Actual Advice for Young Journalists

Number one? Spill your guts.

Ok, here’s my promise: I won’t lie to you.

I’m not an experienced journalist — I’m what the experienced journalists call a “young journalist.” Still, I’ve never (to my memory) written a true and pure listicle, and never been taken to task over how many pageviews my stories get. I make my living off my writing, and I’ve written some things I’m quite proud of. I’m not of the same caliber as Felix Salmon (aged 42) or Ezra Klein (aged 31), who, by the mysterious alchemy of wonky political and economic news, or the “luck” of a reasonably predictable economic crisis,, have found themselves thrust into some of internet’s cushiest new media jobs — as resident ”old” at Disney/ABC’s Fusion, or editor-in-chief of the flagship publication of a $380 million media company, respectively.

You’d think smart guys like Felix and Ezra — who have kept their nose to the grindstone, written for all the heavy hitters, and elbowed their way to the top — you’d think guys like this would give great advice, right? Of course! That’s probably why you emailed them to get coffee. The problem is, they get emails like that all the time; from young, eager writers who idolize them, read their every blog post, and think (for shame!) that maybe if they buy one of these guys coffee, they’d impart some valuable wisdom.

The problem is, each time these guys get one of these such emails from one such aspiring youth, it inflates their ego a little bit more. The deeply researched flattery and gracious, accommodating language of each email that you so painstakingly crafted only confirms their growing suspicions — that their time is valuable, their job is coveted, and their success, despite their oft-admitted privilege, is not only remarkable but might, despite being completely institutionalized, be equally as earned as everybody elses. And with that misconception they go forward, to pen an “open letter” to all of you — the thirsty, drooling “young journalists.” And here it is: Felix Salmon’s “To All The Young Journalists Asking For Advice” (Fusion) and Ezra Klein’s marginally more hopeful “This Is My Best Advice To Young Journalists“ (Vox).

There is no concrete advice in these letters. They are filled with weird, made-up platitudes like “writing for your editors can be a huge impediment to pleasing your readers” (Klein) and “If you don’t have my advantages in life, it’s going to be harder for you than it was for me” (Salmon). And despite the really-full-disclosure tone of these letters (I’m white, I’m privileged, I have a Smart Accent), these letters somehow still are completly stunting as harbingers of useful information to hard-working young people. You’d think that, by admitting some of their built-in potential for success on a high-level, they’d be humbled enough to give up some honest, insightful tidbits that young journos couldn’t get anywhere else, and could actually use, right?! It’s like, tell us your SECRETS, guys, you’ve been in the biz for, how many decades now?

But no, contained in these two letters is a goldmine of vague, hackneyed, sometimes-insane excuses for best practices, under the guise of being tuned-in to a new media climate. (It’s worth noting that many other well-known journalists, including Roxane Gay, Laurie Penny, Chris Ziegler and others posted their own advice which, despite a few gems here and there, were all just as vague).

As a “young journalist” myself, who has somehow found a way to support himself, for the time being, on writing about current events, there is something about all of this advice that I find to be simultaneously cynical, removed, and totally misleading. I don’t worry so much about the savvy media types, who have already turned this over and disposed of it on Twitter, or the bloggers who jumped to respond: they are largely talking to each other. I worry about real, “young journalists,” who stumble across these letters — because, let’s face it, Fusion and Vox are huge outlets — and actually try tofollow this dumb advice.

I don’t know how much I can offer, being that I’m a “young journalist” (aged 25) myself, but I’ve had some good clips in the past couple of years, and I did it all on my own, so at the very least I hope I can provide a specific, instructive, and hopefully useful alternative to these self-congratulatory missives fronting as intimate advice.

