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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I am a journalist. It’s what I do, it’s what I am. That’s about to change.

I am a journalist. It’s what I do, it’s what I am. Probably the most defining thing of who you are is what you do. In my case, that has been linked to several things in the past decade, all converging into journalism. That’s about to change.

It’s difficult to change course. Yet sometimes you feel you have reached a wall and you need to go the other way. That’s not only how I feel now but also how I’ve felt for the last couple of years. It is the reason why I am embarking into this new career as a paramedic.

It’s really recent in my memory but this August marks the 10th anniversary of the date I consider my baptism into journalism. Back in 2004, ten years ago, still in my second year in college, I was fed up with no getting responses from anyone to work, not even as an intern –apparently it was a requisite to be in the final two years of your studies. So I said “fuck this” and did the same that many journalists before me had done: pack my bags, grab my camera and head into somewhere newsworthy: Palestine.

From that trip, I brought back my first published story, lots of photos, a broken camera (I blame Ben Gurion guards) and many friends, stories and contacts. Later would come Bosnia, Iraq, Syria or Egypt. In between, in order to pay the bills I had to work on anything I could. I tried to keep it related to communications, so I wouldn’t miss the train: business intelligence, corporate communications, analyst, blogger, social media consultancy gigs…

But the truth is that the freelance lifestyle never took off. I blame myself. Maybe it’s that I’m not good enough. Or it could be something else. I am a disaster as a commercial agent, have zero selling skills and although I enjoy getting into, and telling the story, the whole process of selling it was extremely tiring. I’m useless at it. In a market dominated by freelancers, that’s bad.

It didn’t help being in an industry that pays barely livable fares per job and where some people even expect you to work for nothing. Exposure doesn’t pay the bills. Without a decent pay, journalism mutates from the most beautiful job in the world to the most beautiful hobby in the world.

Neither did help that I probably never recovered from the psychological hit that was having to witness as a mere TV spectator, from New Zealand, the Arab Spring. The Middle East had been my specialty since even before I started and in their most defining moment I was trapped in the other side of the world. It was a huge blow, a hard pill to swallow. Sat in my apartment of Auckland, I think, I missed the train completely.

Despite it, I didn’t despair. I was decided to find my place. I tried then London, which paid decent wages and there was work. But it didn’t work. Somehow, something was missing. The photocalls with famous people didn’t fulfill me.

I got into journalism with the idea of contributing to create a better world, like many others. But unlike them, I have kept that goal since then. The reality, however, is that I can’t do much. For all the stories of bad border crossings that I have, I also have stories of people thanking me for being there, thinking that my camera or my pen will awake minds in Brussels or Washington to stop a genocide or help them combat an invisible foe.

That’s bullshit. We really can’t do shit.

I might get an article published on the tragedy of the Kurds, or a picture of a kid in the rubble in Gaza on the front page, but even if it’s seen or read or heard it’ll be forgotten under the latest Kardashian appearance or Ronaldo’s volley goal in the last game. You and everyone else will read it and go on with your life. And that’s ok. I get it. Only that those in the news departments shouldn’t think like that, but they do.

And then it’s when people I followed or I had met started to fall. It wasn’t the first time that it had happened. But somehow this time, and thanks to the effect of social media, it punched closer to me. It was different than reading of the deaths of the reporters of the past. These guys had given me tips, we had shared a beer or we had run together for cover.

Jim’s death last week is just the last straw of two years of being in a really uncomfortable place, wishing for the happy ending of a kidnap of a colleague or lamenting the death of others. Could have it been me instead of Ricard or Jim or Azem had I stayed in the course I was on until 2011? More than 270 journalists have died in the last two years alone.

All that for nothing. People in general don’t care about such boring things as politics and the deaths of others far away. Although many people approached me after Jim’s death to express their condolences, there’s one friend that after asking me “Who is that Jim?” and me explaining him everything, he just said: “Oh, ok; weird stuff”. Even worse, after Jim’s death I have had to see not only some media trying to make it into a circus but also conspiracy theorists insulting the memory of someone they never met for the sake of their stupid cause.

All that made me rethink my priorities. A lot has changed since I started. I have changed too. When I walked between the rubble in Nablus and met Yasser Arafat in Ramallah back in 2004, I was enjoying the single life. Now I have a stable relationship with a wonderful woman with whom I talk constantly about our future together. I think with two people (or more) in mind now, not just me. Considering that, is it fair for me to risk my life for a misery of a salary in a job that has almost no real repercussions empowering people?

I probably could keep doing it if it paid well. Or if it wasn’t so risky. Or if it was worth it and really helped people. But journalism today doesn’t click any of those boxes. Even worse, I think journalism is dying as we know it. A few selected ones will prevail while most will be forced to find greener pastures in other jobs. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a plethora of excellent journos that will survive; but I’m not in that group. Still, I could keep trying if my personal circumstances were different. But my priorities have shifted now.

This is why I’m starting a new career and trying to become a paramedic. It still has the stress, long hours and risk of journalism, even some of the ingratitude and impotence against certain situations. But it’s worthy, you help people and you have an immediate effect on their life. Especially that fact, that you do change the life of someone, you can literally save them. It also lets me go back to my girlfriend and a hypothetical future family every day after the shift. And it has a better future while being decently paid.

Yet I know I’ll never be able to leave journalism completely behind. It’s just a big part of me. I’ll come back to this blog and the Facebook page from time to time. This is a bittersweet failure, one that has made me the man I am today and that has given me so much, but at the same time one that has also led me to this situation. I regard in high esteem and appreciation the colleagues I’ve met that keep doing a great job against all odds and I hope they continue to do the job they are doing. They’ll find a way to make it matter, I am sure of that.

I do know that this new life as a paramedic will probably be a better fit for me in my present and future situation. To the despair of my girlfriend, I don’t rule out going back into a conflict zone or disaster area when I graduate, but this time in a humanitarian role, closer to the stories of those I listened to for ten years and, this time yes, being able of helping them in a direct way.

It’s been a great ride. But it’s time to change.

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Are you afraid? Well, this works in that way. First you do what scares you and it's later when you get the courage
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