Why in the hell am I going to journalism school?
I haven’t gotten that question directly, but friends and acquaintances have given me the narrowed eyes and cautious congratulations that provide the same message. People seem less surprised that I’m moving to Canada than what I’m moving there for. After all, I work in tech, the paragon of growing and productive industries. And as a developer! One of the best sources of compensation that my generation can hope to attain, both in stability and monetary value. Our careers are paved with gold. KIND bars and soda cans flow freely in Wonka-esque rivers throughout our offices. We are the landed gentry of the digital age, the masses living and paying taxes on our virtual acres. Who would want to give that up? And for journalism? Really?
Yes, really. And since I needed to enunciate my reasoning for my grad school applications anyway, I might as well make my case publicly.
The Soulless Machine
Technology does not care about you. It can’t. Even the most robust and advanced AI of our day doesn’t have a conscience. People are developing programs to have some familiarity with ethics and morals, but that’s a feature-add layered with circumstantial complexity and reflecting a particular set of biases and priorities. Besides, code that lacks ethics isn’t technically broken. Software is, by default, sociopathic.
What depresses me, what’s helping to push me away from the industry entirely, is how people don’t seem to care about that fact. Certainly not enough to change their behavior. Incorporating accessibility—something built into HTML and all web browsers—into modern front-end frameworks is a battle that’s not always won, and even when it is the result is infrequently applied. We call people stupid when they don’t use software the way we want them to, rather than try and understand why. Finding real, meaningful empathy for users is rare, as though users aren’t the entire reason that software exists in the first place.
And if many tech companies are bad at empathy for their users, they can be worse for the rest of society. Companies like Uber, AirBnB, and so forth flagrantly break laws. Facebook and other social sites disavow their deep influence on the social conversation and offer only meek responses when the effect is laid out in front of them. These are massive companies that seem to largely abdicate their civic responsibility, and outside of a few extremely valuable commentators, hardly a peep gets made about it. Some of it is even celebrated. It’s starting to reach a point where I find it morally difficult to stay involved in the industry.
Words, Words, Words
I’m a writer. I have been for as long as I’ve been trying to deny the fact for pragmatic career reasons. Admittedly, much of what I’ve written is fiction. A short story here, a novel there. But it’s not as though I’m blind to facts. Real facts. And newspaper articles are called “stories” for a reason: the most compelling journalism is narrative, following characters through an arc of events, just like any good fiction does. Most stories in the real world aren’t Tolkien-style epics, but luckily I’m not good at writing those anyway. I already write low-key, real-life fiction, with a variable degree of roman à clef. I just have to go the rest of the way into reality and, bam, articles.
But wouldn’t a journalism career cannibalize my personal writing, the same way that a programming career cannibalized my personal coding? It’s possible. But I feel like software at work and software at home are far more similar than articles at work and novels at home. The style would be different, the approach would be different, only the format of the output would be the same. Besides, not like I’d be the first journalist to write novels. (Not even the first to write a novel with talking animals. Stupid Orwell.)
Indeed, one of my shortcomings as a novelist is that I don’t have many experiences to pull from. I can only imagine how much better my writing would get if I spent my days diving deep into esoteric topics, or traveling the world, or embedding myself in strangers’ lives. It may be a slightly selfish motive, but if I can find a position to enrich myself through my career, that seems like a good reason to try. Hopefully, as I’m enriching myself, I’d be enriching lots of other people as well. Otherwise, it’s all just words.
The Odd One Out
From what I understand, most journalists don’t have a background in software engineering. When you’re trained to be a programmer, you tend to go be a programmer—which, hey, I did. No judgment there. But I know going into this that I have a different background than most people in the overall journalism world. That might be a liability, for all I know. Maybe my career has imbued me with a perspective and thought process that just isn’t helpful for a journalist to have.
Or, perhaps it’s the right one. Maybe the world needs more journalists who’ve gone through the technology trenches, cushy as they are, in order to speak better to our modern digitally-encrusted world. Maybe there need to be more journalists with fall-back plans, who can afford to give fewer fucks about coddling for their job’s sake. Maybe the system-focused worldview of programming is just what I need to analyze and dissect current events. I’d likely find myself feeling out of place among my peers, but that’s hardly anything new.
Also, let’s be honest. I’m a queer trans woman. There’s a decent percentage of the population that hates me simply for what I am. Throw in hobbies, ideologies, and various privileges—furry, liberal, well-educated, and so on—and I gather a fair bit more ire by virtue of being myself. So when I see data saying that journalists are only trusted or seen positively by around 28% of the population, I think: hell, how many people would trust me as I am right now? I can’t imagine it’s a great deal more. (Oddly, I can’t find trust data for programmers; with how much impact we can have in modern society you’d think at least pollsters would be curious.) So I don’t have a reason to care about the low approval rating. If people are going to dislike and distrust me anyway, it might as well be for doing something that’s at least potentially beneficial.
Naturally, the tone I used on the actual cover letters is a tiny bit different. Something a little more professional and subdued, with a flash of narrative. Those are more of an introduction and an argument than this rant. But they’re not the only ones curious why I’m doing what I’m doing. To a degree, I’m curious.
It’s hard to blame people who know me for being skeptical. I’m hardly an archetypical journalist. I just know that this idea makes sense to me, and it’s been a little while since something really made sense the way this does. It may be a crazy idea, but those are the ones that make things happen. And I have to make things happen.