Preparing a speech for high school students inducted into an international honors journalism society, I recently asked several writer/journalist friends, colleagues and acquaintances for “Advice For Young Journalists.”
I read the following advice to the students, their parents and their faculty, who found it enlightening. I believe there’s benefit in these words for most writers and journalists working today.
Contributions by Dave Eggers, Jeffrey Toobin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Aman Ali, Alex Von Tunzelman, Reza Aslan, Laila al Arian, Dave Zirin, Sharaf Mowjood, Matt Duss, Alia Malek, Alexander Cockburn, Souhelia al Jadda, Stephanie Thomas, Matt Seaton
Advice for young journalists by young journalists
Laila Al Arian: Writer and producer for Al Jazeera English in Washington DC. She received an M.S. degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2006
I encourage young journalists to create a niche for themselves. Find a subject, area, or region that you are particularly interested in and become an expert on it, while of course honing your writing and reporting skills. That’s the best way to stand out in an already-crowded field and in an industry that’s constantly evolving and changing. Also, write, write, write — practice and experience will help you improve with time. Another piece of advice would be to learn how to report in all media (broadcast, web, etc.) because versatility is key. Finally, finding mentors in the field whose work you admire so they could give you advice and guidance and critique your work is crucial.
Alex Von Tunzelman: Award winning writer of “Indian Summer” and columnist for The Guardian
Whether you’re researching a 150-word article or an 150,000-word book, the most important thing to remember about the people you’re writing about is that they are human beings. However grand and important they may be, you must never be intimidated by them. You should, however, try your best to understand them. Even if they seem completely nuts.
Aman Ali: Reporter for Reuters; also created a blog “30 Mosques in 30 Days” and is now writing a book on his experiences.
Tell them if they want to land their dream job at some big cushy national news outlet, they need to work towards it. Get published, anywhere and for anyone. Local community newspapers are great ways to build your chops as a writer, its how I got my start in high school. Plus with the Internet, there are now millions of sites that are starving for content, so there’s basically no excuse in 2011 that you can’t find a place to publish your stories/photos/videos. Tell them to find writers/photographers/columnists that they like and reach out to them. You’d be surprised how approachable they are because many journalists love to give advice about how to get your foot in the door in this business.
Sharaf Mowjood: M.S. Candidate at Columbia University School of Journalism – Broadcast; one of 6 recipients of a prestigious fellowship at NBC
Here are a few things you can mention to the students:
- Always get the facts – the truth is out there, and it is up to Journalists to provide those facts and truths to the public.
- Everything is a story. Storytelling is key to everything – find great characters, use different mediums and tell a FACTUAL story.
- All you have is your integrity. Be honest, be sincere, care about what you’re doing and never lie. At the end of the of the day, ones integrity is all you have speaking to you.
Advice for young journalists by veteran journalists
Dave Eggers: Pulitzer nominated author and publisher/editor of McSweeney’s
The main thing young journalists should do is actually go out and report. They should know that increasingly, the media world is composed not of reporting, but commenting. So actual reporting, entailing interviews, walking the streets, looking at data, etc, is rare and there will always always always be a home for it. For every 1000 commenters, there’s one reporter.
And wear a tie to your interviews
Alexander Cockburn: Co-founder of the political newsletter Counterpunch and columnist at The Nation
- Never believe anything till it is officially denied.
- Never accept “accepted wisdom.”
- Question everything.
- Objectivity does not exist in journalism and anyone who claims objectivity is either self-deluded or a liar. Every one has a viewpoint – and should have one. There is nothing wrong in being subjective, so long as you make a convincing case. It is better that you have views that you want to articulate rather then be a copying machine , parroting the prejudices of the day “objectively”.
- Never lose your sense of the superficial. In other words, however complicated a story, your job is to present it in an appetizing and comprehensible manner.
- You can’t be an expert in everything, so build up your own list of back-up experts – people with original and enquiring minds who can guide you through unfamiiliar territory.
- Read widely, make many friends and contacts. The more you know, the wider you cast your net, the more good stories will drop into your hand.
Journalism is a great, ethical, wonderful, safe field, no?
Reza Aslan: Academic, writer and contributing editor at the Daily Beast
I always remind kids that the news in America is a commercial enterprise who sole purpose is to get people to buy Coke and Viagra NOT to impart information. If your news comes with commercials it’s not news! It’s a for profit venture and like any sitcom it survives only if you watch and buy it’s commercials. Thus the sex, violence, terrorism – everything that makes you watch a soap opera – is what makes you watch commercial news.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Author, activist, and columnist
Well, Waj, as you know, there is no hope. Journalism as I knew it is over. So tell them: There are no guaranteed jobs awaiting them, very little pay for freelancers, etc, but the work of reporting and attempting to explain the world has to get done anyway, and they’re going to have to be the ones to do it. Besides, it’s a great adventure!
