Here’s to beating the odds.
This seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? My advice to young journalists — that’s me! I’m a young journalist. Though I don’t have the audacity to advise my peers as to their career trajectory, I do have enough to refute Felix Salmon — which I can’t tell if it is a better name for a cartoon character or a gentleman making a cameo on Downton Abbey — who set the journalism universe ablaze today with his brazen attack on my future.
Salmon told budding reporters like me to give up in a column for Fusion. He wrote I’d never make a living in journalism. I’d never be happy in an industry that devours its young. The degrees, both of them, that I’ll graduate with are worthless. No amount of hard work I put into my career will pay off.
Here are the tastiest bites:
Dear budding journalist,
Thanks very much for your email! I’m always happy to meet just about anybody, and would love to find some time to have that coffee with you.
Of course I’m also very flattered by the lovely things you said about me, and about how you’d love to have a career in journalism where you might be able to do the kind of thing that I do.
But you won’t.
A quick side note: I’ve written a lot of these emails. I want to be the best at my craft and I want to learn from the best, so when I have the courage, I write to people I admire to be courteous and professional and to build relationships. And though I love getting responses, I’d rather someone ignore my olive branch than pander to me. So keep that in mind, Cat nip, next time someone like me sends you a compliment.
Here’s some more Salmon:
But that doesn’t mean that life is good for journalists. In fact, life is not good for journalists. And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.
I’m sure that many people have told you this already, but take it from me as well: journalism is a dumb career move. If there’s something else you also love, something else you’re good at, something else which makes the world a better place — then maybe you should think about doing that instead. Even successful journalists rarely do much of the kind of high-minded stuff you probably aspire to. And enormous numbers of incredibly talented journalists find it almost impossible to make a decent living at this game.
Thank you, dear Felix, for stating something my grandparents never hesitate to tell me when I come over for dinner and talk about how journalism school is going.
“You know, your cousin is going to be a great doctor,” they say.
Yes, but my cousin is also going to end up slicing people open for a living, and though I love her dearly, I never want to do that.
I found what I want to do. I want to report and write and tell stories. I want to contribute to the health of a nation — hello, democracy — rather than write some prescriptions or take on global economic theory, like my brother. The world needs doctors and economists. But it needs journalists too.
Salmon describes the evolution of media platforms and how that impacted the profitability of a job in journalism. Simply, with blogs like this, smartphones, YouTube channels, Twitter and blah blah blah, it became a lot easier for anyone to be a spontaneous journalist.
And since most people are literate and some people are adept enough to arrange words in an intellectually pleasing way, a lot more people started writing, diluting the value of the printed word and reported word and diluting my market value.
If you’re serious about going into a career in journalism, you know this by now. If you’re truly serious, you’re invested in finding ways to distinguish yourself and your talent and you keep watchful eye on the evolution of this industry.
In short, if you really want to be a journalist, you don’t need Felix Salmon.
So what’s my advice to young journalists? That’s where Ezra Klein comes in.
Klein wrote the Wonk Blog for The Washington Post, the newspaper of all newspapers, but left to head up Vox, a sort of trendy mish-mosh of Grantland and Politico with steep injections of search-engine-optimization. The utter chaos of the home page is extremely beautiful.
He published his own advice to young journalists and it’s comparatively very optimistic. The main points:
- You always want to be doing work that is as close as possible to the kind of work you want to be doing in your dream job.
- Trade prestige for opportunity.
- You can outwork your elders.
- Don’t go to journalism school.
- Pretty much everybody in journalism can write. But not everyone in journalism can understand policy, or interpret the minutes from the Fed’s most recent meeting, or use the C-SPAN archives, or make a good graph.
- Don’t get too depressed.
I left a few pieces out, both those were the ones that were applicable to any young professional, not just journalists.
In general, I like this list. I like going after it and trying to find your dream job and dream niche whenever you can. I like trading prestige for opportunity, though it’s a hard thing to swallow sometimes. I like outworking elders. I’m already in journalism school, so I’m not sure I agree with that.
Diversify your skills; always a smart move. Don’t get too depressed. Love it.
That’s my largest piece of advice to young journalists: don’t get depressed. Don’t get down on yourself.
Ours is a profession known for stress, anxiety, depression, caffeine addiction, assorted vice. Ours is a profession that hears “No” a lot, whether during the job hunt or from sources or when asking for a raise. It’s a hard-knock life for us, but it’s also a life we chose.
It’s important to remember why we made that decision. I love journalism because it’s a social industry. I get to block out time to go meet new, interesting people and tell their stories. I get to write and express myself through their lens. That’s a lot of fun. I’m so immensely happy I found something so fulfilling.
And where I take offense with Salmon is not that he doubts my future — I’m willing to bet on myself — but how he defines what my happiness should be. I fear that Felix himself has lost touch with how he came to be a journalist. He didn’t chose this path, it chose him.
I define my happiness in my career in that I can go to work and not feel like I’m working. I want to feel challenged and stimulated, but my career should be an extension of my already awesome life. And I’m very fortunate at the tender age of 20, that is the case. I can only imagine the best is yet to come. I want to get married someday, have a family, become a citizen of the world. Why can’t those experiences impact my journalism? Why can’t they make me a better listener and communicator and more worldly?
They can. And they will. So another piece of advice to young journalists: It’s okay to gradually break down that wall between personal and professional. Your professional achievements should be something your friends and family can celebrate. Your personal experiences should inform the way you conduct yourself professionally. Live life and allow it to make you a happier person and more informed journalist.
Salmon mentions one more thing in passing in his column that I find very true, and it’s the basis for my final piece of advice:
Mostly, I’m the happy recipient of a combination of luck and privilege. Sure, I have skills, to boot: I’m smart, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a certain facility with numbers and with the English language. I’m sure you have those skills too. Millions do. They might be necessary, but they’re far from sufficient.
There’s no denying luck and privilege are important in any career field, but very much so in journalism too. Privilege is something I force myself to acknowledge every day. I go to a wonderful university where I learn my craft and I meet people who want to help me succeed. I have loving and supporting parents and friends. I’m financially stable. I have a high quality of life. All of these things have positive impacts on my career aspirations. All of these things I didn’t produce myself.
But luck, that I can produce myself. Luck is the collision of hard work meeting coincidence. Did Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein get lucky when they broke Watergate, or were they good, fundamental reporters who did their jobs?
Yes, there was a degree of coincidence there, but if you work hard, you can produce your own luck. To quote Thomas Jefferson:
“I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
So my final piece of advice: create your own luck. Work hard. Keep your ears and eyes open. Ask questions you think you know the answers to. Soak up knowledge like sun on a Florida golf course. Apply all of it where necessary.
To conclude, I’m not scared about my future as a reporter. I’m uncertain, but I’m not scared. I’m willing to bet on myself and put in the hard work necessary to make my future happen. It’ll be messy, but it’ll be worth it. I wish the same to all of my peers and friends.
We deserve each other and we deserve this process of defining our future and the future of our industry. Let’s get to work.