8 Lessons I’ve Learned Re: Building a Functional Journalism Career This Year
Earlier today, I wandered into my local bookstore and picked up a copy of Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown. Reading quickly gave way to introspection.
Here’s what the past 8 months have taught me:
1. Treat your fellow journalists (and/or journalism students) better than you want to be treated.
Journalists, as a rule, are super-busy and very stressed out. Most of them mean well, but they will likely forget to let you know about an awesome job opportunity or shout out your best pieces on Twitter and Facebook.
There will also be times when they seem annoyed at you or say something shady-sounding for no (readily apparent) reason.
Unfortunately, journalists are so busy that even if you do treat your cohort well, they may not have the time, energy, or inclination to help you out. Their time and energy budgets are beyond your control; the one part you can influence is their inclination to share info.
Methods for building good will include: Twitter RTs & shout-outs [specific praise & shout-outs > RTs, but both are good], providing free beer, introductions to journalism higher-ups, smiling, asking questions, sharing intel about potential jobs, lending books, and generally being a friendly, responsive human being.
2. Creating or participating in drama decreases your chances of getting an internship.
The journalism economy is unfair. It sucks. That’s why journalists are so stressed out all the time. If you say or do something that makes it more difficult for others to concentrate on their work, you are (1) being an ass and (2) actually sabotaging your career.
(And asking yourself, “Will this make my co-workers/classmates more or less stressed out?” before saying something is actually a pretty good heuristic. If it’ll most likely alleviate stress, you can say it. If it’ll make it worse, don’t.
There will probably be some moments when you say or do something without realizing that it’ll stress out your co-workers, but the thing to do when you’ve miscalculated is apologize, make it clear that you didn’t mean to enhance stress, and not do it again.)
If someone in a position to hire you, either observes or reads about you deliberately making other reporters’ lives more stressful, your chances of getting hired fall exponentially.
Even if your reporting and writing are impeccable, the increased stress from dealing with you is not worth it. (Unless you are Ida B. Wells or Hunter S. Thompson or some such legend, you are replaceable.)
3. (Speaking of HST) Your license to be “gonzo”or essayistic is directly proportional to your ability to listen and observe.
People who blurt thoughts out and/or confess to random mishaps may entertain their readers, but editors value them less than they do writers who quietly get their shit done.
Why did Hunter S. Thompson get away with it? Because he was fuckin’ amazing.
Not just at writing, but at observing and listening. People forget that about him, but seriously: Go read “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan”. (Or if you’re feeling like committing to a booklength thing, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail).
Dude was seriously observant, in spite of all the drugs and whatnot.
Honestly assess your own observational abilities before making a whole bunch of whatnot part of your public persona. Are they whatnot proof?
4. How editors value you does not define you, your writing, or your potential.
We all want to be valued by the people who have the power to pay us money in exchange for our work. However, even if your stock seems low at the moment, you still have a whole lot of potential to change that perception.
If you’re having a moment where you’re feeling down, jot down a private note about it (Or not. I’m the sort of person who has to get her unexpressed thoughts out in some way, or else they just take over my whole brain. If you’re one of the lucky bastards who can just get rid of negative thoughts some other way, do that), rewatch the video of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ advice to young writers, and then resume your current project.
If you put enough cool projects on the Internet, your value will increase eventually.
5. Read a lot. And write a lot. (Preferably every day, if at all possible.)
I have yet to meet a professional writer who does not recommend some form of “read, read, read” and “write, write, write”.
If you ever encounter one, I would like to meet that unicorn.
6. Trust that your co-workers and classmates will figure all this stuff out, too.
This one can be tricky, especially if you’re a veteran of the “read, read, read” camp, but people who can announce that they want to be journalists with a straight face tend to be smart. They will figure this out.
Also remember that there’s so much writing in the world that it’s possible to “read, read, read” without overlap.
7. Before launching (or re-launching) a blog, stockpile at least 5 posts that you can post as needed.
Because updating your blog consistently — by picking a day of the week or whatever — looks so much more professional. And there are probably going to be days or weeks where you’re just too busy or overwhelmed to write a post by Thursday (or whatever).
That’s when you go to your stockpile and pick the most relevant post.
If you use a post from your stockpile, be sure to write another post for your stockpile ASAP.
8. Make a list of your journalistic constituencies & do one thing each week to remind each journalistic constituency that you exist.
If you’re a young journalist, your most important constituency is probably “Editors”. Specifically “Editors at Publications Where the Publication Voice Sounds At Least Kinda Close to My Default Writing Voice”.
Other common constituencies include: “High School Friends,” “College Friends,” “Writers in My Age/Career Bracket,” and “People Who Live in the Town Where I Live”.
Personally, I also include: “Biology Grad Students & Post-docs” (who make up the majority of my non-bot Twitter base), “Scientists I Want to Interview”, “STEM Feminists”, “Aspiring Journalists”, “Disability Rights Advocates”, “Academics Who Are Procrastinating,” and “Assorted People Who Really Like My Essays”. (…And yes, your biggest fans will probably fall into more than one constituency.)
The things I do to remind each constituency I exist are usually small(ish) things I’d be doing anyway: pitch emails to editors, internship applications, tweets about cool stories, follow-up thank you notes to interviewees, event calendars for my local science writing peeps, and random meta-essays on Medium. But deliberately making sure I’ve done at least a small something for each set of people who support my writing helps me stay balanced.
(Plus, when I want to amp up my productivity, I’ll say, “Ok, today, I’m going to remind three categories within ‘Editors’ that I exist — with a pitch to a Boston editor, a pitch to a New York editor, and an internship app for a West Coast editor…And if I get all that done super-fast, I’ll send a pitch or thank-you note to a Midwest Editor before winding down for night.”)
If self-micro-managing isn’t your style, ignore this point. (Or well, you can ignore whatever you want, really.) But I’ve found that this line of thinking to be a useful way to sort out my to-do priorities.