Why Journalism

For 100 weeks in a row, there has been a feature inside POLITICO called Question of the Week. It was launched by our departing colleague Tomer Ovadia and each week someone from our business, technology or product teams has engaged a question about the future of media. These emails are a kind of rolling seminar and go out widely across several departments in Rosslyn, but the distribution list never grew to include many people in the newsroom or in Brussels or the states. Tomer asked me to guest author the 100th question this week and I thought I should share it company wide. The question on my mind is one everyone here has pondered in one way or another.

100. Why journalism?

I’m honored to join in the discussion for the 100th POLITICO Question of the Week. For all that this series has tackled changes in our business — in technology, in the competitive landscape — it strikes me that we should engage with our profession’s eternal question:

Why would someone go into journalism?

For those of us in the newsroom, this question, or its subsidiary — “Why should someone stay in journalism?” — is at the core of everything. As a practical matter, though, we hardly spend time with it. Editors are always answering why someone should come to POLITICO, or in this era of fierce competition for talent, why he or she should stay. That’s different than the fundamental choice of why this career in the first place.

Beyond the newsroom, on our sales, technology, human resources, and financial teams, slightly different versions of the same question echo: “What are we doing in the media business?” Perhaps friends and family put a sharper edge on it: “What the hell are you thinking?” Everyone knows the turmoil that has defined the news business for the past generation. Anyone smart enough to get hired at POLITICO knows that this disruption is likely to continue indefinitely, and has plenty of options in pursuits that may be more stable or more lucrative.

I’ll answer what the hell I was thinking, some 30 years ago, and what I think now, which is the same in some ways but different in key respects. My conclusion is a mix of head and heart, but on any important decision these two should be aligned.

My head and heart both believe this: People who are exceptionally talented, disciplined, and passionate about the media business can have more fun and more impact than ever before. And, with some good breaks, they can do better financially than ever before.

A warning: This optimistic appraisal applies for a relatively small strata of people whose efforts (and maybe a measure of luck) manage to give them what economists call comparative advantage: something distinctive for which they are known in the marketplace. I’m rather dour, by contrast, on media for people who don’t manage to attain one of those competitive levers. (I’m afraid my views are somewhat like those advertisements for prescription drugs, which open with smiling people free of heartburn or joint pain but then close with lengthy warnings about the risk of impotence or sudden death, and consult your doctor immediately if etc. etc.).

As I experienced it, I did not so much choose journalism as feel that it somehow chose me. I was in college, and a friend who was active on the student paper asked me to write a piece. I enjoyed it and wrote a couple more. Very suddenly, after never previously contemplating journalism, I decided this was what I was put on Earth to do. Without wishing to embrace mysticism, I felt as if some cosmic hand was pushing me to the right place, a sensation I have felt occasionally around other big choices in life, including the decision a decade ago to leave a comfortable professional home and start POLITICO.

Upon reflection, I think what appealed to me is that journalism is a composite that speaks to different sides of my temperament. In some moods, I am intrigued by people devoted to the “life of the mind,” as on a college campus. But this choice would probably be frustrating to me over time — I like being near the action of large events. At the other end of the spectrum I admire many people in public life, but I know well the sacrifices of personal freedom and compromises of conscience that are commonplace among people in politics. I’ve never had to do that in journalism.

I was captivated at age 18 by what still strikes me as the essential psychic lure of journalism — something that, in candor, first attracted me for self-gratifying rather than altruistic reasons. As a reporter, one has a license to overcome natural reticence or conventional courtesies and ask people questions, to follow personal curiosity where it takes you. Plus it was, and is, great fun to see your byline atop a piece, to take pleasure in a well-turned phrase, to have people react to what you write, in admiration or even in anger.

These pleasures, of course, are not (or at least should not be) by themselves sufficient to drive a career. My father was a surgeon, an idealistic man with a kind of dry, stoical style. He would always like to start conversations with his children by asking with a kind of playful half-smile, “So what did you do to make the world a better place today?”

Without wishing to sound like a Boy Scout, I regard the media business — whether working in the newsroom or supporting a publication in some other critical capacity — as a form of public service. In modest ways every day, and in large ways on big occasions, we are making the world a better place.

All these convictions, which first seized my thinking as a college freshman in the spring of 1982, still are the reasons why I’m a journalist. And they strike me as the best answer to this particular Question of the Week — journalism is a great career for someone who wants to do something worthwhile and get paid to have more fun at work than most people ever will. This is my response as to why a college freshman in 2016 would want to get into this profession. Or why younger journalists or media business or technology professionals, wisely asking themselves from time to time whether they are on the right long-term path, should stay on it.

But, but, but: There are some big things to think about. The incentives and opportunities of media, and the ways to climb the ladder, are different than they used to be.

When I was first attracted to this profession, we were living emphatically in an institutional age of journalism. A relatively small handful of media platforms had enormous power, largely unchallenged, to set the agenda of national affairs. What they decided was important — worthy of the front page or the 6:30 broadcast — is what everybody else in political and policy worlds treated as important. This editorial power was sustained by business models that made the institutions extraordinary amounts of money, and allowed them to cater to mass audiences with a general interest focus — coverage of Washington sitting side-by-side with foreign news, local news, movies and sports. Most of all, this era allowed editors to hire talented young people, train them as generalists, and inculcate them with a sense of institutional values and responsibilities.

