How do I know?

Melissa Wen_online

When I became editor in chief of The Daily Californian, one of the first things I looked forward to was cleaning my new office.

I set aside a whole afternoon for its christening, the Saturday in December 2015 after finals ended. The newsroom was empty. I played “All I Want for Christmas Is You” on repeat and scrubbed pen marks off the walls. Peeling away clutter, I lingered on every object: documents stacked up on a chair, framed black-and-white photos, a plastic bag of deflated balloons.

The archives held in that office span decades. I was moved by a sense of the paper’s history. But I also thought that being there, at that desk where old editors sat, would make me brand-new. I wanted to conjure a feeling of baptism out of paper towels dipped in all-purpose cleaner. Underneath the clutter, I looked for proof that I belonged.

And maybe a surety of belonging should have felt natural at that point, after nearly three years of working at my college paper. In fact, I have rarely felt like I belonged anywhere like I belonged at the Daily Cal. I love the siren call of news. I love ink-stained hands. I’ve met wonderful people here and stayed horribly late nights with them, agonizing over our always-late-to-the-printer newspaper.

I have just never felt sure. Even now, I’m still waiting for the clincher. How do I know — really know — that I belong in journalism? And what if love isn’t enough?

I came to Berkeley four years ago with a fanatical desire to write for the college paper. I read columns written by the Daily Cal’s editor at the time and wondered how I could be like her: an articulate journalist, a self-assured writer, a woman in charge. When I applied to be a news reporter freshman year, I was terrified I wouldn’t be good enough.

Here is a story I wish I could tell about my trajectory since then: as my experience increased, my fears and worries gradually melted. I saw myself becoming the kind of journalist I’ve always wanted to be.

The actual story has a less clearly upward path. Venturing deeper into journalism has tempered some of my old doubts, but it’s also pulled me toward new, more consuming uncertainties.

When I was elected editor in chief of the Daily Cal, I was in awe of the support I received. But as editor, I also hesitated sometimes to make basic decisions. Even sitting at the head of the table, I talked too quietly at meetings. Later that year, I got the chance to shadow a professional TV reporter. I was tasked that day with holding a microphone while a crowd of journalists from different news outlets shot questions at the witness to a plane crash. I could have asked questions, too, but I was too scared to speak up.

My recent stabs at the journalism job market have added to my list of reasons for doubt. Prodded by interviewers, I’ve reflected on my reporting. None of my stories have been perfect. But I’m not bothered so much by that as I am by the stories I didn’t write — injustices I should have paid attention to and didn’t, because I was so wrapped up in mundane stresses, because I wasn’t sharp enough to see the bigger picture.

I know I am not alone in carrying these doubts. Journalism, as a whole, has always had insufficiencies. I know also that a reporter’s uncertainty about finding their place should not be wholly attributed to their own inadequacy. Women constitute only 37 percent of newsroom leaders, according to the American Society of News Editors’ 2016 diversity survey. Of all the underrepresented minority groups identified by the survey, each makes up less than 5 percent of leadership positions. History does not offer to everyone the same proof of belonging.

Journalism can also be a fitting home for doubters. “How do I know?” can be a refrain of uncertainty, or it can be a crucial question when checking a fact or questioning a would-be assumption.

Still, I sometimes wish I could go back in time to that day I spent cleaning my new office, when I felt like becoming editor in chief of my college paper had brought me to the brink of an answer to all my doubts.

I am still not sure, and I don’t know how to be. But I don’t know how to walk away from the thing I am so unsure about. The time I’ve spent writing by the chatter of a police scanner, chasing protests into the Berkeley night, combing through public records for buried truths — it’s the closest I’ve come to falling in love. Regardless of whether love is enough, maybe I’ve stepped off the edge of it already. And when you’re tumbling in midair, you can’t stop.

Melissa Wen joined the Daily Cal in fall of 2013 as a news reporter. She reported on the city beat before becoming executive news editor in spring 2015 and managing editor in summer 2015. She was editor in chief and president in spring of 2016, and in 2016-17 co-led the Daily Cal’s digital archiving project. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English.

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