Advice for Young Journalists

Felix Salmon stirred up a big online discussion this week with a post that essentially told budding journalists to not make journalism their career. To me, the last three paragraphs of his story are spot on:

I have every faith that great journalism will continue to appear online, and reach a large and grateful audience. For news consumers, that’s fantastic news. But I have no faith that the individuals creating that great journalism are going to end up getting paid anything near what they deserve — or even that most of them will be able to build a career out of it.

If all you care about is the great journalism, then, well, go out and find great stories to tell, and tell those stories in a compelling manner. You’ll always be able to find somewhere willing to publish them, even if they pay little or nothing for the privilege of doing so.

On the other hand, if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road, I don’t really know what to tell you. Except that the chances of getting there, if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower.

Note that Salmon is NOT saying journalism is dying (despite some people’s misreading). In fact, he sounds quite high on its future. What he is down on is the likelihood that a journalism practitioner will be able to make a decent living on it.

This echoes what I’ve believed for a while now: It’s a great time to do journalism; it’s a bad time to do journalism as your primary means of income. It’s not hard to see how those two statements can co-exist, but if you need an explanation, Salmon’s post lays it out well.

Some people seem upset at Salmon for giving this advice, but I think his analysis is something every budding journalist needs to read. It’s fine if they decide to keep working toward a journalism career after reading it, but they definitely should read it, because it’s about understanding what you are getting into.

Here are a few additional pieces of advice I’d offer to aspiring journalists: (more…)

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Doing the Right Thing

"You should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do it."

— Dean Smith

That just about sums up why I admire the man so much for reasons wholly unconnected to basketball.

Quote copied from Tar Heel Blog

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On Dean Smith

On a day awash in memories of Dean Smith, I have no tales of personal encounters with the legendary coach to share, but here’s what he meant to me.

When Smith said that a billion people in China didn’t know or care about the outcome of a UNC game, he was absolutely right. I was one of those billion people. When I emigrated from China to North Carolina in 1990, I was 10 and had never heard of the Tar Heels or Smith. I came from a country that had no tradition of pickup basketball and viewed sports in general as distractions best ignored in favor of homework. (more…)

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Photo: Family of Lemurs

lemurs

A family of lemurs huddles together for warmth at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. This family is on loan from the Toledo Zoo.

 

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First Look’s Non-Problem Problems

Vanity Fair has a long piece on the troubles at First Look Media. That, coupled with other reports about the media startup’s recent turbulence, makes it sound like part of the problem is a clash of cultures between the company’s Silicon Valley founder and its legion of journalists. According to the Vanity Fair story,

The problems at First Look are many, including an essential culture clash between people who appear to have antithetical opinions about everything from management style to subject matter to seating arrangements to whether journalists should have landlines. Disagreements over “process” have been at once petty and paralyzing.

And then you start reading the examples of this culture clash, and it strikes you just how ridiculously petty these things seem to be. The entire “Up Your Asana” section of the Vanity Fair story just makes you go, “You guys are grumbling about that?” To wit:

The editors were encouraged to use a task-management system called Asana. It works like this: a person creates a task on Asana and invites relevant colleagues to join the task. The task has a deadline, and everyone invited can see the chains of conversation about the task. When the task is completed, a box is checked, and the task goes into an archive. Jeremy Scahill jokingly called the program “up your Asana.” Matt Taibbi used the program so infrequently he had to be continually reminded of how it functioned.

First Look managers also encouraged the use of RASCIs—responsibility assignment matrices—to manage various projects, whether it was site design or promotional spots. The acronym stands for the five different categories of people on a given project: Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, Consulted, and Informed. Although many of the journalists were not expected to use RASCIs very frequently, editors occasionally had to. In an organization that First Look editors had billed as non-hierarchical, the use of responsibility assignment matrices rubbed some people the wrong way.

First, Asana: The description makes it sound like a typical project-management system, and as someone who has used such systems before, it’s the kind of thing that I would just shrug and go, “Yeah, it’s a new system. Big deal.” Also, how big an annoyance can it be if, in Taibbi’s case, you use it so infrequently that you can’t remember how it works?

Same with the RASCIs. They do sound antithetical to the way many journalists are used to working (but hey, so is “digital first”). But if the story is correct that the journalists were not expected to use them very often and that editors only “occasionally had to,” you have to again wonder why an infrequent annoyance could become a sore spot. Get it done and move on with life.

The other part that struck me as kind of interesting from the Vanity Fair piece:

In late July, Omidyar announced in a blog post that, instead of launching a variety of sites, First Look would be “building out” The Intercept and Racket. No other sites were immediately planned, and First Look would focus on experimenting with the technical aspects of distributing First Look’s journalism, rather than simply creating new content. For some of the journalists who had joined the site expecting to be part of a large, reporter-driven, and all-purpose media organization, the news came as a shock. Omidyar’s technical curiosity about the distribution of news was trumping his interest in actual news, some of the journalists said.

So let’s see: The journalists at First Look apparently

  • are more interested in mocking a piece of unfamiliar software instead of trying to make it work for them;
  • scorn a workflow that’s different than what they are used to; and
  • see leadership’s interest in the technical aspect of journalism distribution as a negative and distraction from what’s really important (writing stories)

Granted, the Vanity Fair article comes off as much more sympathetic toward Omidyar than the other accounts of the problems at First Look. Still, if these attributes were ascribed to journalists at a traditional media outlet, we would say they sound downright curmudgeonly and that their refusal to adapt to a new system is partly why their companies are flailing. How this can be a problem among employees at a startup founded by a Silicon Valley star is … befuddling.

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