The toughest question to answer for college journalists

It never fails.

Whenever I speak to a group of young journalists or communications students, I always receive a question or two that either stump me or touch me emotionally.

This past week, I had the pleasure of conducting a leadership forum for scholars of the Posse Foundation. The organization provides scholarships and support for up-and-coming leaders who, as they put it, “might have been overlooked by traditional college selection processes.” I spoke at the winter conference for Posse’s Atlanta chapter, spending nearly an hour with a few dozen students interested in communications as a whole.

I offered my advice for how to get ahead, answered important questions about how to network and build a strong portfolio, and had a genuinely interesting back-and-forth with a group of students who, I believe, will be quite successful in their chosen fields.

But, I found, the toughest questions they asked had nothing to do with how to “make it” or “get ahead”.

They dealt with how to balance one’s life in the process.

First, a student asked the following: “Since you work in such a stressful business, how do you still manage to have a life and not let work run your life?”

It’s a great question — and a difficult one to answer.

I can think of several points in my career where I definitely placed it ahead of other facets of my life. I moved, for my first job in television, to Sioux City, Iowa — population 80,000 — and spent my formative adult years working 50-60 hours a week as a one-man sports department.

While many of my friends chose to begin more lucrative career paths in bigger cities, and received much more social and cultural exposure in the process, I set off on a far more isolated journey. Pre-Facebook, pre-social media, I suddenly found myself disconnected from the relationships I had built through high school and college. While I enjoyed my experience in Iowa and built some great friendships in the process, I definitely felt the more-than-occasional feeling of, “What have I gotten myself into?” Not with Sioux City, but with journalism.

At the time, of course, I responded by doubling down. I threw myself even more feverishly into my work and found ways to challenge and expand my skills. I traveled on weekends for stories; I produced features while shooting, editing, writing, and anchoring two shows a night; I even wrote code for the station’s web site so that I could write for print as well as broadcast.

Eventually, it all paid off.

Those skills helped me at next job, which led me to my next one, which ultimately brought me to a terrific station in a wonderful city.

But as I move into my thirties, I often think about what I sacrificed in my twenties. I also realize that many young journalists never get to take those next big career steps.

And even today, I struggle to balance the stresses of work with the myriad of amazing opportunities that come with the privilege of life.

So I struggle to give a rosy-cheeked answer when asked about that balance. I never sugarcoat the challenges and steep odds that come with the business; I give as realistic a picture as I can, and I stress the need to be passionate about journalism if someone wants to build a satisfying career of it.

That was what I told the Posse students. And when another student asked a similar question about college — “How do you choose between the things you need to do for your career and the things you want to do to have fun and be happy?” — I answered that she needs to do both.

College, after all, is a truly exceptional time. For all the tuition fees and social pressures, college is the one time in a person’s life where they are exposed to seemingly innumerable options. Students can take classes from a wide range of subjects and learn from an industry’s brightest minds; they can take part in extra-curricular activities that are far less available and convenient in the adult world; they can also grow and learn from hundreds, if not thousands, of their peers.

With all that in mind, college is not the time to limit oneself.

Especially if you want to be a journalist.

Any communications job will make towering demands on a person’s time and energy. I absolutely believe in the importance of putting full effort into one’s job and going beyond the call to do it well.

But I also believe in the importance of a life well lived and never regretted. Aspiring journalists — and current journalists — need to actively and constantly monitor where they stand on that balance.

FOR MORE LESSONS LEARNED: 5 lessons from the NPPA’s best video stories of 2012
FOR MORE COLLEGE-DIRECTED WISDOM: What I learned (and didn’t learn) at J-school

Matt Pearl is the author of the Telling the Story blog and podcast. Feel free to comment below or e-mail Matt at

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