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Confounding the sourpusses: Seven steps for laughing your way into a journalism career

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Most successful journalists, when called upon to speak in front a group of aspiring young reporters, writers, and editors, tell them that, sadly, the glory days are long gone. There’s no more gold in them thar hills. The very future of journalism—and along with it, democracy herself—is hanging by a thread.

 

“Welcome to a dying industry, J-school grads,” bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich, who once made $10 a word for Time magazine, told Berkeley students in 2009. “You won’t get rich, unless of course you develop a sideline in blackmail or bank robbery.” Five years earlier at the same university, multimillionaire Ted Koppel sang the same song. “Don’t get into it because of the money,” the television star warned. “Don’t get into because you think you get to be well-known.”

 

“I am far less optimistic,” New Yorker writer and Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann told graduates last year, “that journalists will have the economic means of producing journalism.” Sounding somewhat more optimistic though no less defiant was Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, who told Medill students in 2009, “I have yet to meet a journalist who was in it for the money.” It should be pointed out that Weymouth’s millionaire maternal grandparents were both publishers of the Washington Post, and her millionaire uncle Donald remains the CEO.

 

Why do successful, rich people spend so much time telling you that you can’t make money the way they did, and that—anyways—you somehow shouldn’t want to? There are many plausible explanations, but I would focus your attention on one: journalists are generally unschooled in economics and history, particularly the economics and history of journalism itself. They are notorious about exempting themselves from the kind of merciless conflict-of-interest rules they otherwise enjoy foisting on politicians and academic researchers. In other words, they are locked into what I like to call the “A&P view of journalism.”

 

A&P was not some 19th-century railroad immortalized in the board game Monopoly; it was—as recently as the 1950s—the dominant supermarket chain in the United States, with a stunning 75-percent market share and 16,000 stores at its peak. It was the Wal-Mart of its day: omnipresent, unstoppable, permanent.

 

Nowadays, like so much of what seemed indelible in the “Organization Man 1950s”—Kodachrome and U.S. Steel, anyone?—A&P has retreated to comparative insignificance, with less than 400 stores in just seven states. Two months ago, the company filed for bankruptcy and was de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange. Such, as you know well, are the joys of creative destruction.

 

Well, imagine for a moment that the popular history of modern American supermarkets—the rise of upscale health-conscious outlets like Whole Foods, price-slashing monsters like Wal-Mart, online upstarts like Peapod.com—was chronicled not by financial reporters and retail academics but by life-long employees of A&P. Imagine that the people trying to document and interpret a revolution for you are the exact same people whose friends and colleagues are being sent to the guillotine. It is a conflict of interest so utterly foundational, so deterministic to the way people talk about the media industry that almost nobody even mentions it. Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily, gobbling up innovation wherever it appears.

 

What does this have to do with figuring out how to orient your journalism career? A couple of things. First, know that much of what you are generally told about the media business is flat out wrong. You can get rich. The industry—or better stated, the vocation—is not dying, it’s thriving; and despite every insider indication to the contrary, the journalism racket is one hell of a lot of fun. And understanding the contours of the market you’re entering is the most important of seven basic steps to jumpstart your media career.

 

1) Become your own media reporter

 

Don’t just scan Romenesko, Gawker, and Media Bistro for the latest gossip about the industry. Submit yourself to the rigor and humility of reporting and analyzing the media business and practice yourself in a far more sophisticated way than merely snickering at The New York Times or Glenn Beck. Understand what parts of the mediasphere are expanding, what parts are contracting, and why. Identify which activities— such as the bloviation of opinion—are being priced downward toward zero, and which ones (such as being able to shoot and edit video) are being better compensated every day. If you’re thorough, you won’t only have a much better grasp on your own job market, you’ll also have plenty of story ideas—and an attractively counter-intuitive point of view—that you can get people to pay for.

 

2) Create your own reality

 

The traditional route to a quality journalism job—grad school + internships + connections, then working your way up through progressively more impressive institutions—isn’t dead yet, but it’s greatly diminished. That’s a marvelous opportunity for people who had been marginalized by the previous system—including ideologically— to make a name for themselves, by themselves. So: always be starting a blog, opening a Twitter account, making a YouTube channel that animates the most idiotic sentences from Thomas L. Friedman columns. Do something with all this glorious freedom in a way that can quickly showcase your talents and areas of specialty. If you know an obscure topic better than most people reporting on it, start a group blog dedicated to exactly that, and force those who are interested in the topic to deal with your existence. Putting up a public flare can send light into places you’d otherwise never think to look.

