Gustavson Column: Can’t convince me I had the worst job ever

An outfit named CareerCast recently released a list of the “worst jobs” for 2013. To earn a spot on the list, a job had to feature “low pay, high stress, challenging work requirements and a poor employment outlook.”

The top 10 list included such jobs as lumberjack, enlisted military personnel, oil rig worker, dairy farmer and meter reader. And can you guess the very worst job of all? Newspaper reporter. Yes, newspaper reporter.

To borrow a phrase from comedian Steve Martin: E-x-c-u-s-e me!

[Click here to read the complete list from CareerCast]

Having been in and around the newspaper business for some 50 years now, I would agree that the job of reporter is challenging and often unappreciated and under-compensated, but the very worst job? Verily, I must demur.

Just off the top of my head I can think of plenty of worse jobs — like garbage collector or tunnel attendant or president of the United States. And I also suppose it’s now up to me to defend the newspaper industry and the job that is its most fundamental building block: reporter.

Here’s the basic challenge: Attend a three-hour Zoning Board of Appeals meeting at which dozens of applications are debated, taking notes while trying to stay awake. Stop at 7-Eleven for a 16-ounce cup of java on the way back to the office. Sit down at your computer, sift through what’s important and what’s not and, in the space of an hour or so, transform those notes into a compelling, informative and succinct 500-word story, posting it to the newspaper’s website before bedtime.

That requires a skill set, I would argue, that 99.9 percent of the population does not possess. Nor do about three-quarters of the candidates who walk into a newspaper office thinking they can do that job. It requires raw intelligence, astute powers of observation and organization and, of course, writing ability. Again, it’s something very few people can do at all, let alone do well.

I would also argue that it’s very important work. Whether it’s exposing the Watergate scandal or trying to make sense of a pending school budget vote, the work newspaper reporters do is fundamental to our essence as a nation. And if someday, as some naysayers suggest, there’s no such thing as a newspaper, as we presently know it, then reporters will be doing this vital work via platforms beyond our imagination.

Back when I was working as a newspaper reporter, I do remember thinking from time to time that I was under-appreciated and underpaid. (How does a starting salary of $112.50 a week in 1969 translate into 2013 dollars?) But never did I consider the work trivial or unimportant. Each day (for I worked on a daily newspaper back then) I could look at the work product with a sense of accomplishment and pride — and a sincere belief that it made a difference.

That was back in the days of hot lead and manual typewriters, but little about the fundamentals of the job has changed in the ensuing five decades. And as long as that holds true — no matter how hard the work, no matter how the pay scale compares to other industries — being a newspaper reporter will remain one of the best, not one of the worst, jobs.