Two years ago, a young writer named Mike Elk lent his Huffington Post press pass to a union organizer, who used it to help 200 protestors crash a meeting of the Mortgage Brokers' Association. Elk was subsequently "fired" from his unpaid position as a HuffPost blogger. He then landed a paid gig covering labor at the Chicago-based lefty magazine In These Times, where he broke some news, but also demonstrated a sometimes self-defeating tendency to pick public fights with other journalists, frequently through confrontational tweeting. Now the foundation funding for his In These Times position has dried up, and Elk has again taken to the pages of the Huffington Post, this time to apologize for the 2011 press pass debacle, to proclaim himself a born-again "straight" reporter, and to complain that he has not yet been hired for a Big Reporting Job at a Big Mainstream Publication.
Elk's essay is, of course, self-serving, since he hopes prospective employers will discover it when they Google him, in addition to critical coverage of his past misdeeds. Though I've corresponded with Elk via Twitter, I've never met him personally nor worked with him, so I can't speak as to what kind of colleague he is or whether his raw reporting and writing are ready for a much bigger platform. What I do know is that his essay brings up a number of important issues within journalism. Since I've been getting tons of emails lately from young writers looking for advice, I thought I'd use his piece as a jumping off point to ponder the following:
There's still no substitute for a traditional, newsroom reporting internship. Whether on your college newspaper or at a small local daily or alt-weekly, this is some of the best entry-level experience a journalist can accrue. (I did my time at The Journal News, The Brown Daily Herald, and the North County News.) Because small papers tend to embrace a fairly traditional way of practicing journalism — quaint notions of "objectivity" in tact — you will learn the rationale behind the profession's basic mores, which is kind of a crucial first step if, like Elk, you end up subverting or tweaking them later on. In the early and mid-oughts, young writers like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein skyrockteted into the media world by being really great, independent opinion bloggers. Publications wanted to hire them to introduce readers to what was then a new format. But that path has dried up as the blogosphere has become institutionalized. You should blog and tweet and Facebook, but all that probably won't be enough to land your first job.
As Elk writes, foundation funding for journalism can be problematic. I've been lucky to receive funding from four foundations (New America, the Nation Institute/Puffin Foundation, and the Spencer Foundation) that have never sought to influence my writing or reporting in inappropriate ways. Yet this isn't always the case, especially when foundations are going directly to publications to fund specific beats or even articles. (This happens shockingly often, and is becoming more common.) Another problem is that foundation-funding is usually short-term, doled out in year-long or project-specific grants. This means writers and publications are constantly anxious about whether their grant will get renewed, which increases the pressure to hew to a donor's point-of-view. When you consider all this, the old advertiser-driven model doesn't look too awful. Personally, I welcome Buzzfeed and other eyeball-hungry outlets onto the media scene. They will fund serious work by successfully getting readers to their site with lists, GIFs, and lifestyle and entertainment coverage.
The liberal magazine space can be an unstable place to build a writing career. Most professional writers don't want to earn $200 per article, or $40,000 per year, forever. What's more, journalists like to reach a broad audience, including those who disagree with us. So as we gain experience, we gladly embrace a more explanatory and less polemical tone, we try to be more narrative in our writing, and we begin to pitch mainsteam publications, in addition to those on the left. As Elk learned, this isn't something to be cynical about, but rather the natural evolution of many journalistic careers. This is not to imply that opinion magazines don't publish excellent work — THEY DO! –but in the opinion writing space, young journalists are competing with professors and think tank staffers who can afford to write for free or next-to-nothing. So to compete in the markets of both liberal and non-ideological media, we really do need to build explicitly journalistic skills such as breaking news, obtaining and analyzing data, filing FOIA requests, and uncovering under-examined sources from the past and present. Elk has done his best work interviewing on-the-ground sources, and it's an important lesson for any young writer.
(Editing is probably the safest journalistic skill set to develop, as it tends to be relatively well-remunerated, even at low-budget publications. But this post is mostly about reporting and writing.)
Be easy to work with. This is a crucial piece of career advice I always offer, and that I've come to through hard-lived personal experience. For a journalist, this means that in addition to being polite, positive, and punctual, you are easy to edit: clean prose, humble attitude. It means you demonstrate the kind of journalism you think is important mostly by doing it, instead of by complaning that other people aren't doing it. Of course, press criticism is important stuff, but probably not the safest route to long-term employment in the first few years of a career, since you don't want to alienate potential bosses or mentors.
I'd be happy to address feedback and questions in the comments section.
Old posts on journalism careers
- Should Progressives Boycott the Huffington Post?
- Blogging Isn't Dead
- Journalism's Elitism Problem
- So, You Want to Be a Magazine Journalist
Mike Elk asked me to post the following response from him, which I am quoting directly:
"I really enjoyed your article and a lot of valuable insight. I must say though that my primary motivation behind writing this article was not as you state in "hopes prospective employers will discover it when they Google him, in addition to critical coverage of his past misdeeds." I wrote mainly because I wanted to be free of not being right about something. I grew up in a household where my Uncle Herb was a hero because he refused to the take the easy way out by naming names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He stood on principle and while I stood on principle by admitting what I did when it happened, I didn't stand on principle by defending myself. It bugged me, it made me feel dishonest, which I couldn't take. Finally, after being denied a job, I was forced to confront the full force of my dishonesty and I felt I had to say something. It feels good getting rid of all that ego and pride that led me to not admit the full cost of my mistakes. I feel like a free man."