There were two things I loved about working in broadcast news. The deadlines were absolute, perfect for a procrastinator like me. If your story was not shot and edited by the 6 o’clock newscast, that was it, you were not going to be on air. Just like a train with doors that close no matter how fast you run for it, the show would go on, with or without you.
The other beauty of working for a nightly newscast was that at 7 p.m. or 11:30 p.m., whenever that show was over, it was a wrap. The studio lights turned off, the crew locked up for the night, and we all went home to rest and relax and wait for the next day to see what news would break.
This was back in the 1980s and 1990s, now the olden golden days of news, when I worked as a nightly news reporter, and boy, have things changed since then. Now you can’t turn off or shut off anything; there is no such thing as a daily news cycle. It is by the hour, by the minute, 24/7, and the news of the world is an incessant noise in our daily lives with no respite.
With only four years until the last baby goes off to college, I have thought about life after Suburban Momhood and have thought about trying to jump back into the television news business. But I may as well be a 1960s Plymouth sedan trying to nudge my way on the racetrack with sleek, well-groomed and speedy Maseratis, because everything has changed about the news business and not all for the better.
Back in the day the old-timers used to grumble about the changing technologies that would put them out of business, the digital revolution that was making videotape obsolete. The hard-core newsies would bemoan the encroachment of entertainment on news, and everyone knew that if it bled, it led, and pets, tots and a four-letter word for the mammary glands would ensure an enrapt audience. Today, it’s often difficult to discern what is news and what is entertainment — it is infotainment and the proliferation of reality shows means that the lines are even more fuzzy.
There is still some quality programming. It may look heavy and dated, but the content is there. Bill, for example, loves to sit down to a recorded version of the PBS Newshour, and just the other night, the kids were laughing at him: Dad, NOBODY watches the PBS News. They’re right. In the ratings game, they are hardly at the top of the list, so the private funding is critical to its mission.
I shared my thoughts about jumping back in the game with a cameraman I met at a recent trade show in New York. He was a freelancer working that day for MSNBC. Today’s most sought-after photographers tend to be freelance, and they can make a pretty penny selling their talents to all of the networks for shows like Dateline, Nightline, the Today Show and so on. My age and a fellow-Korean-American, he felt compelled to give me the honest scoop. In a word, lady, don’t do it, he said.
He told me that those in the television news business these days mockingly call it the big 24-24-24. That is, those in the industry tend to be 24 years old, working for $24,000 a year, and willing to work 24 hours a day. Ugh.
The New York Times recognized this trend with an article about today’s 20-somethings that exposed the rise of the 22-22-22 – 22-year-olds willing to work 22 hours a day for $22,000 a year. Since I have a 22-year-old myself, this article captured my interest instantly. The article cited a Labor Department report that revealed that in the last quarter of 2012, workers aged 20 to 24 made an average of just over $24,000 a year. On the surface, that might not look so bad. But that’s less than half of one year’s tuition for a private college these days, and when you factor in how many hours a day they are working, on an hourly basis, the pay does not cut the mustard or make a dent in the rent.
There are some companies, such as start-ups, that genuinely don’t have the money to pay a decent salary. But the article also suggested that there are other companies that are taking advantage of the slow economy, high unemployment rate, and the youthful energy of young workers eager to gain experience, even if it means going back to live under mom and dad’s roof or getting a parental subsidy.
Paying your dues is a concept that crosses generational lines, but so does the concept of standing up for yourself and not letting others take advantage of you. It’s a hard balance because the reality is that today’s job market is tough no matter what age you are, and sometimes the experience and references stemming from a low-paying job or non-paying internship is worth the trade-off.
The bottom line is that today’s young people are looking at a work environment that is vastly different from the one I entered as a college graduate in the ’80s. I feel sorry for them in a lot of ways. They have to learn skills that we never had to think about: how to figure out when to shut out E-mail and voicemail and text messages, and stand up to the boss. They need the courage to say, pay me what I’m worth and my time is my time unless you want to pay me for it.
Now more than ever, we as parents have to teach our children not only the talents that will make them productive members of the workforce, but give them the personal skills of negotiation, time management, self-assertion, and self-preservation. These are the skills of their future and our current reality.