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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Advice on (not) being a journalist

In an excellent post at Bloomberg View, journalist Megan McArdle offers some career advice, under the paradoxical headline: "You Want Advice? Don't Ask Journalists." She comes down largely on Felix Salmon's dour side versus Ezra Klein's upbeat one in a debate over whether young people today should go into journalism. McArdle:
So when kids who are passionate about writing ask me how they can get a job doing this thing that they love, I don't tell them to follow their bliss; I tell them there are a lot of things they can love. I loved building computer networks. I loved business school. This is a fantastic job, and believe me, I count my lucky stars every day that I have it. But there are a lot of fascinating things in the world. Go get a job doing something in an industry that is not struggling so hard to get people to pay for their products. 
And if you find, in the end, that you have to write, you will be a better writer for actually knowing something about an industry other than the production and consumption of white papers. One of the biggest weaknesses of modern journalism, and modern politics, is that none of the people in them have any idea what it is like to work for a regular company. Organizations are very different from the inside than the outside, in ways that are not obvious to you until you've lived through a couple of executive bloodlettings and experienced the high-stakes tedium of the annual budget process. If you want to report on the military or global development or poverty programs or health care, go work for that industry and come back with some actual knowledge that you did not gain from earnestly asking insiders how they do their jobs. You'll not only be a better reporter, but you'll also have something to fall back on if your outlet folds.
Me: I could not agree more with the above. In fact, even before journalism's plague of financial difficulties in the past decade, it would have been good advice to spend at least some time immersing yourself in some industry or field other than journalism, so as to develop expertise that, besides its own merits, would also improve any journalism you might do at some point in writing about that area.

Not that being an expert outside of journalism is any guarantee against producing awful journalism even about one's area of expertise. I was genuinely shocked the other day by another Bloomberg View post, this one by economist Noah Smith, that went on at length based on a confusion of "billion" with "trillion" and thus made hash out of what could have been a cogent critique of something Rand Paul had said about the Fed. Smith's piece, now minus the Emily Litella paragraphs, is here.

As I wrote recently, I've been working lately on expanding my knowledge of math. One reason for this is that I want to be able to write more capably about math-related topics and about math itself, a vast field that in my view deserves more and better journalistic coverage than it tends to get. If I were giving advice to a young person considering a journalism career, I would include a suggestion that he or she get exposure to some technical subjects, and so know something journalism types don't tend to know.

1 comment:

Gil Weinreich said...

I fully concur. Writing skill alone is insufficient--and possibly dangerous--when not anchored by genuine substantive knowledge.