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Image via Travis S., Flickr, cc 2.0

So, just like the big boys, here’s my full disclosure: I first wrote for a national audience when I was 20. Until I was 22, I wrote mostly music reviews (A.V. Club, SF Weekly, Noisey). In the year and a half that I’ve been writing what qualifies as “hard news,” I’ve worked my way up, independently, to publish on the websites of the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and in the magazines of Playboy, the New York Times, and others, as well as across various blogs such as The Toast, The Awl, the LA Review of Books, and a couple more (below, I’m going to try to tell you how I did that). During that time, I also lost a ton of vision (I have a genetic disorder which has, over the course of several years, rendered my retinas like wet tissue paper), and though that gave me some good writing material, it has only made for approximately 20% of what I’ve written about. I have a college degree from a renowned university (Berkeley), though I’m fairly certain that the main thing that the word “Berkeley” did for me was to help me land an internship (at NPR, aged 20) which, as much as I would have liked, never materialized into a job. I have been on social security (disability) for about a year, which pays $600 per month. My rent in South Berkeley is $600 per month, and everything else I pay for with my writing.

I am writing this very fiery letter, at 11:30 p.m. on a Monday, because I have finished all my other assignments and felt like it was important. I’m three beers in, and feeling nervous, because it is unlike me to take on such media moguls as Ezra Klein and Felix Salmon. In the morning, I’m going to send this draft to Matter, The Awl, and a couple other outlets whose editors I have had contact with in recent months (perhaps the Atlantic,or The Toast). Who knows who will bite: perhaps no one, at which point this will immediately lose its timeliness and never be looked at again. If Matter publishes it, I may get lots of money; if The Awl publishes it, I’ll probably get $100. (*If you want to know what happened when I sent this draft around this morning, see below) But this piece, unlike the ones I write for print magazines, is not to pay my rent or buy my groceries (though that’d be nice): It’s to keep my name out there, and remind people that I’m someone who’s #relevant and not afraid to voice an opinion. Yikes. How’s that for honesty?

So without further ado, here’s my actual advice for “young journalists”:

Try to get into a good college.

This, of course, starts at an early age, and if you’re a teenager reading this, take heart! Getting into a good college has nothing to do with getting you a good job, but it will still set you up to succeed. Here’s how:

1) You will be able to get a good internship, which will teach you valuable entry-level skills and give you an open-ended connection to a good company, whether you use that connection or not.

2) You will make friends with smart people who go on to do big things; and if you’re a good friend, they will help you out once they get settled. Even if you’re not white, privileged, and/or career-minded, many of your friends will be, and they will be good people to know.

3) If you’re lucky, you’ll learn how to write — before you actually are held to the fires of “journalism.” Studying English literature does not teach you how to write clearly. Classes that do this include: history, anthropology, language, rhetoric, and all the other ones people say result in unemployment.

Figure out what makes you “special” and confront it.

For me, it was being blind. Now, that might seem easy, like I had some great advantage (hah!), but really, everyone has experienced something fascinating that they can tap into for their writing. If you’re a person of color, queer, or disabled, it is a matter of turning your marginalized status into an advantage: Not only do you have an underrepresented perspective, which enlightened editors are always looking for, but you probably also have access to communities of people, places, and experiences that the typical journalist does not. This means, even if you’re not ready to write from personal experience, you can tap into sources that other people don’t have immediate access to or aren’t familiar with. That is a huge leg up on every other aspiring journalist who’s scouring the internet for ideas.

White guys, never fear: you are probably special too. Odds are you’re bipolar, have dealt with substance abuse, or were raised in a cult. As Americans, we’re taught to avoid pain, but if you’re a journalist you’re going to have to get good at seeking it out!

Get to know the journo cliques, but don’t get too attached.

It’s not that hard. In the U.S., they’re mostly in New York, some in LA, a few in DC, and as of late are stampeding toward San Francisco. Go on twitter and start following everybody. They’re all talking to each other — right now! I’d estimate there’s about 2,000 media people (maybe 2–5 from each of the 300 best publications, plus as many freelancers) who make up the journalism Twitter clique. You can follow them all if you want! If you realy don’t know where to start go check who I’m following, I’d say I follow about a quarter of them. It’s a whole world of urgent info, inside jokes and career anxiety, as if you didn’t have enough already. Seriously though, there’s a lot of good people on there, people who love giving thoughtful advice and respond promptly to emails, so it’s well worth investing some time in figuring out who’s who at each publication that you’re interested in. Just don’t get too invested, mostly because you’ll end up getting sucked into esoteric echo chambers like the one I’m running around in right now, and also because hold on *puts hand to ear* yes, I’m just getting word now that Twitter is dead.

