Monday, May 16, 2011

Taking stock

Can't sleep. Might as well blog.

I've been doing a lot of thinking during the past few weeks, not much of which would be suitable for posting. I turned 30 on May 2, reaching the age when one wonders, "Gee, maybe I should think about growing up a bit." Thirty isn't old by any means, but I do think it's time to make a more thorough examination of my life and where I want it to go in the near future.

This is a warning to you, gentle reader. What follows beyond the jump is a torrent of inner thoughts about me, likely more so than you would ever care to read. If that is the case, or if such navel-gazing is not your particular brand of vodka, then help yourself to as much food as you like and there's no hard feelings. Otherwise, read on.

Even before I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to work in newspapers. It appealed to my individual makeup -- it combined two of the things I enjoyed most (writing and sports), and needing to know a little about a lot (as generalists do) played to my eclectic interests. I certainly haven't hit the big time or made good money in any way, but I do think I've carved out a decent living for myself, especially for someone without a college degree.

It's almost 13 years since George Ayoub, the adviser for my high school newspaper, gave the nice folks at the Grand Island Independent my name and phone number, starting me down this path. I remember it well, mostly because the first time they called and asked me to cover an American Legion baseball game, I turned them down because I had to go work my shift at McDonalds. Thankfully, they persisted. After stops at the TCU and UNO student papers and stringing for the Independent, I somehow got full-time work at the Douglas County Post-Gazette in Elkhorn, a tiny weekly with an editorial staff of two. From there, it was on to the La Grande (Oregon) Observer and the (Hilo) Hawaii Tribune-Herald before leaving American shores for the Jakarta Globe and the China Daily. Along the way, I've received awards, praise, criticism and a fair few bawlings-out, not to mention a steady diet of the best fast food America and East Asia have to offer.

Why am I recounting all this? Because I don't think I can do this anymore. It's not an opinion I came to lightly or easily, but if I'm being honest with myself and the state of my chosen profession, the status quo is unsustainable. Barring something utterly unforeseen, my life as a working stiff is going to outlast the viability of newspapers as a career. Let's err on the high side and say newspapers have another 20 years in them before the industry keels over and dies -- I'll still be 50 years old and, short of a lottery win, in need of employment. Then what do I do? No matter how I look at it, there will be an awkward, painful transition in my life. It's just a question of when.

Sure, I could keep muddling through and make the best of it. I could keep making $30,000 per year throughout my 40s and 50s and cling to the industry into which I've put every fiber of my being for the last 13 years, but at what cost? There's barely any job security in the industry now, let alone in five or 10 years, and if newspapers keep relying on cutting costs to stay afloat, what impetus is there to retain a 40- or 50-something in the newsroom when journalism schools keep pumping out fresh graduates each year, all willing to work for fewer peanuts than me in the name of The Calling? At what point will it sink into my thick head that it's unhealthy to keep loving something that either cannot or will not love me back?

It's folly for me to speak of love, of course. As bleak as the future of newspapers looks, it's better money than what passes for my love life. Years of introversion, frequent relocation and working while other people are playing have left my romantic acumen largely unchanged since junior high. I've progressed in terms of book-learning, of course (thanks in part to Dan, Emily and the other nice people of the Internet), but practical application is woefully lacking. I haven't been on a date in ... well, I can't really remember. How much of that would change if I left newspapers? It's hard to say. There would be more chances to date, I imagine, but I'd still be a loner by nature, not to mention a 30-something on the homely end of the spectrum with little dating experience. While it's not top of my mind, it is something of a concern. Thankfully, I have two seemingly well-adjusted siblings who hopefully can provide Mom and Dad with sufficient numbers of grandkids and let me fade into Bolivian.

So ... if not newspapers, then what? It's all well and good to say the status quo is unsustainable, but there's not much point in claiming to be a person who values evidence if one goes on to ignore said evidence. All signs point to going back to college and getting my Bachelor's degree at the moment. Where, though, and what to study? If cost was my only concern, I'd high-tail it back to Nebraska, get my Associate's degree at CCC and finish up at some other state school. It's probably what I should have done straight out of high school, but at the time my only thought was getting out of Nebraska (and sticking close to Missi Christensen, but you can guess how that played out). It's not that simple, though. I'd still need to find a place to live and a source of income back home, and jobs seem to be in short supply unless you're a nurse, paralegal or IT specialist. Plus, I took far too much advantage of my family's hospitality during my Stupid Period in my early 20s, so imposing myself again would be a bit awkward.