The most important thing about you as a journalist was probably what came after your name. “Todd Purdum of The New York Times,” to cite a colleague with whom I have often discussed these themes. Because of my interest in politics and national affairs, the institution that attracted me was The Washington Post.

Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post from 1968 to 1991 | Getty Images

Not long after becoming interested in journalism, I sat in the library one day devouring a long Q and A interview in American Heritage magazine with Ben Bradlee, the Post editor of Watergate fame, conducted by Des Moines Register editor Michael Gartner. Ben was talking, in his inimitable way (even though I used to do a pretty good Ben Bradlee imitation) about the power and mission of the Post. I re-read the interview a few months ago, when POLITICO won the Benjamin C. Bradlee award from the National Press Foundation. You might find it interesting.

Within just a couple years, thanks to some lucky breaks (and I would say a kind of walk-through-glass determination) I found myself working at the Post, first as a summer intern and then a full-time reporter covering local news. I wonder if people now can appreciate how exciting it felt at age 21 to be in the midst (even if rarely in conversation), just across the newsroom, of figures who loomed so large in my imagination such as Bradlee, Mary McGrory, Bob Woodward, or David Broder.

Were these and other journalists who cut such wide path in those days larger figures than the ones in our midst now? Perhaps this is an optical illusion. As a young person who did not yet know these people well, I was aware of their achievements but not their infirmities, and not all the ways that reality can often fall short of legend.

In any event, I enjoyed the Post for two decades, and did well there. And then gradually — about a decade or so ago — it became plain to me that the institutional age of media was fading — just my luck as I was nearing the top of a now-troubled institution. In its place was emerging an entrepreneurial age of media.

What mattered in this age was not the legacy power of brands but the ability of individual journalists to have impact based on the power of their own expertise, creativity and authority.

POLITICO was born of this belief. We wanted to create a great institution but knew we were in an entrepreneurial age in which the fact that we were new, not anchored to old assumptions on either the editorial or business side, was a critical advantage. And we knew the key to our success was establishing a roster of distinctive journalistic voices — a few established stars and a larger group whom we believed (and we were right in an impressive number of cases) would be future stars under our guidance.

My use of the phrase “stars” may sound facile, so I should qualify what I mean. An entrepreneurial age of media is also an individualistic age. This does not mean that it is important for everyone to get on TV or establish a flamboyant presence on social media. It does mean, in my mind, that the people with the most successful careers are those who establish a reputation within relevant communities for doing something singularly well — the comparative advantage that I mentioned earlier. Ambitious journalists, not necessarily at the very start of their career, but usually by the time they are a decade or so in, should establish what’s sometimes called a “franchise.”

John Bresnahan is not often on TV, but he is known as the best-sourced, toughest and most trustworthy reporter on Capitol Hill. That’s his franchise. As an editor, Joanne Kenen knows more about health care policy than many of the health care policy officials she and her reporters cover. That’s her franchise. Michael Kruse has a singular gift for illuminating character, and the infinitely absorbing ways in which people’s past informs who they are in the present. That’s his franchise, one that he has employed to wonderful effect for POLITICO readers over the past year in Kruse’s highly original coverage of Donald Trump.

You’ll never hear me say that institutional values don’t matter at POLITICO. There are certain newspaper conventions and customs that I grew up with that are no longer relevant and can safely be discarded. But the task of contemporary editors is to defend and vindicate certain values — fairness, truth, relevance, brilliant story-telling, commitment to the public interest — that are timeless. That’s what Susan Glasser and Peter Canellos in our Washington newsroom believe, as do Matt Kaminski in Brussels and Carrie Budoff Brown (our incoming editor), as do Josh Benson and Tom McGeveran in New York.

It’s also true that in the old days institutions had a certain stolid benevolence that allowed people to be happily a bit aimless. You could be a solid citizen, a reliable generalist, maybe cover education for a while, then go abroad and come back and cover the environment, a little of this and a little of that, and have a very secure, very respectable career. No sensible person these days would regard this kind of path as a sound strategy for career success.

Journalism will always welcome generalists. And I would say journalism, and other lines of the media business, will always be a great adventure for talented people in their twenties and thirties. You get to meet interesting people, hop on the occasional airplane, have interesting stories to share in the conversation at parties. Along the way, you learn a wealth of knowledge about the way the world runs that is valuable even if you eventually wind up in a different line of work.

But I observe that the media professionals who are building careers that carry them through a professional lifetime, who are reaping the greatest psychic rewards and the greatest financial ones, are organizing their efforts around making themselves the very best at some important facet of the craft.

I believe POLITICO has a comparative advantage of its own in this environment, since we’re a highly focused publication, dedicated to dominating the politics and policy space, rather than a general interest platform organized around chasing every latest thing.

No matter how much disruption and reinvention the business goes through, and no matter how much heartache befalls legacy publications that don’t adapt or new media experiments that don’t work out, journalists, technologists, and business professionals who make themselves singularly good at something important will always do very well.

Those are the people who can give the most convincing, and most exuberantly optimistic answer to the question, “Why would someone go into journalism?”

As for my own choices, I think of the answer Ben Bradlee gave in that American Heritage interview. Asked by Gartner if he would do it all again, Bradlee answered, “I would do it so fast! I wonder what took me so long, till I was sixteen, when I got my first job as a copy boy.”


John Harris is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Politico and is one of its co-founders.