Don’t mistake personal connections for luck.

There are a couple ways of looking at this. The cynical person boils it down this way: life is all about connections, or, I’ll never succeed because I hate networking. The non-cynical way to look at it is: Be nice to everyone you meet or, at the very least, treat everyone with dignity and generosity, because you never know who might help out later, or give you an opportunity. Jesus would have been like, “just love your neighbor, son.”

Felix Salmon’s obsession with “luck” (discussed below) is not, if you think about it, actually luck. It has to do with the fact that when an opportunity opened up, somebody knew and liked Felix enough to give him a shot at the job. All this shit about I don’t know why I have this job, I’m not qualified I’m just lucky is a humblebragger’s way of saying “people liked me so they hooked me up.”

Here’s my big hook-up:

The first ‘serious’ story I ever wrote was for the Atlantic website. You want to know how I got it? Andrew Golis, who works at the Atlantic, was my neighbor growing up. I never met him, but knew his name. My dad bumped into his parents at the grocery store (small town), then my dad called me and told me, off-handedly, that hey, little Andrew was now working at the Atlantic. I naively emailed Andrew, unaware that he was such a bigshot now and that “entrepreneur-in-residence” really meant he had very little to do with the editorial process, and told him I had an idea for a story. He, kindly, put me in touch with Alexis Madrigal, who liked my idea. That’s not luck, that’s just having kind neighbors.

That said, you can do it without connections.

Many of my big breakthroughs had nothing to do with someone that my dad bumped into at the grocery store. The editor at the New Yorker (DOT COM!), for instance, was someone who I first contacted through a form on her personal website. It was Vauhini Vara, who had just been hired to edit the site’s new business blog, and sending her a cold email ended up being one of the best things I ever did for my career as a journalist. She turned down my first idea, of course. I took the idea elsewhere, and when I came back to her with a second idea, she accepted it. Here are some notes on working with editors you don’t know:

1) Pitch to new editors; editors who have just been hired are almost always in way over their heads, freaked out, and desperate for writers with good ideas. Even if your ideas aren’t perfect, a new editor will likely put in more effort to help you turn your idea into a viable story. Once editors have been kicking around for a year or two and are set in their ways, they are way less likely to go back and forth with you developing your pitch into something worthwhile.

2) Don’t burn bridges with editors or assume, even ifyou’ve been denied once, twice, three, ten times, that you can’t land a pitch. I spent a year being beachballed between several editors at the New York Times Magazine and had several editors hem, haw, and waffle over several different drafts, before, seemingly on a whim, they decided to publish me — which had nothing to do with the quality of the draft, but everything to do with it resonating with the right combination of people on the right day.

Here’s how I got some of my favorite assignments, from people I’d never met:

NPR, All Songs Considered: cold-emailed Bob Boilen and told him, spiritedly, that I wanted to work for him one day

The Atlantic: cold-emailed Andrew Golis because our parents lived in the same neighborhood

NewYorker.com: cold-emailed Vauhini Vara on her personal website by filling out “contact” form

The Toast: cold-emailed Mallory Ortberg whose email I got off The Toast’s website

LA Review of Books: friend worked there, asked him to e-introduce me to an editor, to whom I then sent a fully written draft

NYT Mag: cold-emailed submission to lives@nytimes.com, pulled my hair out and played ball with indecisive editors for ~10 months

Playboy: they read my piece on NYer.com and called me

The Awl: cold-emailed Matt Buchanan

Scratch Magazine: just showed up at a public (Twitter) meetup where the editors were drinking, hung out with them like a human

Here’s another thing about editors:

Listen to the f***ing editor.

Learn from them. I’m not going to go deeply into this other than just to say that they are so, so much smarter than you. Give yourself a year or two before you trust your own instincts — for the time being, trust theirs. If you take edits gracefully, and really strive to figure out why they butchered your piece, you will learn a ton. In my first days as a blogger, I didn’t even know how much I was learning — all that I knew is that my editor (at the time, Stephen Thompson or Robin Hilton) was completely rearranging my copy. And I just went with it, and made sure to pay attention.