Alia Malek: Author of A Country Called Amreeka, journalist and editor
It’s a strange time to be talking to you about journalism. The past few days have been particularly stressful because a good friend of mine — and one of the best journalists in the business — was missing in Libya, doing what he does so well, and that is reporting.
It was reminder of how dangerous the work we do can be — not because all journalists cover wars (they don’t) — but because getting a story out there can be very threatening to those who would rather certain voices never be heard. And while that’s dangerous, that’s also incredible power.
Nowadays a lot of folks call themselves journalists even though many of them aren’t. I just want to remind you of the essence of what a journalist is, and that is reporting. There’s a place for people who write their opinions or blog, but at the end of the day, a journalist is someone who reports a story. It’s more about the story than it is about the journalist — it was very strange to see my friend lost in Libya become the story. and the best way to report — whether you’re reporting breaking news, a long form magazine piece, or a book — is to JUST GO THERE.
That’s the best advice I can give you. Get out there, go to where the story is, ask good questions, listen, take good notes, and weave it all together so that someone else in your community or even half-way around the world, can hear the story.
But, I’m also a writer! So, how do I write?
Roger Ebert: Pulitzer Prize winning film critic
The single most important advice: The Muse visits during the act of writing, not before. If you sit around waiting for inspiration, nothing will happen. Get going!
Souhelia Al Jadda: Peabody award-winning television producer and journalist, sits on the board of contributors for USA Today.
Practice, practice, practice writing. The more you write the better a writer you will become. Being a journalist, means you have the huge responsibility of keeping what you write honest and true to the events as you see them. Most importantly, when you write, do it from your heart, with curiosity and a critical eye towards events as they unfold and to what people tell you.
Jeffrey Toobin – Author and legal analyst for CNN and The New Yorker.
The two secrets to good writing – and writing and reporting.
First, you have to write a lot — good or bad, online or off, just keep churning it out. It will get better. Second, writers live too much in their own heads. Journalists especially should get out in the world and interview people, watch events unfold, and see the world. Good reporting produces good writing. To put it another way, even good writing won’t save a journalist who hasn’t done enough of his or her own reporting.
Dave Zirin: Named of the UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World”, writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine. He is their first sports writer in 150 years of existence.
The emancipating, near-miraculous aspect of being a writer is that it requires no sanction from the outside world. You don’t need to go to any particular school or graduate program. There are no course requirements, no need for a W-2 form that consecrates your labor in the eyes of the government. You can work as a college professor or a grave digger or whatever. If you dare to put words to your thoughts for public consumption, then you’re a writer.
But I want to be more than a writer! Maybe a producer, editor or analyst?
Stephanie Thomas, Producer, Charlie Rose on PBS
- Read at least two newspapers (not on line!) every day and glance at two others
- Don’t be afraid to ask open-ended “dumb” questions about things you know alot about. (You get better material)
- For those interested in TV production, make check lists…for everything.
- Understand the difference between pundits and academics (i.e. genuine experts)
Matt Duss: The National Security Editor at Center for American Progress
One important piece of advice I’d give them is that, while it’s important pay attention to various areas, in this era it really helps to specialize in a particular area — and, if they’re into political journalism, a particular area of policy. Given that the web enables people to access specialists in all areas, journalists should work on combining those skills with a specific expertise
Matt Seaton: Editor, Comment is free America, the Guardian
I’ve been an editor at the Guardian for more than 10 years, and was a reasonably successful freelance feature-writer and columnist before that. I’ve met many great reporters and writers, and I’ve often envied the skills of the ones who had real training, which I never did. If you want to report news, having shorthand and touchtyping are still pretty essential, as is also knowing how to build a story, handle sources, check facts and negotiate the legal issues sometimes involved.
Training is great; acquiring the professional skills in a taught environment is excellent. But I’m also living proof that you can have a career in journalism without them. What you can’t do without is a passionate interest in the medium.
To be a journalist, you need to be a consumer of journalism bordering on the obsessive. Always be reading, listening, watching. See what other media sources are saying, writing, thinking. Be critical in your thinking and appraisal: notice and analyse what makes a story or feature compelling to read, and equally what makes you turn the page or click onto something else.
But above all — for all the way that the new digital media mashes up text, audio and video — remember that it is still, essentially, a written medium. So always be reading, always be writing.