Words of wisdom

To all the young journalists asking for advice….

Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion

Dear budding journalist,

Thanks very much for your email! I’m always happy to meet just about anybody, and would love to find some time to have that coffee with you.

Of course I’m also very flattered by the lovely things you said about me, and about how you’d love to have a career in journalism where you might be able to do the kind of thing that I do.

But you won’t. The job I’m doing now was inconceivable when I was your age, and, similarly, if you’re lucky enough to have done well in this industry by the time you’re my age (I’m 42), then you’ll almost certainly be doing something which almost nobody today could foresee.

What’s more, the obstacles facing you are much greater than anything I managed to overcome. I’m not saying that now is a bad time for journalism — in fact, I’m a “golden ager”. I’m constantly astonished by the quantity and quality of the material being produced today, in some of the most unlikely places, and I think this is probably the greatest era for journalism that the world has ever seen. 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.

But that doesn’t mean that life is good for journalists. In fact, life is not good for journalists. And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.

I’m sure that many people have told you this already, but take it from me as well: journalism is a dumb career move. If there’s something else you also love, something else you’re good at, something else which makes the world a better place — then maybe you should think about doing that instead. Even successful journalists rarely do much of the kind of high-minded stuff you probably aspire to. And 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.

Firstly, of course, there’s the explosion in the number of talented people writing online. Where by “writing” I mean the full panoply of skills in demand these days. (It’s worth singling out two skills in particular. First, the creation of moving images, be they two-second GIFs or two-hour immersive features; and second, the ability to find and deftly remix material which was originally created by somebody else.)

It’s easy enough to understand the basic mechanics of supply and demand: as the supply of such people has risen, their price has fallen. What’s more, it’s still very early days in terms of media companies fishing from today’s much larger pool of potential candidates. Gawker’s Nick Denton tells an interesting story: when NBC News profiled him a couple of years ago, he dismissed as “archaic” the correspondent’s questions about where his staffers had gone to college. No one at Gawker, least of all its owner, cared about such things; indeed, no one at Gawker even cared whether you had gone to college. All they cared about was whether you could write good clean fast funny hard-hitting copy.

But then Nick heard his employees’ answers — and it turned out that Gawker Media was full of graduates of “America’s most prestigious schools”. Whoops. The implication: there are thousands of great writers out there who didn’t go to Columbia, who might not have gone to college at all, who might be old and conservative, rather than young and liberal. Indeed, there are thousands of great writers out there who might not be in America at all. (One of Gawker’s all-time top talents, for instance, Jesus Diaz, regularly works from Spain.)

Since the web-publishing spoils will go to the publishers who can identify and amplify the greatest and broadest number of talents, any media company hiring mainly young American liberal-arts graduates like yourself is competing with one hand tied behind its back. (And any media company fishing overwhelmingly from the minuscule pool of young American Harvard graduates is just shooting itself in the foot. You know who you are.)

When I graduated with my liberal-arts degree and started looking for a job in journalism, I was basically just competing with people much like me. You don’t have that luxury. And while young liberal-arts graduates are pretty good at being able to compete on price (they’ll happily take low-paying jobs), the quid pro quo is disappearing: no longer can they expect their salaries to rise substantially as they get older and gain supposedly valuable experience. If you get a job by competing on price against 40-year-olds when you’re 22, then the turnabout, once you reach 40, is only fair play.

All of which is exacerbated by the second huge change wrought by digital media: the Platform Revolution. Almost everybody with a significant stake in a digital media company loves to talk about their “platform” (or, more commonly these days, their “platforms”). “Platform” is one of those words which means pretty much what you want it to mean, or means pretty much nothing, depending on how you look at it. But at heart the idea is that the real value, in a media company, lies not in the human talent, but rather in some vague confluence of Product and Brand and Constantly Iterating Scalable Technology. The workers — the journalists — become easily replaceable cogs in the machine, one byline morphing seamlessly into the next.

What explains a world where the economics of publishing have been brutal for many years, but where digital media companies are raising money at eye-popping valuations? The answer is simple: Capital has realized that it has an advantage over Labor, and that its advantage is here to stay. The trick is to build a formula which works. (Or, even better, to build a formula which constantly evolves and stays one step ahead of the game, since no single formula works for very long.) But once you’ve done that, you just send your easily-replaceable workers out onto the assembly line to do what they’re told.

It used to be that journalism was something that you got better at over time — and the result was that talent was something that media companies wanted to invest in, and needed to pay good money to retain. But today, someone who’s spent 20 weeks at BuzzFeed has much more reach, and is probably significantly more valuable, than someone who’s spent 20 years at the 185-year-old Barnstable Patriot.