You will not get better overnight, though, no matter how much you hang on your editors every word. Which is why you need to:

Figure out your side-hustle.

This is to sustain you while you doubt yourself for the first 18 months. There are a rare few people who land full-time jobs or support themselves entirely from freelance right out of the gate, but almost no one gets to that point on their own financial steam. For me, it was the several months that I relied almost entirely on social security; For some it’s a loving, patient parent, or a deceased grandmother’s trust fund; For many, it’s a supportive spouse; Some people wait tables by day and write at night, though I’d hardly recommend that as a means to productivity; Some people sell drugs.

Either way, swallow your pride and figure out how you’re going to support yourself, at least for a little bit, while you’re making a name for yourself as a journalist. One big lifesaver for me was my friend Avalon Radys, who offered me a contracted, 15–20 hr/week job curating news stories for an app called Umano. It was a perfect match — forcing me to read the news (all types) every day, while making me a few hundred extra dollars on the side. Which brings me to the next big one:

Know the news.

This is obvious but important. I was considering titling this one “have good ideas,” but that is really a byproduct of knowing the news. Felix Salmon will tell you all about the “Death of RSS,” but I’m here to tell you that I use a program called NetNewsWire, where I’ve racked up nearly 250 RSS feeds (including magazines, blogs, podcasts, etc.), sorted into subcategories like “Local,” “A list,” “B list,” “Music,” and “Other,” and if I’m on the hunt for story ideas, I do my best to skim through almost all of it as often as possible. Right now the unread story count, after a few days, is at 21,620.

The main idea behind reading as much as you possibly can, even if it’s way out of your area of interest, is that you will subconsciously start understanding the news landscape. This, in turn, will keep you from generating pitches about topics that are overcovered. If you read enough news, or even just read the headlines, you will implicitly know where the holes are in the news cycle, and therefore what makes a pitch exciting to an editor.

This is one of the only useful pieces of advice in Salmon’s article:

“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.”

— That, as much as I don’t want to concede it, is good advice. But to conclude, I want to personally debunk some more of Salmon’s more misleading suggestions:

”Even successful journalists rarely do much of the kind of high-minded stuff you probably aspire to.”

— This is untrue. I’m hardly even successful (at least, financially) and I am proud of the work I do. I know tons of people who feel the same.

“Labor has almost no leverage over capital any more, which helps explain the rash of “Uber for X” startups: they’re nearly all based on the idea that there is a bottomless pool out there of people with smartphones willing to do just about anything (drive a car, go shopping, do laundry, clean an apartment) for $15 an hour. If a company loses one of those workers, it’s no big deal, it just replaces that person with someone else who’s just as good and just as cheap. Now just apply that model to journalists.”

— I can’t think of a greater logical fallacy than this. To say that the young, scrappy journalists at someplace like BuzzFeed or Gawker or VICE are as interchangeable as the contractors at Uber, Instacart, or Wash.io is just wrong. It’s like suggesting that a massive, popular restaurant could just grab someone off the street and expect them to immediately be a line cook, as if there wasn’t a huge amount of training and adeptness required to perform at that establishment’s standard. I get it — we’re not all going to be chefs — but to call us unskilled workers is a bit of a stretch. Plus, there are tons of skilled workers who drive Uber anyway — they’re trying to game the system, too!

“And I’m also a pretty bad judge of journalistic ability…”

— Which is why you should definitely listen to his advice?

“And so if you want my advice, it’s simply this: it doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do, your success, in this industry, is always going to be governed in large part by luck. There’s no particular reason to believe that the best route to success is to first get your foot in the door churning out listicles, and then somehow work your way up the ranks.”

— Who in God’s name said that “listicles” was the only option? Getting your foot in the door, as we so callously call it, is just a fancy way of saying “getting started.” Everybody has to get started! And, last time I checked, there are still hundreds, thousands of websites, newspapers and magazines who would never even touch something called a “listicle,” even with a pair of tongs. Go work for an alt weekly, they still exist! Work in radio! Get an internship at the alumni magazine! Write health tips for a yoga blog! It’s all good.

