A version of this article was originally published on VICE France.
Journalism school should come with a warning label: “Beware: may be hazardous to your health.” When I posted a call-out on Twitter asking to hear from people who had left the profession, I didn’t expect the deluge of around 100 messages that flowed into my inbox, or the reasons some of them gave.
It’s no wonder a recent French study found that people in their thirties are turning their backs on the precarious career. So many enter the industry with noble ambitions of breaking world-changing stories, and leave once the realisation has set in that their every day just revolves around clicks, content and Chartbeat.
I spoke to several ex-journalists in France about why they left the field, and how they’ve found happiness in new careers.
Justin Daniel Freeman – from a newspaper to the butcher’s
After completing his training at Le Télégramme daily newspaper in Brittany, Justin spent about four years doing temp work for regional papers in the region. His girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and Justin said he was exhausted, overworked and sick of constantly changing workplaces. He ultimately found another temporary post at a newspaper in western France, where they offered him a permanent position after a few months.
The fatigue caused him to unravel. “I started to wonder what the hell I was doing, always sleeping with a phone under my pillow, just in case I had to wake up at 3AM to write about a car that had crashed in a field.” Then, tragedy struck when he lost a child and was forced to reconsider everything in his life. “In journalism, you have to give yourself over entirely to your work,” he said, of a job that often requires working weekends and holidays. “You can’t take time to enjoy your loved ones, and you don’t have any time to yourself. You truly have to give up your life.”
The fact is that journalism remains a competitive field, with lots of people competing for fewer and fewer jobs. “There are so many people so eager to get in that your managers know they can do anything they want to you,” said Justin. “You practically have to thank them for it, just to keep getting paid.” He weighed the pros and cons, concluding that the job wasn’t worth all the sacrifice.
After considering the usual jobs ex-journalists tend to gravitate toward – communications, academia – Justin ended up finding something that appealed to him much more: working in a butcher shop. Having recently completed his training, Justin said he loves his new daily routine, even if the adjustment hasn’t been easy: “It’s a totally different world. It’s hard to be 30 years old, watching 18-year-old kids who are already twice as good at this as you are.”
Right now, he’s on the hunt for a job in his new line of work.
Dominique* – from editor-in-chief to teacher
For years, Dominique was the editor-in-chief for a popular TV news show. Despite having ascended to a revered position, he decided to ditch the field. “I was asking outrageous things of my employees: to keep impossible hours and basically work themselves to death,” he recalls. “I felt as if I had no choice because of the pressure that was put on me.”
Dominique feels guilty for taking advantage of young journalists under his command. “When we were dealing with temp workers, we squeezed them like lemons. It was just the way things were. We knew they’d never say no, and we took advantage of it.” And yet, many of those workers would stick it out for years, hoping to land a stable job.
He’s certain he contributed to many young journalists’ decision to leave the field. Whether it was his yelling, putting employees under immense pressure or demanding unsustainable hours, Dominique claims he only did what his superiors asked of him. He also recalled going through it himself as a young journalist.
“But more and more, I came to realise there was just no reason to justify what we were doing,” he said. “I was making people drive huge distances just to give me a weather report. That’s not journalism.”
Then, Dominique lost his mother, who he’d been very close to before his demanding work hours drove them apart. He fell into a depression, though he kept on going to work.
Seeing a TV show about the upcoming back-to-school season made him think seriously of becoming a teacher: “That was when I had a sort of epiphany. I’d never been able to have kids with my job, and I wanted more meaning in my daily life.” As an external candidate, he prepared to take the National Education exam, then passed it on his first try.
Now, Dominique has been teaching near Paris for a year, and although he’s on a third of his former salary, he says he wouldn’t give it up for anything.
Lucie* – from freelance web journalism to freelance communications
For Lucie, talking about leaving journalism is still hard. Just a few months ago, she decided to pull the plug on her dream career. “At first I could see myself lasting at least until I was 40. But then I ended up burning out this year, at 25,” she said, blaming the time and financial pressures of the job. “I always got paid so late for freelance gigs – I couldn’t imagine taking on more work without dying of stress.”
Due to the subject matter of some of her articles, Lucie was regularly targeted on social media. But her issues with the profession went beyond that: “It was the constant pressure to always be writing faster, better, more original content. It was the roller coaster between the excitement of publishing a cool article, then three straight days copying pieces from American media.”
Lucie did eventually get full-time work at a news website, but found the atmosphere toxic. She described her colleagues being harassed by their editors-in-chief for their personality, their work style or a misplaced comma. “People would scream at me for no reason in front of everybody,” she said, adding that other journalists were leaving in droves.
“One day, I realised I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t know any journalists who were happy.”
“My moment of truth came at my annual review. I’d asked for a raise of €250 per month, figuring I’d get half. Instead, my boss laughed in my face. My other boss told me if I wanted to change companies or professions, I should feel free.” Lucie began to suffer anxiety attacks at the office. One Monday, she couldn’t get out of bed and made the decision to quit. “I realised I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t know any journalists who were happy.”
After months of therapy and starting anti-anxiety medication, Lucie has started a new career in freelance communications. “It’s a real relief to have quit the field. Now I finally feel valued in my work. Not to mention, I’m decently paid.”
Sonia – from TV journalist to copywriter
For five-and-a-half years, Sonia was harassed and discriminated at a big-time French TV programme for her Arab background. Inappropriate nicknames and remarks, regular references to Ramadan and not eating pork were common. “The instant anyone saw an Arab with a hint of a beard, the editorial team called him a ‘jihadist’,” she says. “And they would say I knew what they were talking about.”
Whenever she got an exclusive, Sonia was told it was only because she’d flirted with people: “I was always getting comments on my outfits, my breasts and butt. As soon as I arrived in the editorial team, people started saying a footballer must have bought me my clothes. Basically, if you’re a woman with Moroccan roots, you get called an escort.”
At one point, Sonia’s editor-in-chief even suggested she sleep with a colleague who thought she was “hot”. Little by little, she began keeping her distance from the other editors because she felt she probably responded too angrily, only fuelling the fire. “I never joined the staff meet-ups outside of work, and afterwards people would say to me, ‘How come you never come?’ I ended up being labelled the antisocial one.”
Sonia finally snapped, leaving the profession after years of hard work. When she applied for other jobs, she was often told she was overqualified. A new media outlet offered her some freelance assignments, but for astonishingly low pay. She managed to do a few gigs, but in the meantime she had lost her press certification and wound up unable to keep working. Someone suggested to Sonia that she could work as an unpaid consultant instead; for her, that was the last straw.
Changing industries was a tough decision, but when Sonia looks back on her old career, she muses, “There are so few job opportunities – no one wants to pay salaried workers. So you end up with lots of internships. And new graduates are willing to accept horrifying conditions.” Rather than struggle on in a profession that didn’t seem to want her, Sonia decided to become a freelance copywriter instead. She says she hasn’t regretted it yet.
*Name changed to protect their identity