Amid all these uncertainties, one thing I do know is that I'd like to continue living in this part of the world. Asia does seem to be where most of the action will take place in the coming years, and one thing I've learned is that being out here is half the battle. Thankfully, there are options if I want to pursue my degree out here and experience yet another culture. The clubhouse leader is Temple University's Japan campus, which offers an American university education in the heart of Tokyo. It doesn't have as many majors as the main campus in Philadelphia, but it does have ones that interest me -- Asian Studies, International Affairs, Political Science and, if all else fails, Communications. Plus, it would allow me to put a finer focus on my somewhat free-form Japanese language studies, and I'd need about 18 credit hours to minor in Japanese.

In terms of academics, it appears to tick all the boxes. The biggest concern -- not surprisingly -- is cost. If the yen stays at its current level (about 80 to the US dollar), going to TUJ would cost about $15,000 per semester, forcing me to take on a bunch of student loans only a year after I finally became debt-free. I wouldn't be alone in doing so, as the Wall Street Journal reports, but the prospect of having to pay off $50,000 to $60,000 of debt while switching careers is, to say the least, daunting. Then, of course, there's the looming higher education bubble. Every bubble pops eventually -- it's just a matter of when.

Is that it? As far as East Asia goes, probably. The other schools I've looked at in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc. don't appear to welcome older undergrads, let alone older international undergrads. (China? I'd sooner try North Korea.) Australia would seem like a logical fit. It has good universities, and I'd certainly be able to find work writing sports while going to school. Cost is still an issue, though. The Aussie dollar has reached (and passed) parity with the US dollar, and Australia is already an expensive place to live. New Zealand could be an option -- its quality of life is similar to Australia (if not better, my Kiwi friends say), the cost of living is cheaper and it has a friendlier exchange rate ($1 gets you NZ$1.28 at last check). A handful of New Zealand universities popped up on the latest US News & World Report rankings, and three of them -- Otago, Auckland and Victoria -- have Asian Studies or other majors that interest me. New Zealand doesn't immediately bring images of Asia to mind, but it's certainly closer than Nebraska.

Once again, though, cost is an issue. Tuition is roughly $15,000 per year, and each university's Web site suggests setting aside about $13,000 for living expenses each year. Their Bachelor's degree programs run three years rather than four, so there would be some savings there, but it's still $30,000 per year. A student visa allows you to work 20 hours per week in New Zealand vs. 28 per week in Japan, but the minimum wage in New Zealand is NZ$12.50 ($9.75) per hour. I wasn't able to find a clear minimum wage for part-time work in Japan, but it looks to be around 800 yen ($9.90) per hour. I know my concern should be more on the education, but as I don't have a whole lot of cash socked away and zero retirement savings, every little bit on the side helps.

Why not major in journalism? In short, I've done that. Unless some school is willing to let me test out of core classes because of my work experience, I'm not sure I want to unlearn what I have learned. I've at least established that I know how to write well, write on a deadline and clearly communicate complex subjects, so now I'd like to expand my expertise and apply those writing chops to something new. Asian Studies and Political Science would probably be able to keep me engaged, and the New Zealand schools also have science courses I could take to fuel my nerdy streak. I'm going to be in hock for quite some time whichever path I choose, so it might as well be a path that interests me and expands my horizons.

Still reading? Impressive. The point of all this brain dump is to make clear, if only to myself, that a change has got to come. (Love is on the way, hey hey hey....) *Ahem* Newspapers and I have had a good run -- fun, challenging and, at times, maddening -- but I just don't think it's going to work long-term. The world is trending toward more niche outlets with writers who are experts in their specific field, and I'm still a well-rounded generalist whose interests run a mile wide but not deep enough to carve out my own niche. To just walk away from the thing that's defined my entire adult life, though? It's hard -- damn hard -- and there's a lot about me I'm going to have to change to make this move stick and come out better for it on the other side.

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