The other day I was talking to my niece. She’s nine. She wanted to know what I did all day. I’m a journalist and I work freelance, which on a practical level means I spend an awful lot of time on Facebook (ok, Twitter too). There’s no inspiring story behind my career choice. With my honours degree in hand, I procrastinated past the deadlines to write the exams for both law school and graduate school. The only faculty still taking applications was journalism. And I only had one day left to apply. I got in.
Fast forward some two decades later and I’m still at it. Don’t get me wrong. It may have been a bit of a default choice but I thoroughly enjoy my work. But here’s the thing: I think I’m done — or at least every six months I think I’m done. It feels like a hamster wheel at times: running really hard only to stay in roughly the same place.
The glory days of journalism, when media outlets had money and journalists had regular opportunities to do good work, are long gone. Now the mantra is “do more with less” and at times it can be a challenge to make a living wage. All of that can feel like an adventure when you’re in your twenties, not so much in your forties.
These days it’s no longer mostly about reporting and storytelling, it’s about “content generation” — generate that content! Modify it! Repurpose it! Manage it! But discerning “consumers” are often left wondering what the point was. I’m not sitting around hating the internet, wondering when this fad is going to be over, but in a lot of ways the digital age has killed the journalism business. The new landscape favours immediacy; it’s all about what’s happening right this very second. It has led to a type of journalism that is narrow and has a short memory. Something that happened three days ago is already old.
And so I sometimes think it’s time for my retrospective: the journalist’s equivalent of an ageing actor’s soft-focus close-up, where I sift through my work, remember the good times, and shut the light as I close the door behind me.
And the future possibilities would be endless, right? I could open that used bookshop I’ve always wanted. I’ll have shelves and shelves of dusty volumes and quirky-funny customers will arrive day after day looking for something obscure and I’ll say things like, “It’s on the second shelf from the back of the store, three levels up from the bottom, with all the other ancient manuscripts.”
Or I could open that home-based jewellery business I’ve been thinking about. You know, the one for which I’ll be importing clunky rings and giant bracelets from ‘AfPak’ and I’ll set up stalls at all kinds of fun craft shows where quirky-funny customers will arrive day after day looking for something “exotic” or “old” and I’ll know just what they want and they’ll leave knowing they’ve never had a jewellery experience like that one and never will again.
Of course, there is the fact that I don’t really know anything about ancient manuscripts or jewellery. Or running a business. Plus, I have a feeling quirky-funny people are overrated. I also get the sense I’d never make a dime. I’m also pretty sure the hamster wheel exists in those businesses too.
And then just as my despondency peaks and I’m about to give up entirely, an email arrives — a response to a long-forgotten pitch. It’s a go. I log out of Facebook, (ok, Twitter too), and tap out an email of thanks to the editor. I guess I’ll stick with the journalism — for the next six months anyway.
— Naheed Mustafa is a freelance writer and broadcaster masquerading as a suburban wife and mother of three