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When the Ingénue Teaches You a Thing or Two

The email popped up in my inbox one day.

Her name was Juliet*, she was a senior at my alma mater and she was writing to me, seeking some career advice.

She wanted to pursue a journalism career in the Nation’s Capitol and she wasn’t going to let any news about layoffs, a dying profession, or a pesky old economic crisis get her down.

“I will be graduating soon, and am eager to pursue the career of my dreams,” she asserted. I sat there, blinking hard at this unabashed display of optimism, shined up like a bright piece of candy.

She had all the right stuff: an impressive internship at a major newspaper where she pitched her own stories and landed a front page article. Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, semester abroad, honor student. This girl even had her own Web site, complete with a glamorous color headshot of her freshly scrubbed face and blond broadcaster’s bob.

I don’t think I even owned a computer when I graduated college more than two decades ago. I typed all of my cover letters to prospective grumpy editors on an electronic typewriter.

I noticed that Juliet was a member of Alpha Gamma Delta*. They rejected me more than 25 years ago during sorority rush. Instead, I had to settle with being a little sister at Alpha Epsilon Pi, otherwise known as the “geek fraternity” at my university.

It made me sort of wonder why this J-school phenom would be writing to me. While I’ve achieved some success in my career, most of my jobs have been in trade publishing, which in Washington, D.C. is the uglier, less popular sister of mainstream journalism.

As I looked at her face, peering from her Web site, which I’m guessing cost a pretty penny for a professional webmaster to do, a sad, almost shocking realization began to seep through my bones.

I’d never want to tell Juliet this, and it’s hard to admit it to myself.

The truth is this girl half my age, with her fancy Web site and impressive clips, has a better chance of surviving—even succeeding in this industry, than I do. In fact, it’s not that inconceivable that in five, possibly ten years, she could end up being my boss.

While I’m far from old, I know that my options in this field are shrinking. That if I ever lost my job, the journalism outfits who are still hiring would more likely grab up an ambitious college grad who would work for less pay, than a middle-aged Luddite who still doesn’t own a digital tape recorder and takes all of her notes long-hand, on steno pads.

My husband tells me that I’m selling myself short, that writing is an ability you can take anywhere. He doesn’t understand what I’m facing. That once you hit your forties, your employability tanks along with your fertility. That journalism isn’t a kind place to begin with. That’s it’s difficult to remain upbeat when people from high profile institutions like CNN and the Washington Post are jumping ship and accepting buy-outs.

Or running over to non-profits and public relations firms no one’s ever heard of, because they need a more secure work environment, one that will pay the bills and the mortgage.

Every week, you hear about another news organization folding or downsizing and mass layoffs taking place. Those who are still gainfully employed are being told to “put up and shut up” in the event their paychecks are reduced, because hey, they should be grateful they still have a job.

Not only that, the Internet is creating an online culture of writers who are all too happy to contribute their stories to Web sites for free, in exchange for a link to their own personal Web site or blog. The good old-fashioned trend of getting paid for what you write is rapidly being replaced by this modern day “payment in kind” system.

I want to unload my bitter and curmudgeonly views on Juliet, to crush her youthful cheery optimism like a stink bug. But I don’t.

Swallowing my resentment, I send her an email, telling her I’d be happy to meet with her when she’s in town. I figured I wouldn’t hear back, that the letter she’d sent me had been emailed to dozens of other alums in other cities.

But Juliet, the blond, sunny sorority girl surprises me. She writes back right away. Her response is so grateful and genuine; it chokes me up a bit.

It dredges up an old memory, of a young woman with bad hair, an interview suit with giant shoulder pads and even bigger dreams, arriving in DC more than twenty years ago. No one wanted to help me, not even the cranky HR people at the national news magazine where I interned for two summers.

I realized that Juliet and I had more in common than I originally thought.

As people of all ages flee from this institution we call the Fourth Estate, it’s nice to know there’s still a germ of optimism out there, pouring from a twenty-two-year-old college student.

When I met her in person, I told her the story about the electronic typewriter. And I told her to keep her hopes up. “If there’s anyone who can make it in this profession … it’s you,” I said.

Juliet wrote me recently. She’s still looking for a job. I’m hoping she’ll get one soon.

Someone’s going to have to hire me someday, when I’m old and grey and still carrying my steno pad around with me.

*names have been changed