So you're 17 and want to be a journalist? Do it — you'll love it.

You’re 17 years old. For some reason you’ve decided you want to go to college to learn how to be a journalist. My hat’s off to you — first, for wanting to go to college, and second, for wanting to answer what I still consider to be a calling to public service.

Journalists find out things, then tell people what they found out. Often, it’s stuff people want to hear. But a good journalist must tell people what they need to hear — even if they don’t want to hear it. So I’m glad you want to become one of us.

Perhaps you’ve had training already. Your high school has a student-run paper, a radio station, even a broadcast television studio. You know Twitter and Facebook and perhaps write your own blog.

Your parents might be opposed to your choice. They’ve heard journalism is dying, newspapers are closing, and so on. They’ve heard journalists don’t get paid much. But you’ve done your homework. You believe opportunity will rise from the ashes of an outdated business model corporations imposed on journalism as a profession and a calling. And you’d like to be one of the pioneers who have a hand in its rebirth.

So (whether you like it or not) I have a few suggestions to offer. The first is simple:

If you’re not nosey, learn to be. Right now. Journalists must be curious about the world around them. So much of their work begins with an understanding of their own lived experience and observations.

Should you major in journalism? I didn’t. And I spent 20 years in journalism. My friend Sam Smith makes a good argument against majoring in journalism here. You need to understand that journalism school is not the only route to becoming a damned good journalist. As you’ll see in my comment (from which this post springs), I argue journalism school accelerates and concentrates the process.

How should you prepare for college? Regardless of whether you plan to major in journalism, show up with the ability to write clear, coherent sentences. That means mastery of punctuation, grammar, and vocabulary. If shorthand texting is your measure of good writing, abandon it. Good writing represents good thinking. That will serve you well in any major. As Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins wrote, “Writing is breaking rocks with a shovel. It takes a certain kind of strength.” Develop that strength.

Should you join the college’s student newspaper or broadcast (radio or TV) news operations? Maybe. Won’t hurt to have a look-see. College newsrooms can be extraordinary social experiences in which you make friends for life. But you must guard against a phenomenon that occurs in professional newsrooms: groupthink. One of the most targeted (and supportable) criticisms of mainstream journalism is its “herd” mentality. Journalists often write from the same framework of analysis. That does not breed a variety of viewpoints. Develop an awareness of the socialization that occurs in newsrooms and how to avoid its toxic effects. If you find it thriving, leave. Read as much Hunter S. Thompson as you can, then:

Start your own student newspaper. Frankly, I think college newspapers would improve dramatically with a little competition. You know how to take video and still digital images with your phone, don’t you? Make your own business card — name, email, cell number, blog address. Introduce yourself to as many potential faculty and staff sources as you can. It may take a while, and a helluva lot of work, but post good stories (with digital video, stills, and audio) on your blog. Learn to promote your work to the rest of the community through Twitter and Facebook. You may even be able to recruit a few other independent-minded souls to join you.

Practice writing for as many media as you can. Take a PR or advertising course. Learn to understand audiences and audience research. You cannot write too much. But you can write too little. Ask your professors: Who are the good journalists I ought to read? Then read them assiduously.

Do as many internships as you can. Journalism courses can only take you so far. Use internships to practice your skill and make contacts.

Harness your curiosity. Demand, in your journalism courses, the best research and reporting skills money can buy, and especially in the analysis of data sets. Learn Excel. Learn relational database software. Learn to make one more phone call, do one more interview, check that fact one more time.

Learn how to promote your work. Don’t be sheepish or shy about this. Get your work in front of people. If it’s a blog, pay attention to the comment threads. Learn the wisest use (for your investment of time) of Twitter and Facebook as means to promote your work. You’re competing against an information universe, so push your work as hard as you can.

Take a course in fundamental business skills. After you graduate, it is likely that instead of a job you’ll have several sources of income. That will be because in college you learned to use your skills with versatility. Also, learn about fundraising and grantwriting. Be able to start a journalistic enterprise from scratch (which is why starting your own college paper might be a good learning experience).

Learn to do journalism the right way. In the long run, you decide what the “right way” is. But take a course in journalism ethics. Learn from the mistakes of others. Don’t let an ethical misstep derail your career. Christiane Amanpour, while at CNN, said: “I believe that good journalism, good television, can make our world a better place.” Good ethical practices may help you do just that — make the world a better place. And while you’re at it, raise your awareness of the diversity of the world beyond your immediate experience.

Keep an eye on technology trends. Read and follow experts who have a decent track record in forecasting technological changes in how information is distributed — and to whom.

Be intellectually curious. Be deeply analytical. Always ask: How does the world work? Why does it work that way? For me, finding these answers has always been at the heart of journalism. I think that’s what readers and viewers really need to know. That’s why I suggest you minor in political science and economics. Those two subjects are languages in which much of the discourse of these two questions takes place. Mind you, they should be discussed in other analytical frameworks than poli-sci and economics much more often. But you must be fluent in these core languages of public discourse about public policy. Knowing them will allow you to translate these languages for your readers and viewers. And don’t be afraid to express your well-grounded opinion about public policy: Advocacy has its place in good journalism.