Labor has almost no leverage over capital any more, which helps explain the rash of “Uber for X” startups: they’re nearly all based on the idea that there is a bottomless pool out there of people with smartphones willing to do just about anything (drive a car, go shopping, do laundry, clean an apartment) for $15 an hour. If a company loses one of those workers, it’s no big deal, it just replaces that person with someone else who’s just as good and just as cheap. Now just apply that model to journalists.

But still! You want to be a journalist, and you want my advice! Beyond, that is, a simple “don’t do it”. Ideally, you’d like me to just give you a job, but I can’t do that. I’ve spent my entire career trying to avoid the kind of positions where I can give people jobs. And I’m also a pretty bad judge of journalistic ability, which means that my bosses (who are generally rather smart, and good at what they do) know better than to listen to me when I have some bright idea about whom we should hire.

I’ve also never really had a career, in the sense of a planned-out sequence of jobs, each one slightly better than the last, working my way up towards some grand ideal position. I arrived where I am randomly, and I could not have replicated it if I tried.

Mostly, I’m the happy recipient of a combination of luck and privilege. Sure, I have skills, to boot: I’m smart, I’m reasonably well educated, I have a certain facility with numbers and with the English language. I’m sure you have those skills too. Millions do. They might be necessary, but they’re far from sufficient.

Privilege is more important. I grew up in London, and I’ve lived in New York for 18 years. I’m white, I’m male, I’m upper-middle class, I even have an accent which makes me sound smarter than I am. If you don’t have my advantages in life, it’s going to be harder for you than it was for me. (And I might try a bit harder to help you get your foot in the door.) But even if you do have my advantages in life, they’re (thankfully) becoming less important than they used to be.

Which isn’t to say that I simply fell into my current position. For one thing, I spent a long time paying my dues at a series of very dry publications. There was a year at Euromoney, in London; two years at a website called InterMoney, in New York; two more years at Bridge News, a now-defunct newswire; and then six years of muddling through life as a freelance journalist writing mainly about Latin American bond markets. Only then did I start blogging professionally: first for Nouriel Roubini, then for Condé Nast Portfolio, then for Reuters.

With the exception of my second year at Bridge News, I was actually very happy with where I was nearly all the time. I didn’t think that Euromoney or Bridge were boring when I was writing for them, and I enjoyed wonking out about debt markets. Old-fashioned trade-magazine economics flew me to Latin America on a regular basis and allowed me to make a good living writing one or two articles per month. The act of reporting those articles took a lot of time, and also constituted a very high-level education in debt capital markets.

The result was that I spent a decade learning about the real-world bond markets from the people who actually ran them, and getting paid pretty well for doing so. When I found myself blogging the credit crisis, all that education paid off in spades. And the fact that I found myself blogging at all was itself an act of luck: I pretty much just happened to be in the right place at the right time. (Which, since you ask, was Rivington Street, in 2003.) I got into the game very early, when the blogosphere was basically happy hour at The Magician; I enjoyed it; and I never really stopped.

Oh, and you want a third piece of luck? It just so happened that one of my sovereign-debt sources, Nouriel Roubini, decided that he needed a full-time blogger at almost exactly the same time that Euromoney decided that it couldn’t afford to keep on paying me for my Latin America stories. That gig didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough for me to get noticed by Jesse Eisinger, who was helping to look for a finance blogger for Portfolio.com. And then the crisis happened, and I was perfectly positioned to be able to blog it with the authority accumulated from a decade in the debt-market trenches. Only then, some 13 years after I entered the journalism profession, did I start getting any real kind of public profile.

Obviously, that kind of career path isn’t replicable. Nor should we want it to be, given the starring role played by the global financial crisis. And so if you want my advice, it’s simply this: it doesn’t matter how good you are at what you do, your success, in this industry, is always going to be governed in large part by luck. There’s no particular reason to believe that the best route to success is to first get your foot in the door churning out listicles, and then somehow work your way up the ranks. That might have worked for a few early BuzzFeed employees, but they, too, were lucky, winning the pick-the-right-startup lottery.

Similarly, there’s no particular reason to believe that the advice I’d give five or six years ago, which was basically “start a blog and get discovered”, still works. With the death of RSS, blogs are quaint artifacts at this point, and I can’t remember the last time I discovered a really good new one.

I have every faith that great journalism will continue to appear online, and reach a large and grateful audience. For news consumers, that’s fantastic news. But I have no faith that the individuals creating that great journalism are going to end up getting paid anything near what they deserve — or even that most of them will be able to build a career out of it.

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, even if they pay little or nothing for the privilege of doing so.

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.

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