I have the worst job in America, or so the experts say. Worse than a job putting down sick puppies. Worse than being a closer for the Cubs. Worse than working for Kardashians. Analyzing factors such as pay, hours, stress, physical demands and the outlook for future employment, Careercast.com proclaims a newspaper reporter as the worst job, a step lower than being a lumberjack.
I'm a newspaper reporter, and I'm OK. I can live with that -- as long as I can continue making a living with it. People in last place often are more fascinating than winners. On TV's iconic "Wide World of Sports," nobody remembers who represented the "thrill of victory," but everyone remembers watching the ski jumper whose crash symbolized "the agony of defeat." His name is Vinko Bogataj and he's been interviewed by many newspaper reporters.
Actuaries, the business professionals who use math, stats and financial theories to calculate risk and its costs, are the victors in the jobs world. The Society of Actuaries is based in Schaumburg, and one of my very first columns in May of 1988 was about how being an actuary was deemed the best job in America. During those interviews, I remember thinking that I'd still rather be a newspaper reporter interviewing an actuary than to be an actuary. I don't dispute the logic that places actuaries always near the top and in the No. 1 slot again for 2013. For starters, it estimates the midlevel salary for actuaries at $91,211 -- compared to $36,000 for reporters.
The actuaries I've met are nice people and the complimentary magazine they send me six times a year does a fine job writing about stochastic modeling, variable annuities and catastrophic risk mitigation. But if you are stuck next to a stranger on a four-hour flight and ask, "So, what do you do?" your time will pass quicker if you are sitting next to a newspaper reporter.
Some reporters credit their career choice to a thirst for justice and liberty and a desire to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I credit mine to engineering camp, where I spent a week between my junior and senior years in high school. I didn't mind the engineering, but engineering camp made me realize I really didn't envision spending the rest of my life with engineers. Sharing work stories with newspaper reporters seems so much more entertaining.
I've got stories about moments with Princess Di, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama and chatting with Studs Terkel on Sept. 11. I still get chills thinking about following my police scanner to a head-on crash and watching a woman die before the rescue workers could get there. I'll never forget walking up to a house on Valentine's Day seconds after police broke the news that their missing daughter was dead. Or wading through tornado wreckage with a priest. I remember how long. collect-call phone conversations with a serial killer in jail made me spend nights on a friend's couch just so I could soak up some wholesomeness and normalcy from his family.
Not all reporters' memorable moments involve tragedy. I remember the power of sharing a hug with the subject of the first column I wrote about AIDS. I remember the privilege of hearing intimate details of personal triumphs and failures, joys and heartaches from people who just want to tell a story.
Getting paid to help people tell those stories doesn't seem even close to the worst job in America. Or maybe I just come by my tolerance for a worst job naturally. I grew up as the son of a farmer, a job now ranked just 10 spots higher than newspaper reporter. One of my history classes in college was this small discussion group about the history of working. The main textbook was Studs Terkel's classic "Working," which featured interviews with dozens of workers describing their jobs. When the professor asked which job was the worst, I was torn between the steelworker performing dangerous anonymous work in the fire pits day after day and the prostitute pleasing gross men for money night after night. I was stunned when my classmates voted farmer as the worst job.
My dad loved being a farmer. He liked creating a livelihood out of the dirt. I have fond memories of him coming in from the fields covered in dust just to see us get off the school bus before heading back out to work. Dad hardly ever missed the chance to take off a couple of hours on a weekday afternoon to catch one of my baseball games. We still need farmers.
And we still need newspaper reporters. With three kids approaching college and retirement a long way off, I don't mind if some survey says I have the worst job in America. I'd just like to have this worst job for as long as an actuary tells me I need it.