questions to which the answer is no

Is there any such thing as a career in digital journalism?

Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion

One of my obsessions these days is the question of whether there’s any such thing as a career in digital journalism. I’m still doing reporting on this question — if you have any empirical data on the subject, do let me know — but in the meantime, my working hypothesis is that the answer is no. With, as I recently explained in a talk in Italy, a couple of interesting exceptions:

You’ve probably heard quite a lot about “startups.” You know startups, they’re so sexy that people are throwing billions of dollars at them. And it turns out that there are quite a lot of startups in what you might call “the journalism space,” if you were the kind of person who speaks fluent VC.

All of those startups, of course, are in digital journalism. Most of them want to be a “platform”. But, that’s all good, right? After all, if you’re going into digital journalism today, that means you’re going to be part of a “startup culture”, even if you’re not in an actual startup. Everybody aspires to startup status. And then what happens at startups is that you work hard, and you build a “platform”, and maybe you “disrupt” something, and next thing you know, you’re a millionaire! It’s amazing!

OK, maybe no one actually thinks like that. But there’s undoubtedly a lot of excitement in the air, for very good reason. I’m a “golden ager”, when it comes to journalism: I love what’s being produced these days. I also think that some of today’s fast-growing digital companies are going to become the media behemoths of tomorrow, making their owners extremely rich in the process. Someone’s going to get rich, here. Shouldn’t it be you? Why couldn’t it be you?

But the fact is that statistically speaking it’s not going to be you.

I’m not talking about journalism. I’m talking about journalism as a career. Now there are lots of reasons why people do journalism, and most of them don’t include making lots of money. But, all of us – or at least most of us – have to live on the fruits of our labors, and it’s nicer to be paid more money than to be paid less money. Especially in that dim and distant future when you’ve been doing this for a couple of decades and you’re trying to raise a family, maybe in a very expensive city like New York or San Francisco.

Your immediate job prospects might actually look quite rosy. There are lots of people who want to hire young, hungry journalists. But that’s mostly because young, hungry journalists are cheap. In journalism, people have always started off badly paid, just to get their foot in the door. I know I did. The question is: What are the chances that your badly-paid entry-level job will become a career?

So this, I guess, is where I slow down and explain what a career is. Sometimes, the word is just used descriptively, to mean the sequence of jobs and positions that you have over the course of your working life. But when I use it, I mean that you never stop learning, that every year you get more skilled at what you do, and become more valuable — more financially valuable – as a result. And as a rule, when you become more valuable, you can earn more money. Here, for instance, is what the maturity curve looks like for journalists:

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But there’s an exception to the more-experience-means-more-money rule. Part of what we mean, in practice, by “startup culture” is the idea that we can and should extol businesses being run by people who are still in their 20s, where being a “digital native” is more important and more valuable than decades of experience.

When you see a company like Vox Media investing millions of dollars in Vox.com, the youth of the founders is a feature, not a bug. When you see companies like Gawker Media or BuzzFeed building newsrooms of young people, that’s partly because young people are cheaper and hungrier, but it’s also because they’re better at doing these very new things than their more experienced colleagues might be.

On the face of it, that’s great, if you’re young. But look forward a couple of decades here – the best thing that happens to a young person is that she becomes an old person. And at the same time, while it’s impossible to know exactly what the future of digital journalism holds, the one thing we can be pretty sure about is that it’s going to involve a lot of change. Large chunks of journalism have already changed more in the past 10 years than they did in the previous 100, and that pace of disruption is not going to slow down.

In that world, what hope will there be for a 50-year-old journalist who grew up with the ancient skills needed in 2016? Right now, the future looks superficially bright for young journalists in large part because they’re taking jobs away from older journalists. Those dinosaurs. But the rate at which someone becomes a dinosaur is only going to speed up.

All of this is exacerbated by technology. We’re in the middle of what you might call the Platform Revolution. At heart the idea is that the real value, in a media company, lies not in the human talent, but rather in technology. The workers—the journalists—become easily replaceable cogs in the machine.

To make matters worse, there’s more competition than ever, in journalism: that’s part of why we’re living in a golden age. There’s been an amazing and wonderful explosion in the number of talented people doing great journalism online, and there are more and more people arriving in the field every day, from all over the world. And by the law of supply and demand, when supply increases, price goes down.

The fact is that, already, enormous numbers of incredibly talented journalists find it almost impossible to make a decent living at this game. Indeed, the exact same forces which are good for journalism and good for owners are the forces which are bad for journalists themselves. And while it’s one thing being paid relatively little when you’re young; it’s another thing being paid relatively little when you’re getting into middle age and you have a family to support.

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. On the other hand, if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road, I don’t really know what to tell you. Except that the chances of getting there, if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower.

Still, I don’t want to end on a completely depressing note. So let me note two areas where the future remains bright.

First: The superstars. If you’re in the top 1%, your opportunities have never been rosier, and there has never been more demand for your talents. We live in a superstar economy, and that applies to journalism as well.

And second: old-fashioned specific expertise. Not digital expertise, about social media optimization or anything like that. But subject-matter expertise is still hard to obtain and can retain significant value, depending on what the subject is.

More interestingly, I’m seeing that weirdly it’s the very old-fashioned skills which are increasingly in demand and driving success. For instance, look at all of the most successful podcasts on the iTunes store. Without exception, they’re produced by radio professionals with many years of experience in crafting audio narratives.

Or look at the illustrators who are finding new outlets for their work online. Cartooning and illustration are old skills, but demand for them remains strong, and again this is something where experience counts and where you really do get better with time.

So maybe the way to build a career in digital journalism is to pretty much ignore the digital bit, and to concentrate instead on gaining the kind of skills which will always be valuable. I don’t mean general things like how to report and write a news story, that’s a commodity at this point. But rather things like understanding the complexities of fiscal policy, or knowing how to edit audio so that you create an immersive, compelling story. Those kind of skills, I think, are going to serve you better, over the long terms, than any amount of facility with javascript.

Assuming, that is, that you’re foolhardy enough to want to work in journalism at all.

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