From Journalist to Sociologist: Some Reflections

I never, ever wanted to be a journalist. But when an editor of a niche entertainment magazine about to go monthly came knocking at my door about a year and a half after receiving my bachelor’s degree, I was in no financial position to refuse. My newfound writing job put me on the periphery of the cultural industries in the United States, writing primarily about the then burgeoning sector of book publishing which was translating Japanese comics (called ‘manga’) for English-language release. It was, all things considered, a good fit with my undergraduate study in English literature and East Asian area studies, and in the past five years since I have begun freelancing, one lucky break has led to other opportunities, and I have written over a thousands magazine features, news articles, reviews, and more.

Although the pay was terrible and impossible to live on, this work was accompanied by one unexpected perk: I got a front-row seat at one of the most amazing spectacles of transnational cultural flow (from Japan to the United States and then onto the rest of the English-speaking world) in recent historical memory. The phenomenon captivated me, baffled me, and eventually brought me back to the academy in search of answers, first at New York University for a master’s degree, and then across the Atlantic to begin a PhD course in the Department of Sociology in the University of Cambridge. My doctoral research topic is manga publishing and the transnational production of print culture.

Relatively few people, I would presume, have written extensively on the same topics from the perspectives of both journalist and sociologist, and Sociological Imagination has asked me to share some of the insights gleaned from this experience. First of all, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that my experience as a journalist has made me a better academic professional. Unfortunately, this is by no means a popular view. It is common practice to denigrate journalism and journalists in the academy—to say that a piece of scholarship is ‘too journalistic’, for example, is to render a grave insult. Yet behind this insult, I believe, are strong feelings of jealousy toward journalists, for journalists are extremely good at two important things with which many career academics struggle with daily: 1) Journalists know how to communicate ideas to large and diverse publics, and 2) they know how to crank out publishable pieces of writing at speed.

An extremely productive sociologist might succeed in publishing between two to four solo-authored journal articles per year. A full-time journalist barely scrapes by with many more times than that volume of prose each and every month. As a freelancer, I was never doing even a fraction of that, but I estimate that during my busiest year, when I was also a full time student at NYU, I succeeded in publishing approximately 150,000 words and wrote significantly more than that. One learns, by living this sort of life, that writing is ordinary routinized labour, and figuring out how to survive—even thrive—in that daily grind, with its non-stop conveyor belt of looming deadlines, will make one the envy of the academic world.

Well then, one might ask, is the inverse also true? Does experience as a sociologist make one a better journalist? Unfortunately, I do not think that the answer to that question is a particularly strong affirmative, and the epistemological orientation making a successful sociologist does not necessarily translate into success as a journalist. Hands down the most important distinction in my experience is that journalists simply do not relate to knowledge in the same way that sociologists do. The thrust of a positivist research agenda is to seek empirical evidence to be generalized as much as possible across time and geographic space; as such, sociologists seek to describe and analyze broad social formations, structures, and forces. Journalists, on the other hand, are fixated on the immediate, the novel, and the event. In their eyes, the patterns of history and society take a backseat to the simple question, ‘What’s happening right now?’

Furthermore, there are practical as well as philosophical considerations: I cannot in good conscience recommend that professional sociologists further contribute to the casualization of journalistic labour. In the five years that I have been writing freelance, I have watched my average per word pay rate drop like a stone by over two-thirds, and journalists in every sector of the industry are under constant, accelerating pressure to write more for less money. In fact, it’s to the point now where journalism is becoming a life stage for twenty-somethings like myself who, after finishing their bachelor’s degree, do it for a few years…until the pitiable salaries become intolerable. Many, again including myself, never make enough to live on and can only write insofar as they have income via other means, e.g. a different full-time job, support of a spouse or parents, or independent wealth. Salaried researchers who do a bit of journalism on the side are ultimately complicit in the erosion of a professional field.

Naturally, an army of inexperienced and disempowered journalists does not foster a particularly vibrant fourth estate. I would argue, therefore, that any assault upon professional standards is against the public interest, and it would be immoral for concerned sociologists to collectively take up professional journalism. Of course, sometimes it is impossible in practice to stake out the high ground, particularly if you need extra funds just to get by, but those fortunate enough to have a choice to make need to be realistic: Any contribution to the public good you make is likely to be modest at best, and the potential to do good for others must be carefully weighed against the certain long-term harm it will do to working journalistic professionals and the health of their profession.

It does not follow, however, that sociologists ought to abandon the world of journalism entirely. Quite the contrary; sociologists should be actively engaged with journalists and the journalistic field. Work to make yourself known—and known for something. Become familiar with those who write about topics related to what you do and where they publish. Get yourself on their proverbial Rolodexes and make yourself available as a reliable expert resource, a source of knowledge on call—or, even better yet, quotes. If your research has produced findings which you believe to be relevant to a wider audience, you might choose to write and distribute your own press release. Becoming a resource in the work of article and news creation makes the job of the journalist easier, and as someone who knows firsthand how stressful that can be, this is what I believe we as sociologists must do: make their job easier, not take it away from them.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge.

Categories: Research Profiles

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3 replies »

  1. Hi Casey,
    I am a student of journalism at the University of Cincinnati, OH and I used your article as reference on a sociology term paper on journalism in relation to sociology. Although it has proven drudgery via a horrible teacher and a Full-Time workload alongside a 4.0 GPA, your article proved very insightful and lightened my mood a bit.


    – Emily

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