I Have to Confess That as a Reporter I Never Really “Worked”

hatI see from this morning’s news that a former sportswriter is suing The Tampa Tribune for months of overtime pay that he contends he is owed. And, of course, I hope the guy wins.

It is commonplace for newspapers to ignore overtime laws. Indeed, it’s a tradition. Reporting isn’t a job; it’s a way of life. Why have the newspapers been allowed to get away with such blatant abuse for so many years? Because newspaper owners know we reporters love what we do. I suspect that if we didn’t have to eat we would be happy to do our thing without any pay at all.

I, too, was a reporter for The Tampa Tribune and I, too, put in a lot more time than I was paid for. But I am not complaining. I loved every minute of it. (Yes, even those endless hours at city commission meetings where the commissioners postured and preened while the clock ticked on, and on, and on…)

I “worked” for a lot of newspapers in my decades as a reporter and editor, and – all in all – it was a joy. Of course, reporting doesn’t leave much time for anything else. In the old days, I would stumble into the Toronto Men’s Press Club (women allowed by invitation only) when my shift at the Toronto Star ended at  2 a.m. and there would always be some guy asleep on the couch. No point in him going home, I guess, as his family would be asleep – if he still had one. Few marriages survived the reporting lifestyle back in those days.

I suppose you could say we got paid in adrenalin. We were where the action was, and it was fun.

“What a story,” we would exult as news of some dreadful catastrophe broke. To the people involved it was a horrible tragedy; to us it was a story – and we would be intoxicated by the adrenalin rush. Long ago, people talked about the “news game.” I wonder if they still do, but I doubt it.

Unless you’re Anderson Cooper or some other CNN hotshot, news gathering seems to have become a rather dreary business. From my perspective, it looks a lot like work.

But it was never work to me.

Thank God I didn’t have to spend all of my wage-earning life in a cubicle somewhere, shuffling papers and going to meetings (as I did for a few years when I needed more money than I could get from newspapering). That was easy money but it was work.

Work is doing what you don’t want to do, standing at an assembly line attaching widgets to thingamabobs, for example, or digging ditches, climbing into musty attics to repair air conditioners, shingling roofs under the baking sun… Or worse than all of that, selling life insurance or something else nobody wants to buy.

Those people should get paid for every minute they spend at work – with time and a half for overtime and double time on Sundays. And the government should have someone looking out for them to make sure they don’t get gypped.

newspaperAs for reporters? Well, we never were paid that much and we could certainly use a little extra. But I don’t begrudge the many, many unpaid hours I put in – soaked by a fire hose while the thermometer plunged below zero, thrown out of a crime scene (literally) by the scruff of my neck, called unprintable names by suspects during stakeouts, threatened and jostled, berated and hung up on …

It was all just a wonderful game. And then there was the heart-stopping experience of seeing my story in print – sometimes on Page One with a big, black byline – a mixture of triumph over getting the story and terror over the prospect of getting something wrong and having to write a correction.

If you’ve been there, you know. If you haven’t, you’ll never know.

As I muttered when I pocketed my first pay envelop at the Jamaica Daily Express back in 1951, “You mean I get paid, too?”

gwgraeme

I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for Jamaicans.com

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