Last week in this space I wrote about tracking down John McPhee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writer, to ask him what advice he might give to aspiring young journalists.
The question was a follow up to one I had asked McPhee more than 40 years ago, and I was happy to discover that McPhee’s valuable advice from the 1970s still held true today. While McPhee and I were kicking around the subject over the phone, he mentioned an upcoming discussion at Princeton University featuring a panel of five young journalists — all age 30 or younger — speaking on an enticing topic: “How to Succeed in Journalism Before the Age of 30.”
The discussion was organized by two of McPhee’s colleagues in the cadre of writer-professors sharing insights into their craft through Princeton’s Department of the Humanities (the university does not have a school of journalism). One was Joe Stephens, a Washington Post investigative reporter (and three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), who just began a five-year teaching appointment at Princeton.
The other was Richard Just, the editor of National Journal magazine and formerly the editor of the New Republic. More important, Just is a young guy himself (Princeton 2001), and he invited a panel of 20-something journalists that included the following:
Marin Cogan, contributing editor at New York Magazine and writer for ESPN the Magazine; Eliza Gray, staff writer at Time Magazine; Amanda Hess, staff writer at Slate; Noreen Malone, senior editor at New York Magazine; and Simon van Zuylen-Wood, staff writer at Philadelphia Magazine and contributing writer at the National Journal.
A good panel. But when I showed up, I was equally impressed by the turnout of some 20 undergraduates who broke away from their dinner routine to get the skinny on how to break into journalism. I’m not sure any more would have shown back in the late 1960s, when I was an undergraduate and looking ahead to a career in journalism.
Given all doom and gloom hanging over the journalism profession, and all the input I have received on this subject, I decided I should do what all journalists seem to do in this information age: “aggregate” the collective advice to young people considering or just beginning a career in journalism. So I will (tempered, peppered, and sweetened by some gritty observations gleaned from nearly 50 years as a professional writer).
1.) Try everything. McPhee’s advice to me 40-plus years ago still rings true today. You might struggle as a sports reporter but shine as a science writer. You could become lost in the possibilities of writing a long-form magazine piece but be a whiz at cranking out copy for a breaking news show on cable TV. There is only one way to find out.
2.) Don’t think you have to be working at a big league publication to acquire the skills of a big league writer. A few weeks ago Jill Abramson, the recently deposed managing editor of the New York Times, spoke on the Princeton campus. She had this advice for young journalists, as quoted by Krystal Knapp of the online news site, Planet Princeton:
“Don’t limit where you want to work to only Tiffany brands. There are a number of new media organizations where you can do great work. It’s a great time to be a young journalist out there looking for work. It’s not a great time if what you want to be doing right off the bat is a 4,000 word article. You need experience to deliver that kind of story.”
When I was starting out as a freelancer, I had a part-time job with the little Town Topics community paper that paid the rent. One week I wrote up a three or four-paragraph piece on a group of Hodge Road residents who were protesting the purchase of a house on their street by a group believed to be a cult. I didn’t think much of the story, but then I heard that members of the group — flashy young ladies — had come into town and purchased every available copy of Town Topics at every newsstand in town.
That struck me as remarkable. My subsequent look into the group became a much discussed 4,000-word piece in New Jersey Monthly.
3.) Don’t judge success by your social media presence. Noting the ratings game played by some journalists based on number of Twitter followers or Facebook “likes,” Simon van Zuylen-Wood of Philadelphia Magazine at the Princeton “under 30” panel suggested some better benchmarks: “Are you satisfied with your work? Are you proud of it?”
4.) Be smart about one specific topic. This advice also was offered by van Zuylen-Wood. While a young journalist needs to be open to any and all possibilities (remember item 1 above), it doesn’t hurt to be known as go-to guy in a specific subject area.
When I was starting out as a freelancer, I got an unenviable assignment to do a story on the new star of Saturday Night Live, a show that had just gone into a tailspin. The new leading man had the unfortunate name of Charles Rocket — imagine the headlines. I did the story to no great applause, but I got a reputation as an SNL guy. Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal had to be profiled, and then the new producer trying to rescue the show, Dick Ebersol, along with his actress wife, Susan Saint James.
When John Belushi died I contributed some reporting on that story. Soon I was a dead celebrity guy. (Alas, by the time the greatest all-time dead celebrity was minted, Princess Diana, I was out of freelancing and into editing and publishing.)
5.) Don’t forget that relationships also matter. At the Princeton “under 30” panel, Amanda Hess, now a staff writer at Slate, recalled that her first job at a newspaper was doing data entry. “But it got me into an office with all these smart people,” she said, and they no doubt provided important connections as she built her career.
When I quit Time magazine I was an angry young man of 23. But I must have had an ounce of good judgment in me, because I never burned the Time Inc. bridge. A few years later I was freelancing for People and Money magazines, both part of the same family.
6.) The currency of our business is the story, not the compilation of facts. Early in my career I learned this the hard way. I was convinced there was a story in the emerging wave of criticism of standardized tests and Educational Testing Service in particular. I wrote a laborious piece detailing the social and psychometric science surrounding the issue. Steven Brill wrote a piece that began with the revelation that the staff of the nonprofit ETS would soon enjoy a golf course and swimming pool on its corporate campus. Guess whose story made the bigger splash?
7.) Don’t be afraid to marvel at the world around you. If the story is the cornerstone of our business, then we writers and editors are the story tellers — the spotlight is on us as we attempt to lure readers into some sort of engagement with our publication. The fact that we are bound by the facts does not prevent us from presenting the facts in the most compelling way possible.
The work of some journalists these days reminds me of the old story about the cub reporter sent out to interview a man who reportedly could sing both bass and tenor at the same time. When the kid came back to the office the excited editor wanted to know the details. “It’s not a story,” the young reporter sighed. “The guy has two heads.”
8.) Keep a greater goal as you go about your daily grind — writing a book, for example. Having a book idea in mind was the other piece of advice John McPhee had for young writers. The 20-somethings on the Princeton panel had a modern-day caveat, however. Publishers are so eager to convert “trending” topics into books that they will grab an idea from a single magazine piece. Noreen Malone, the senior editor at New York magazine said she had been approached after writing an article on millennials coping with the recession. “The idea of spending a year on a topic I wasn’t jazzed about seemed depressing.”
Added van Zuylen-Wood: “A lot of my friends have been roped into writing books. The publishers don’t care about you; they just want to make a few bucks.”
Writing a book. That was a goal of mine when I started freelancing back in 1971 or so. And still is all these years later. But the great thing about journalism is that it’s never too late and you’re never too old. If I can figure one a book deal in the next year or two, I will volunteer to appear on a panel at Princeton. They can call it “How to Succeed in Journalism Before the Age of 70.”