So Felix Salmon set journo-Twitter afire this afternoon with some very grim advice to aspiring journalists; namely, don't become a journalist.
Like Felix, I also get occasional e-mails from aspiring journalists. And my advice is very different; namely, become a journalist! Awhile back I sat down and tried to write up my best guidance for how to do that. It's incomplete, and imperfect, and biased towards my own experience, but in the hopes that it's useful to somebody, somewhere, here it is.
Here's my guiding principle: 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. The reasoning here is simple: Insofar as you're building skills, you want to be building skills you actually intend to use. If your dream is to be an economy reporter, the best possible way for you to spend your time is reporting stories about the economy. It is not to be an associate editor for campaign coverage. Which leads to perhaps my biggest concrete piece of advice:
Trade prestige for opportunity. One mistake I see young reporters make is to prize the prestige of the outlet above the nature of the job. So a process job at a heavyweight institution like Slate is better than a low-level writing job at a tiny policy magazine. In my view, that's dead wrong. When Slate goes to hire its next economy writer, it's going to look first to people who have done some excellent economic writing. It will hire — as happened — someone like Matt Yglesias or Annie Lowrey or Jordan Weissmann, all of whom were showing themselves to be ace economic writers at smaller outlets and in the blogosphere.
The underlying idea here is to think like the outlet. When outlets look to bring on new talent, they care about the pieces the talent has written, not the prestige of the outlet the talent was writing for. The talent should prioritize similarly. So fight to do the kind of work you want somebody to notice — even if that means doing it from your own blog.
You can outwork your elders. In his piece "Slackers," Malcolm Gladwell writes that "hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work hard." This is a very good principle to keep in mind.
A good example is Buzzfeed's Andrew Kasczynski. He went from a college student with a Twitter feed to a force in campaign journalism simply by showing, again and again, that campaign reporters were lazy, and he was not.
My favorite example is his discovery, quite late in 2011, that Mitt Romney had written an op-ed for USA Today in 2009 essentially telling Obama, explicitly, to add an individual mandate to his health care plan. The discovery of this document was a big story, and for obvious reasons. But think about what it says that it fell to Kaszcynski to discover that. 2009 was only two years before 2011. Romney was already a leading national Republican when he published that essay. Health care was the top issue in the country. And USA Today is the best-read newspaper in America. Someone — perhaps USA Today — should have filed that piece away for later use. No one did. And so Kasczynski got the glory.
Don't go to journalism school. You're better off just interning, or writing a blog, or reading think-tank papers. When I hire, I see j-school experience as neutral — it doesn't separate one resume from another in the least. And a lot of journalism schools teach bad habits, and make you pay for the privilege of learning them. Michael Lewis's takedown of journalism schools, which was published in the New Republic, is worth reading. Letting someone pay you a bit of money to become a journalist, or even pay you nothing at all, is better than paying a j-school a lot of money to become a journalist.
Learn things about things. Pretty much everybody in journalism can write. The fact that you can also write probably won't set you far apart. 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. Try to figure out what your particular interests and/or skills are. Then work to make those competitive advantages. Subject area expertise is wildly undervalued in journalism, but it's what makes the best journalists.
Don't just write for your editor. This can be a bit counterintuitive, as your editors are the folks you proximately have to please. But what will really please your editors is if you end up doing great work that makes you essential to your readers (and, if that's not true, screw your editor). And writing for your editors can be a huge impediment to pleasing your readers.
In particular, your editor will often want something "new." That is to say, they will want something that they, a highly educated hyper-consumer of news products, hasn't seen before. But your readers don't necessarily want the stories your editors haven't read. They want the stories that explain their world to them. Those stories are often absurdly basic, and they might feel like repeats of past stories: What's in this bill? Why do we care about inflation? What does the Fed do?
Sometimes, your editor will say that your outlet, or some other outlet, ran that story last June. But your reader likely did not read that story, and if they did read it, they don't remember it. So always take care, when trying to figure out how to cover a story that's dominating the news, to keep in mind the value of giving your readers the basic information that they need to make every other story on the subject comprehensible, even if your editor doesn't think that story is sexy. That's why it can be good to have access to a blog or something where there are fewer gatekeepers between you and the "publish" button.
Don't get too hung up on vertical mentoring. A lot of young reporters appear to come into journalism thinking some gruff, wise veteran is going to take them under their wing and teach them the tricks of the trade. Sometimes, that happens. Usually, it doesn't. And then they complain about the fact that it hasn't happened.
In my experience, horizontal mentoring — basically, very tight working relationships with people who are approximately at your level — is more common, and usually more valuable. So keep your eyes out for opportunities to learn from your peers, as they're often generous with their time, and don't get too hung up on trying to cultivate mentors up the food chain, as they're often busier, and frequently have less that's relevant to teach you.
Don't get too depressed. While there's less vertical mentoring than you might hope, there's a lot of vertical bitching. The Death of Journalism is a favorite topic of many older writers, and for good reason: The industry is undergoing a wrenching and unusual transformation, and that's made it very tough to be midway up the old ladder. But that same transition has also created a lot of new opportunities for journalists who are just starting out. To give just a few examples, Vox, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Politico didn't exist as recently as a few years ago, and now we hire tons of young journalists.
In my experience, the labor market for talented young journalists covering national news is actually fairly tight (the local news market is a much rougher story). Even better, the transition to more digital journalism means that young journalists have more opportunity to show their stuff, as they're not competing for a scarce number of pages with older journalists. The Death of Journalism is really a kind of disruptive change in journalism, and that's bad for incumbents, but you're not an incumbent.
Whatever you do, just don't go to law school. At least not unless you're really sure you want to be a lawyer. And maybe not even then.