Question authority. That’s what was printed on the button my old news editor wore on his leather vest every day. Challenge orthodoxy. Don’t be afraid to piss off pompous blowhards. A terrific, but sadly no longer published, magazine of media criticism had this as its motto: Skepticism is a weapon. Learn the difference between skepticism and cynicism. The former will enlighten you; the latter will blind you.

Have fun. Anna Quindlen of The Washington Post once emailed me about a piece I wrote for the journalism trade mag Editor & Publisher. She said, “Tell them that being a reporter is and will remain more damn fun than any job on the face of the earth.”

It really is. Please consider it. Journalism is a demanding but intensely satisfying road to travel. So be on your way.

9 replies »

  1. I would encourage aspiring journalists to pursue non-journo majors as undergrads. You’ll be a better reporter if you have deep expertise in a subject, specialized knowledge makes you more marketable than your peers who just have journalism training. Consider majoring in economics, public policy, science, or even religious studies (if you think you might want to work on the religion beat) and minoring in journalism.

  2. Another great piece, Denny.

    Regarding aspiring journalists majoring in other subjects, I wouldn’t trade the well-rounded education of a great journalism school for a deeper knowledge of a specific subject. As much as it makes you more “marketable,” it also makes you less versatile.

    Journalism requires gaining a basic knowledge of any number of topics, and being able to explain the issues involving them, FAST.

    Trade and niche publications require a deeper understanding, but that understanding can be accelerated with the solid foundation of fact-gathering and critical thinking skills found in a journalism degree. Journalists today need to be more versatile than ever, not less. Beyond that, a journalism degree makes it easier to switch niches, beats or jobs.

    No one receiving an excellent journalism education, complete with writing, editing, ethics and other technical skills would consider this to be “just journalism training.” Specific niches or subjects can be learned by taking elective courses, adding a minor, or a double major, as Denny refers to.

    • Charlie: Thanks for the comment, but I wonder what kinds of programs you’re talking about here when you laud the breadth of journalism programs. I ask because my post, which started this whole go-round a few days ago, was comparing J programs to liberal arts programs. If that’s what you’re referring to, then I’m curious as to the LA programs you’re thinking about. My undergraduate degree was in Psych from Wake Forest, and the basic requirements at Wake had ALL students (even biz majors) spending fully half their undergrad credits on divisional requirements. Three courses in math and the sciences; three different social sciences; comp + American Lit and Brit Lit; a history, a religion and a philosophy; two PEs, etc.

      I don’t know how other schools structure things, but that’s broader than your average J program, right?

  3. I am 70 (and disabled) and I should like to be a journalist. Any hope? Any help? I have some French, German, Spanish, Hindi, Urdu. I don’t undestand my world. Why is the USA constantlly
    in confrontational mode vis-a-vis tbe rest of the world? Wake up this Rip van Winkle, please someone.

  4. Thanks, Denny – good points. I agree with the comments regarding a well-rounded liberal arts education. You have to understand how the world works, including great thinkers and writers, in order to put the stories you will write in context.

    Anna Quindlen was right, and I still miss being a journalist, especially on election nights.

    I hope your piece inspires more great young writers to pursue journalism and develop their skills.

  5. Sam, thanks for your comment. The program I recently graduated from at St. Bonaventure more or less combined both of these worlds: a well-rounded liberal arts education with history, sciences, philosophy, math, English and foreign language requirements with invaluable journalism training that goes well beyond the “nuts and bolts” of learning how to file a story in a newsroom.

    I agree with you that the LA education is invaluable. I took one journalism class each semester for the first few semesters, and the rest were part of the LA core curriculum. Then the J classes started increasing. But comparing the two is apples and oranges. At appears that your LA students were more inquisitive than your journalism students. That could be a reflection of the journalism program, the faculty, or the students signed up that semester. With any undergraduate discipline (sadly), you get a high number of students who aren’t exceptional. But in a field like journalism today, those students won’t be the ones getting the jobs.

    I agree with you in that I don’t view a journalism degree as the only way, or the necessary step, to getting a job in journalism. But let’s be honest: it’s harder than ever to find a job. Denny’s right on when he says J school concentrates all those necessary skills liberal arts majors might round-aboutly apply to a career in journalism. And, the academic climate is much less rigorous than it was in the 1970s. The students I sat in liberal arts classes with at St. Bonaventure were decidedly less academic and inquisitive than they probably were in your undergraduate years. Most of them wouldn’t know the first thing about writing a news, feature, business or any other type of story for a newspaper. And that’s without the deadline.

    The Liberal arts education can’t be underestimated. But neither can the journalism education if it is done the right way.

  6. I have passed this on to a number of teachers and counselors–It should be required reading (for a number of fields and a number of purposes). Excellent advice.

  7. Denny, very true about college media. I feel like these organizations can get very cliquey and it’s sad that people will be able to tell even if they aren’t directly involved. Journalists should be open and ignore judgement from their peers.
    I also love this line: “Learn the difference between skepticism and cynicism. The former will enlighten you; the latter will blind you.” It couldn’t have been said better.
    However, I think the headline could be a little misleading. Some people try journalism and don’t love it!