Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Advice To An Aspiring Journalist

An old friend's niece wanted advice on a future career in journalism, including whether or not she should pursue the editorship of the University of Illinois' Daily Illini. I sent two replies, one a brief note urging her to try for the job, and later the one below.

I decided to put down some thoughts about the crisis in journalism. In doing so I risk the sort of pedantry that begins to afflict people once they hit the age of 40 or so, and typically keeps growing over time. I'll try to steer as clear of it as I can, but some of it is inevitable.

Newspapers have been the heart and soul of journalism for a couple hundred years, and they are dying. It's not simply a shift of publishing technology. The Internet, which is misunderstood, has made it possible for everyone to be an unfiltered publisher, and censor, and more importantly it has steadily eroded the financial base that makes newspapers possible. I doubt newspapers as we know them will exist in 20 years, and maybe not even in 10 years.

A side note about the Internet. There is no “Internet,” per se. Rather, it is a label applied to the family of technologies that allow access to data libraries stored on computers connected to the telecommunications network. What once existed to carry voices between two points now carries digital codes that evoke sounds and visual images. The telecom network itself has been a series of computers since the 1970s, and the peripheral devices connected to that network have been computers since the 1990s.

In the last 15 years or so, the peripherals have envolved to facilitate very cheap mass storage of coded data, high-capacity transmission all the way to the endpoints, and easy manipulation and transformation of data to allow its presentation as sounds and images. The effect has been to critically undermine a publisher's ability to control what information he possesses, and to create alternative means of delivering it.

It Started With The Loss of Classified Advertising

Before E-Bay and Craig's List existed, I created a business plan for computerized classified ads. I did it as a business school exercise in 1989. I noted that 40% of newspaper revenue consisted of classified advertising broken down into four categories: employment, housing, automobiles, and general merchandise. Classified ads were ripe for the picking. Newsprint rubs off on readers' hands; space limitations prevent full descriptions and pictures; searches and comparisons were tedious; rates were expensive; distribution of information was local and therefore inefficient.

Today, Ebay and Craig's List dominate the advertising of general merchandise. Auto Trader.com dominates the advertising of used cars. Housing is a mixed bag, with the newspapers hanging on mainly because all real estate is local and they've gone on-line themselves. Employment is also an area of strength for newspapers, because it lends itself to centralization yet is local. The alternative press, which once rested heavily on personal ads, many of them explicit, has been decimated by the growth of online personals, including but by no means limited to Craig's List.

None of this will change, and the result has been the gutting of newspaper budgets and staffs. There has been a downward spiral in which there is less and less of interest in the newspaper, because there aren't the staff members to produce original content. Meanwhile, the Internet's facilitation of easy, unfiltered publishing alternatives has created a thriving competitive threat among the blogs. None of this has been helped by the newspaper industry's general lack of management vision and talent, as exemplified by the inability of virtually every one of them to charge their readers for online access.

I think that readers eventually will pay for online access, but by the time it happens newspapers will be dead and their content will be changed forever. As an old guy, I find this lamentable, and worry that we will lose some critical benefits newspaper journalism has delivered over the years, most notably the detailed scrutiny of government, and their function as a shared reality tying communities together. If I were younger, I might be more inclined to see the great opportunities ahead. You're in college and an aspiring journalist, which means that you are heading straight into a tornado. I hope you're a storm chaser is all I can say, because this is one hell of a storm.

The Traditional Journalism Career Path Is Dying, or Dead

The old model of attending journalism school and then getting a job at a small market newspaper, and then climbing the ladder toward the major metros, is dying fast and in fact may well already be dead. The major metros are getting rid of people, and soon enough I think we'll start to see some major cities without even a single newspaper. At or near the top of my list would be San Diego, but maybe it'll be a different place. I'm not sure that it really matters.

So, if you still want to be a journalist, what do you do? For starters, I don't think it's possible to make any fixed plans in that industry past college. What you can do, though, is take advantage of the opportunities within the college environment to think about what's happening and prepare yourself for what's coming in your life.

The economic underpinnings of newspapers, and their function in society, are vanishing, but where they still exist you should be involved. The opportunity to be the editor of the Daily Illini is not to be passed up. The only way to learn about journalism is to practice it, and the campus paper is an excellent vehicle for that. Also, as I noted in a prior e-mail, it is an executive, leadership position that will augment your appeal to any potential employer in any field. Of all the decisions you face, that one is the easiest.

