I spoke last week to a class of seventh-graders at Valdosta Middle School about careers in journalism. I've often spoken to students over the years, and I've come to believe I do it as much for myself as for the students.

While describing my journey in journalism, I'm reminded of why I stay in this profession. It's an important lesson for the students as well because it's not a career for the meek.

I suppose you could approach it like any other job, but you'll never be really good unless you have a passion for it. You cannot be daunted by the long, erratic hours and poor pay compared to other white-collar professions. You must not be afraid of criticism. This can come as often for messing up as for doing a great job, when the complaints come from public officials who prefer their spin.

I told the students the truth about pay. At one time, teachers were as poorly paid as we are, but now teachers have surpassed us on average, especially for newspaper journalists just starting their careers.

I told them journalists rarely have fringe benefits or perks; in fact, ethics policies prevent us from accepting gifts. Some newspapers won't allow critics or sports writers to accept free passes.

You could be sued for possible libel (although the hurdle of proving it is quite high); you could go to jail for not revealing a source to a judge; and you could be injured or killed if you cover wars or crime.

So what could possibly balance all these negatives?

1) The knowledge that you're making a difference in lives of people and therefore the world;

2) Working in one of the few professions that enjoy constitutional protection.

3) Being able to do something different nearly every day.

When I finished talking to the students, I asked whether anyone was interested in this career. No hands. But as I told them, I didn't decide on journalism until I was in 10th-grade English, and was inspired by a teacher who was starting a journalism class the next school year. I haven't wavered in my commitment to this field since that day in 1972.

Thirty years of work on high school, college and professional newspapers have not daunted my belief that this is an important job.

With the help of many staffers, I recently put together our entries for two annual statewide journalism contests.

It was interesting to review the triumphs and embarrassments of the past year, and how the paper has changed.

We do a pretty good job here at The Valdosta Daily Times, but there is plenty of room for improvement.

One of the changes I've made is to enforce a 250-word limit for letters to the editor. I did it to make more room so we can publish letters more quickly. An unexpected result is that we're getting more letters than before.

I also firmly believe that shorter letters are more attractive to our readers.

If you have other suggestions for changes in the paper, please call me at 244-3400, ext. 229, or e-mail me at ron.wayne@gaflnews.com.

I want to hear from you.

Ron Wayne is the editor of The Valdosta Daily Times.

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