A Sense of Mission

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Guest commentary from Muse Editor Kerri Breen

Several recent posts of mine (here, here and here, for starters) have focused on the migration of journalists to the public relations field. While there are several issues at play, it boils down to one key point: PR pays much better than journalism.

Kerri Breen, one of the regular readers of this blog, recently described the discussion as "interesting but depressing."

A native of St. John's, Breen is a fourth year sociology major, with a minor in English. She is Editor-in Chief of The Muse (Memorial's student newspaper), a regular columnist with the Scope, and Arts Bureau Chief of Canadian University Press (CUP).

In a nutshell, Breen is already one of the leaders in the next generation of journalists. I asked her to write a guest commentary for this blog, and invited her to bring some balance to the discussion, by reminding readers why people enter journalism in the first place.

Here is Kerri Breen's guest commentary:

Journalists don't merely write, photograph, or broadcast the news, they humanize it.

The most satisfying part of reporting is injecting whatever is happening with the personalities of the people making it happen and those affected by it. When you emphasize that element it's easier to see - despite the long, erratic hours and low pay - why journalism is an attractive career choice for those with the energy.

I got into journalism because it satisfied my nosiness and my passion for people. It feels good to hold public figures accountable, to let the unique character of an entertainer shine, and to give frustrated people an opportunity to vent.

No other occupation provides more feedback. Every edited word is a lesson, and every reasonable letter to the editor an opportunity to question your approach. With the public as your real boss - or at least your immediate supervisor - you can count on near instant notification if you're being an idiot. If you're tough enough, it's refreshing.

The fact that journalism doesn't limit you to a desk is definitely a plus as well. Interviews have definitely taken me to places I wouldn't normally go - from local wrestling shows to the offices of University administrators.

And it's not all about injustice and major political events. Journalism also provides more than enough opportunity to have fun. One of my favourite stories I've written was about a kid from MUN who was mysteriously making really abrasive electronic music on Myspace under Karl Wells' identity. He agreed to speak with me anonymously.

Accountants manage money, scientists play with chemicals, but journalists deal directly with the grittiness of life, the richness of experience, the issues and those who deal with them. Despite its disadvantages when compared to work in public relations, I can't see myself being anything else but a journalist.

I followed this up with a brief note, asking Breen if she and the journalists of her generation still feel a sense of "mission" about their work. Has she experienced the thrill of breaking a story, one that gets people talking and possibly even effects change at some level? I also asked her what media organizations should do to stem the slow bleeding of journalists to public relations. Here is her reply:

I definitely do feel a sense of mission as a journalist. Like, especially in terms of getting marginalized voices out there and holding institutions and leaders accountable. I'm interested in demonstrating that leaders (mostly I deal with the students' union) are only human too, so it's not just a one sided thing. Hopefully that shows through.

I'm also passionate about fresh, critical arts reporting that can stand up to other types of stories. I've dug up some good hard news in the arts too - I did a story last year about a young band show promoter who had to move away to Alberta because he had driven himself into debt doing what he loved. Not much has been written about outmigration as it pertains to people who work in the arts, though it's a huge issue and it's definitely something I plan on pursuing again.

I've also been highly critical of advertorializing in entertainment writing and the shameless regurgitation of press releases that some publications like to call their arts pages. One time in a column I called out the Current for selling its front page. That's the sort of thing I'm interested in.

I broke a story in a saucy editorial last year. Molson was engaged in a lame Facebook-based contest for university students to upload their drunken pictures for a chance to win the title of biggest party school in Canada and a trip to Cancun or something. Zach Goudie interviewed me on Here and Now that week. A student paper from Ottawa interviewed me too. The National Post called for an interview too but I wasn't around. There was some other resistance to the contest too, and by the end of the week Molson had decided to discontinue it. That was pretty cool. I think it was the second editorial I'd ever written. I had no idea anything would come of it at all.

I do think journalists still have a sense of mission. The fact that there are so many journalists despite the pressure and the working conditions has to mean something.

Media organizations should recognize that the success of their product depends on having the right people behind it. When your best reporter has to skip out to write copy for shampoo bottles because she's trying to pay off her student loan, your product has suffered and the readership will acknowledge this. It's good long-term business sense to pay reporters reasonable wages and good benefits.

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