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 You believe opportunity will rise from the ashes of an outdated business model corporations imposed on journalism as a profession and a calling.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.