To soften Salmon’s misdirections a bit more, know that being “career-oriented” is simply being enthusiastic about what you’re doing, to the point where you are obsessed with getting better. His warning that you’ll never achieve a “well-paid, middle class lifestyle down the road,” well, that’s a boogeyman that he’s created to deter the kind of “young journalists” who (he thinks) are gunning for his job. How many noble pursuits really provide that kind of assurance, anyway? Certainly not being a teacher, or a chef, or a contractor, or a librarian. All of these people, the ostensible “middle class,” feel like they’re struggling. But, if they’re pleased with how their job contributes to society and makes them feel at the end of the day, they find a way to make it work. And so will you. And, while we’re at it, if you figure out how to be happy and middle class, send me an email.

Now — Klein, for his part, is attempting to encourage young journalists to not jump off a bridge, and I commend him for that! That being said, he has a lot of advice that I would not follow.

“You always want to be doing work that is as close as possible to the kind of work you want to be doing in your dream job.”

— Don’t kid yourself! If you’re any younger than me, you don’t know what your dream job is, and if you get into journalism, it’s a safe bet that, as you learn, your idea of a “dream job” will change. Go with the flow. Take things as they come, even if it’s not perfectly in line with where you envision yourself at Felix Salmon’s age.

“…outwork your elders,”

“writing for your editors can be a huge impediment…”

— Klein’s advice, to second-guess established reporters and disregard editorial input in the interest of “your readers,” is well-intentioned and idealistic, but if you go forward into journalism with this mentality, you are going to have a tough time. Your editors, your elders — the people who have been doing this much longer than you have — they know a lot more than you do. Listen to them. They will teach you how to be a journalist. If you have a good idea, even if it’s counterintuitive to your editor, they will recognize it as smart, and they will publish you.

“A lot of young reporters appear to come into journalism thinking some gruff, wise veteran is going to take them under their wing and teach them the tricks of the trade. Sometimes, that happens. Usually, it doesn’t. And then they complain about the fact that it hasn’t happened.”

— We are not all so entitled. Eager, maybe, but not that entitled. This is a big generalization, and unnecessary discouragement when it comes to reaching out to influential people. The only reason a veteran won’t mentor you is because they’re too busy. If you show them that you have good ideas, they will give you all the help they can. He encourages “horizontal mentoring,” from peers, but unless you reach out to people who are much higher up on the food chain, you will never learn anything in wide leaps, in overwhelming, challenging lessons that make for big steps forward.

“Don’t go to journalism school”

“Whatever you do, just don’t go to law school.”

This advice is cutesy and so overplayed. I know so many great journalists who went to j-school, just like I know great journalists who didn’t — hell, there are tons of journalists who are successful precisely because they went to law school! If you can find a way to pay for it that doesn’t put you into crippling debt or crush your spirit, get fucking educated.

Full disclosure: my middle name is Klein, so me and Ezra could be related.

*Here’s what happened when I pitched this story this morning: I sent a draft of this to three editors, who I had carefully chosen as some of the few who would publish such a long piece as this, and on short-notice: The Awl, Matter, and TNR. The Awl was way ahead of me (they were like, lol), and predictably, every editor responded with the same, cringing This is not going to #relevant in like, ten minutes. They’re kind and forgiving people, these editors, so they sent me off cordially and told me to come back soon. The editor at Matter suggested this as the type of thing that would do well on Medium, at which point I felt a stomach-churning sickness at the prospect of posting this for free and without an editor’s guidance (editors become incredibly comfortable crutches if you let them). Then I told myself, you know, I’m not doing this for the money to begin with, so I decided to commit journalistic Seppuku and spill all my innards, for free, here — with the idea that if I get embarrassed, I can always just delete this like all the other Medium posts I’ve written.

If you’d like to talk about any of this some more, feel free to email me at my handle at gmail.com. Fair warning: I’m not drinking coffee these days.

Special thanks to Liz Niemer (@lemur_niemer) and all my copy-editors in the cut.

XO

Written by

Freelance writer (recently @NYTMag, @Playboy, @TheAtlantic, etc.)

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