What It’s Like to Work the Worst Job in America

What It’s Like to Work the Worst Job in America

Margot Kidder Lois Lane

My job is the worst job in the United States. According to Career Cast’s annual “best and worst 200 jobs” list, my vocation is worse than hauling garbage, installing windows in the freezing cold, unclogging toilets, and killing bugs and rats for a living. It’s more stressful than being a stockbroker and more than three times as stressful as tending bar. I make more than a cab driver, but much less than an elementary school teacher.

So what do I do? Empty porta-potties—manually?

No, I am a newspaper reporter. I don’t work on the sexy side of journalism, the side that gives people tips on how to make the best sugar cookies ever or delves into the chord progressions of whatever band is cool and new in a particular city. I report on issues like zoning law, homicide, and fatal car crashes.

Each year, when Career Cast puts out its jobs list, people tweet and blog about whether it’s right or wrong, and how sucky their jobs are. Reporters, typically ranked in the bottom 10, are guiltier of this than most—the fact that I’m writing this post is evidence of that. One of the most common things you’ll hear in public discussion of the jobs list is, “Well, of course they ranked reporter as the worst job—the people putting together the list are reporters.”

But they’re not. Career Cast is an employment assistance company that produces the annual list, but people often think it’s compiled by journalists since it’s widely circulated and analyzed by the Huffington Post and other media outlets.

So if reporters aren’t just throwing themselves a national pity party, what makes this job so awful? According to the list, mostly hiring outlook and stress. Work environment isn’t great, either.

My job is challenging and I will never be a millionaire, but my job doesn’t suck. If I hit my deadlines early, I can leave work and take a nap or go kayaking if I want. I’m not always chained to a desk and a phone—I knock on strangers’ doors, I tour factories, I sit at people’s kitchen tables and talk to them about their lives, I pet llamas at county fairs. Sure, it can be tedious—I spend at least six hours a week in government meetings, and sometimes the topics are both dry and complex. But when big news breaks, when something catches fire, when one man points a gun at another man and pulls the trigger four times, that’s when doing the worst job in America starts to feel valuable.

I remember stepping over streams of blood snaking across highway blacktop on a Saturday afternoon two summers ago, watching paramedics plug a man’s open head with their hands after his motorcycle was broadsided by an SUV. I remember the nervous silence in the city council chambers when a councilor said the word “fucking” on public access TV. I remember meeting a convicted felon who once beat a woman blind in a drunken rage, and driving him to an AA meeting. I remember watching college basketball with a politician on his couch on a Saturday afternoon. I remember calling the sheriff every night at sunset for weeks to see if his deputies had recovered the body of a man who fell out of a fishing boat, and I vividly remember the day the sheriff called me and said yes, we found him. I remember seeing a retiring barber push a tissue under his glasses to catch tears as he told me about a former customer, a 14-year-old boy with a penchant for bowl cuts, who caught the flu and died two weeks later. There’s something addictive and endlessly fascinating about peeking into the intimate details of people’s lives and figuring out how to tell their stories.

Working as a reporter has also given me skills I can use when I leave the newsroom. When your job requires you to walk up to strangers with a camera around your neck and a notebook in your hand and ask to take their photo and quote their words in ink, well, it makes something like showing up to a party solo seem a lot less daunting. Being a reporter has refined my ability to stand up for myself and to keep my cool under pressure—and, perhaps most importantly, it’s taught me how to truly listen to people.

I love working the worst job in America, but there are drawbacks. Some people are dicks—people like the angry source who told me, off the record, that I wasn’t a journalist, I was just a silly little girl with a pen. It’s tough work—scanning and translating and writing about a 300-page county budget or zoning ordinance in two hours isn’t exactly low-key. And you get paid so little that your car will probably be older than you are and the food you buy will always be generic brand and you’ll wear the same five wrinkled sweaters and Target dress pants all winter.

On top of the crushing workload and near poverty-level pay, people don’t generally like journalists. A newspaper reporter is a professional tattle tale. Plus, we screw up—we spell names wrong, we mess up dates and numbers and all manner of detailed information, and people don’t forgive or forget those things.

As for the hiring outlook—well, that’s where the list is on-point. About a year ago, I decided I wanted to leave the rural newspaper where I got my start to move back to the city where I grew up. I figured that since I had a degree from a prestigious journalism school, experience and decent references, something would come along soon enough. I applied for more than 100 jobs, went to six interviews, and received one offer. I’m lucky to have received that single offer: some of my fellow journalism school graduates never landed reporting gigs, despite months or years of searching.

I’m grateful to have a job in this changing field where opportunities are absolutely dwindling. Since 2001, roughly a fifth of all newspaper reporters in the United States have lost their jobs. Print sales are a chaotic gamble in communities large and small. Newsweek is no longer printed. Neither is the Christian Science Monitor. Minneapolis’s METRO magazine is a fond memory.

My job might be stressful, I may be over worked and underpaid—but I love what I do. I am a splinter in a cog of the wheel that is American democracy, but without that cog, who knows how treacherous our political landscape could become. No matter how draining it is, no matter how uncertain the future of news feels, all I want is to keep doing the worst job in America. It’s not sexy, it’s not easy. But it’s definitely not boring. And it certainly doesn’t suck.

Natalie Berkley