The dangers of telling young journalists to give up

No longer a superhero kind of business.
No longer a superhero kind of business.
Image: AP Photo
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If you are a journalist or would like to be one, have an internet connection, a social media account and can read English, the chances are high you’ve at least read a tweet about an opinion piece that journalist Felix Salmon published on Fusion. The piece, titled “To all the young journalists asking for advice…,” was a mass answer to the many letters Salmon gets from “budding journalists” seeking advice from a more established professional.

The letter is essentially an articulated argument that can be summarized as follows: If you are a young journalist, change careers. If you are an aspiring journalist, stop aspiring.

1. About the money

Salmon points out a very real problem that many of us working in the industry know far too well. There is little money in it—for journalists, that is. There are too many people all over the web ready to do your job for free. You are bound to become a good whose supply is in excess, and the demand scarce.

He is right. Journalism is a competitive profession—often, I think, purely based on the amount of glamour that is associated with it. It is also, unfortunately, not a career choice where you’re likely to make a lot of money. Nor is being a teacher, for that matter. Or a social worker. Or a fire fighter: These are professions that have incredible impact on our society, and while it’s not right nor fair that these people aren’t paid higher salaries, that’s not likely to change soon.

Are the earning prospects enough of a reason to give up pursuing a career choice? Of course they are. But also, romantically, no. And then, perhaps, after a while, yes they are, again.

There is no right answer, and everyone should feel free to give her own, without feeling like she’s selling out on her life’s calling, or being a fool for making less money than others.

I’ve had several jobs, and they all had to do with writing. None of them ever made me rich. None of them ever kept me starving.

2. About the privilege

In his piece, Salmon points to another fun fact: it’s easier to get a job as a reporter if you are a white young man with a posh accent (as he was) than otherwise. That happens to be true of just most other jobs, too. Journalism is a white men’s business—now combine it with computer science and startups and what you get is digital journalism—or, even more white men’s jobs. It’s a big problem, which greatly affects the plurality of the voices that get to be heard through the media, and the diversity of the stories that get to be written.

But guess which budding journalists are more likely to take the advice to give up before even trying? The underprivileged. The women. The minorities. For each of them who does not write a story, we lose a fundamental point of view, turning this business into a chorus of people who all think the same and write the same stories—because they don’t know better.

Salmon calls this a “golden era” for journalism—just not for journalists—but the great stories that are being written, in abundance, in all corners of the internet are not going to be written if this business closes its doors to those who can’t afford to work in it.

 3. On doing ”whatever it takes”

Let’s drop the romanticism—there is way too much of it in this profession. Journalism is a job, and no one is doing you a favor by allowing you to perform it. Even if you enjoy it. Journalists need to be able to make a living if they do it full-time. Instead, while advising us to let it go, Salmon concedes:

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.

No. Please don’t.

Unless you want to be part of the problem. This is actually valid advice for a lot of other professions too—where for some odd reason in this day and age, workers driven by passion have become the holy grail of contemporary exploitation: free labor, often in the form of internships. Aspiring journalists—and designers, architects, producers, etc.— just say “no, thanks” to every offer to work for free. This is how we can stop free work: by not doing it.

This is particularly important because free work ends up feeding the vicious circle of the privileged. Who else can afford working for “little or nothing”? If you care for journalism and you want it to have a future, don’t spend your days typing away for free even if you can afford to do so.

4. A piece of advice

So, now, I’m imagining that I, too, received an imaginary letter from a budding journalist—I hope mine, too, is full of flattering reference to my recent work—my advice would be this, from someone who is not a big name of journalism but is just really happy to be doing this job, day in and day out:

Do you want to do a job that looks a lot more glamorous outside than it is inside, with great social impact but a salary that is likely to forever anchor you to the middle of the middle class? C’mon in. Welcome. It’s going to be hard, but not that hard. Look for alternative ways to get where you want, zig where others zag. Get out of your country, learn languages, and a bit (or a lot) of coding. Be open to changing your mind, and your career. Don’t take it as god’s calling, though.

It is not. It’s just a job.

I am a woman. I am white—but Italian, which I insist makes me a minority in the US. I don’t come from a privileged background. I didn’t go to fancy private schools, I wasn’t educated in English. I graduated in 2008. I didn’t even study journalism. I am not exceptionally talented. And if I ended up writing for a publication I love, then, my dear “budding journalist,” so can you.