 

3) In a world where gatekeepers are dying out, master the skills gatekeepers valued

 

There are many young people who are entrepreneurial mediastarters, engaging writers, technological whizzes…and yet they can’t spell, have never heard of AP style, and wouldn’t have any idea about writing a four-source story in pyramid style in a half-day’s work. Yes, understanding the new is where most of your comparative value will probably lie, but mastering old-school writing/editing/reporting/comportment chops is an excellent way of differentiating yourself from peers. Exercising those skills is also one of the best methods for keeping your own ideology honest.

 

4) Recognize that you don’t know it all and that’s ok

 

Journalism is pretty much the world’s best excuse for learning stuff you don’t otherwise know about. But ideologically flavored journalism is often the world’s worst excuse for reporting because the writers are working backward from a conclusion, tailoring facts to meet the argument. Any sound ideology will survive collisions with reality, and not every slice of truth will fit neatly into a philosophical narrative. The best journalism starts with enough humility to appreciate the value of a well-turned fact above all else. If you think you know it all— on any subject—in your 20s, you are not only almost certainly wrong (and irritatingly so to your superior), you are also closing off avenues for discovering a better story.

 

5) Always be figuring out how to give your audience more power

 

The overwhelming trend in all aspects of modern life is away from top-down Organization Man culture and toward the empowered, idiosyncratic, multiple- hyphenated individual. Consumers instinctively understand this; legacy gatekeepers of the type introduced at the beginning of this piece inherently do not. Always be on the lookout for increasing audience participation and even collaboration. Whenever possible, show your math. Chances are almost guaranteed that you have a more forward-looking set of references about this than your boss, so suggest to her or him ways to better democratize their product.

 

6) Indulge your hobbies, learn foreign languages, and travel to exotic places

 

When every consumer is a potential producer, journalistic competition can get pretty rough. You absolutely, positively need to have unusual areas of expertise. Are you a Fantasy Baseball fanatic? Specialist in Hungarian folk dances? Maybe you have read every recent book about the Acadian-American experience? Find an excuse to make these passions public—writing in fan forums, starting a blog only 10 people read, whatever. You’ll get to deepen your knowledge, meet like-minded weirdos, and create opportunities you can only guess at. One of the easiest ways to develop a strange specialty—and greatly broaden your mind—is to just up and light off for a different part of the world for a while, preferably mastering its language. Those who spent the last half-decade writing about Egyptian heavy metal are in heavy demand today.

 

7) Don’t believe it when they say you can’t get rich, but first learn how to live poor

 

There are tens of thousands of American journalists making six figure salaries, a shocking number of millionaires, and there’s no reason to suspect their numbers are decreasing. The great disintermediation of journalism has made it easier than ever to identify and reward talent, and we’re still talking about a multibillion-dollar industry, one whose flagship model—the newspaper—averaged 20-percent profit margins for nearly a half-century. All that said, nothing stifles youthful innovation and experimentation more than depending prematurely on a significant standard of living. And nothing burns out talented young journalists faster than the compromises they must endure by working a bad job to make their car payments. Learning how to live frugally while young greatly expands your opportunities, builds more of a cushion for doing stuff like working for little or no wage for a quality publication, and above all else it gives you the magical power of being able to say the word “no.” When you don’t need the money, you’ll follow your journalistic heart, and that’s how you maintain passion for your craft.

 

 

This stuff is fun. At the heart of the rich gatekeeper’s lament is a sour nostalgia for pecking orders and perks, for a Chinese Wall between audience and authority. It’s profoundly unattractive. You are part of a great collaborative exercise in democratization, of chipping away at the concrete and replacing it with something new. Whether that lands you in the belly of the beast or locked with it in a cage match to the death, your can-do enthusiasm will prove decisive. Even as you transition from happy amateur to credentialed professional, don’t let the bastards get you down, and don’t ever let them tell you that the industry is dead.

 

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Reason.

 

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