Why young journalists shouldn’t ask me for career advice

Israeli journalists in 1948

Photo by Shershel Frank, 1948, via Israel Govt Press Office

After 16 years in journalism I am, quite possibly, the person least qualified in the world to give advice to a young journalist just starting out. So Ann Friedman, ex editor of GOOD, has just done me a huge favour. Now, when people ask, I can just point them to her post “#Realtalk for the j-school graduate on the first five years of your career“.

I am not qualified partly because, as Ann observes…

Assistant editors and blog editors and up-and-coming freelance writers are going to have career advice that is way more relevant to your life than wisdom from 20-year veterans. (Their advice is valuable too! Just…different.)

… and partly because my my tried-and-tested recipe for career success is this:

  1. Graduate from a programme so obscure that only half a dozen universities in the UK teach it. (Physics and philosophy)
  2. Do an even more obscure master’s. (Philosophy of social science)
  3. Happen to leave university just as one of the world’s best publications advertises a job vacancy tailor-made for you, saying explicitly that journalistic experience is not a prerequisite. (The Economist; science writer).
  4. Have a bored senior editor waiting for page proofs one evening accidentally come across your CV as he is idly riffling through the reject pile, and take a shine to you. (The late, much lamented Peter David.)
  5. Get hired, but not before verifying that the publication will, years hence, turn out to be one of the only ones in the world virtually untouched unharmed by a digital media revolution that nobody, and least of all your green tyro self, knows is coming.

It worked for me; it can work for you.

Luck aside, it’s striking just how much of Ann’s advice is the opposite of what it was when I began. Here are some of her tips, and my comments.

Write something short every day. Invest time and energy in the spaces you control: your blog and Twitter account… Use them to dash off quick opinions and keep track of things you’re interested in exploring at greater length…

Well, of course you could have written something every day if you wanted—probably good practice. But nobody would have seen it, which is the main point of Ann’s tip. And unthinkable the notion that you might publish something in half-baked form to develop it later—and, horror of horrors, make your ideas visible to other people before you’d wrung every drop of juice out of them.

Your ideas matter more than your prose. Sorry to crush your illusions, but it is possible to succeed in journalism without being a great writer…

This has always been true, as has the fact that brilliant writers can get away with a great deal more shoddiness in the idea department. But in the past these people were known as “columnists”, and they were paid handsomely for churning out what was often reheated garbage. Today only a handful can turn a thin idea into a thick pay-packet. And those who recycle their writing are more likely to get called out.

As for the not-brilliant writer, today he or she can be even less brilliant and still survive, thanks to spell-checkers. And the rigorous, even brutal training in the spare journalistic style that John Pilger describes is a rarity now. (In a piece I cannot find online, he wrote of how he petitioned an editor who had imposed a ban on adjectives to let him describe a fatal fire or some other event as “tragic”; the editor acquiesced, grudgingly, with a warning not to make a habit of it.)

Learn to write headlines…

In the old days, who gave a crap about headlines? It wasn’t the writer’s job but the editor’s, and they didn’t matter nearly as much as where on the page your story was placed. Now, of course, with SEO, the headline is paramount.

Email the people who have the job you want tomorrow

As in, don’t email them tomorrow (well, actually, do), but email the people who have today the job you want to have next. This is the bit where she gently mocks the wisdom of 20-year veterans and the one I most heartily applaud. Stop emailing me, really. I have absolutely no idea what to say to you.

Practice horizontal loyalty. Prioritize your relationships with people who are at a similar stage in their career. Yeah, it’s helpful to befriend accomplished older journalists, but it’s really the relationships with people on your level that will sustain you.

Indeed: the concept of “mentor” has shifted radically. People need older mentors, sure, but perhaps those mentors don’t need to be journalists. (Actually, scratch that; they should be, if only to give us over-40s a sense of self-worth and as a source for you of wacky stories about that weird planet we came from.) As with the previous point, today anyone who has just done what you want to do is a mentor. And thanks to the internet they’re also much easier to find. You can get mentored via Twitter, if you don’t make yourself a total pain in the ass.

So I am absolutely the wrong person to tell a young journalist how to get ahead in life. If, on the other hand, you are an old journalist wanting to figure out how not to get trampled into the dust by the young’uns and left for dead, I have some ideas for you…


2 thoughts on “Why young journalists shouldn’t ask me for career advice

  1. So you’re hiring….you need me! Pls check out my website, caitlinkelly.com — I couldn’t find a link where you mentioned this.

    Yes….advice to young un’s is useless — except for when it’s not. One of my assistants is a fresh Columbia U grad and she’s great…terrific work ethic, sense of humor, dogged, etc. She is very hungry for tips and encouragement so I give her as much as I can.

    I’ve been in this game professionally since 1978, and while the game has changed hugely in some respect, in others it has not. Smart people with terrific ideas and off-beat insights (not weird, off the margins) are still worth knowing and hiring and paying well, no matter what medium they produce content for. We are all deeply hungry for great stories told well by interesting people.

  2. rmk says:

    Some very interesting and potentially good advice. I appreciate getting lots of opinions from veterans and newer journalists too.

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