsewhere in jobs filled with long dreary days and lots of pressure. I consider myself fortunate that I get to work in a job that’s also a passion, and that there are still people in the business who share that passion.


  3. May 7, 2013 at 6:20 am | permalink

    I’d add to Dan’s remarks a consideration that, given the high and ever-rising cost of a college degree, likely earnings of the first ten years in any field requiring such a degree have to be a consideration to a young person considering that field.