Beyond that, I think you'd do well to explore the elements that go into journalism. Study the history of journalism. I don't think you need a full course in the subject; instead, ask a professor for a book or two. Basically, you need to understand where journalism came from to begin with, so you can understand its essential appeal over time. It started as travel writing, including specialized reports from diplomats, traders, spies, and military forces. Journalism was in demand by people who needed reliable information.

From there, it grew into political activism. All of the American newspapers prior to the Civil War were controlled by political factions. The first amendment says nothing about accuracy or objectivity; it was assumed that out of the cacaphony, people would glean the truth. Today's blogs are pre-Civil War journalism, with all of the same warts. The next phase was introduced by the Civil War; people wanted reliable, truthful battle accounts. Objectivity was a creature of the marketplace, and it was facilitated by technological advances that permitted wide, cheap distribution of the product. It was supported by paid advertising from businesses who also had a commercial interest in a credible product that would be widely read.

The Timeless Elements of Journalism

What's relevant about all of that is that people have a hunger for reliable information. Newspapers will die, but the demand for reliable information will not. That's the key here. It is enduring and timeless.

In considering what's reliable, a journalist needs to be able to separate fact from opinion. Even if the objective model that predominated after the Civil War, and especially after World War II, goes away for a time, those who present slanted viewpoints need to grasp and accommodate objective reality. There are eventually limits on what level of propaganda readers and/or viewers will accept. So, if you have the time left to do it, I'd recommend an introductory philosophy class, and if it's offered, a logic class.

Journalism has always been a rapidly spoiling product, so I think there is only limited utility in detailed study of great journalism of the past for its own sake. To the extent you do study past journalists, do it as a means of getting to the timeless essentials. There, I'd recommend Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken for their descriptions and commentaries on their times. I think they were the greatest we had, and that their critical methods go to the heart of what journalism will always be.

As for writing itself, most journalism is forgettable, hackneyed crap. People rarely have the time to do it any other way. Two exceptions that I know of were the Kansas City Star of the 1950s, and the New York Times of the 1980s and 1990s. The Star of that era produced something akin to daily poetry, using an economical, unvarnished, factual, direct style that was also wryly humorous (often hilarious) and somehow left enough room for the reader to do some thinking on his own. The New York Times, at its peak, was complete yet concise and occasionally even lyrical, and got to the essence of the matter. Even today, albeit diminished, the Times has moments of greatness. In any case, it is worth finding and reading archives of the Star from the '50s and the Times from the '80s and '90s as models for great daily exposition. 

Campus Journalism: Look Past Student Government

If you wind up as the editor of the Illini, latch onto anyone who has a passion for telling stories in a clear, concise, economical, relevant, and interesting way. In college newspapers, the prize goes to those who show up. One thing I would point out (and tried to point out to others when I worked on my college paper) is that a university is a treasure of interesting people and topics. The average college paper spends way too much time on the student government, and far too little time on the amazing things happening in the various academic departments.

Find yourself a Mark Twain, or better yet two of three of them, and send them into the biochemistry department to see what diseases they are getting ready to loose upon the world, or cure, or both. Ask the history department what parallels they see between now and then. Explain why so many English majors want to kill themselves. Are football players really that stupid, or do they just inhabit a non-Euclidean alternate universe? The list is endless, and just about all of it is ignored by the average college paper. Report it with style, grace, verve, passion, acceptance, some mercy, and a great sense of humor, and you'll be shocked at how many people will be clamoring for what you produce.

I've gone too far already, so I'll wrap this up with my sincere and heartfelt best wishes. I hope you apply for that editorship, win the job, and then run with it. I don't think you'll regret it. I tell my nieces that nothing they read is ever wasted, and I pretty much think the same about anything you write, as long as you care about the subject, respect your reader's intelligence, and value his time. Good luck!


  1. I think you've done your friend's niece a great service. I would add this point: the newspaper is dead, but journalism isn't. Consumers of journalism are not constrained to a few sources; they will search though thousands, and find the best.

    Journalists are going to need to specialize. They can't cover sports in a major city. They're going to have to be the best source in the world on one team. They can't cover "business." They've got to be the world's expert on a few companies or products or technologies.

    My advice would be to go work for The Illini, but study the subject you want to write about. If you want to write about health care, study nursing or biochemistry, not journalism.


  2. Hey Glenn, thanks for the comment. I agree with you about specialization. I was actually going to talk about it, but I looked up and saw how long the thing was getting and decided not to.

    Bylines have always been a feature of newspapers, but the inside joke was that no one but the editor at the next paper you applied to cared. I think that'll change in a big way, and that individual journalists will be their own brands.

    That's a double edged sword, of course, but I think there's a good chance that it's the way it'll be.