Help with entry into journalism career?
October 10, 2011 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in a career in written journalism. I need help figuring out how to enter the field, and how to make a living at it.

I have a law degree from a good school, and have substantial knowledge of technology as well, but no journalism experience.

I'm interested in being able to write longer pieces that clearly comprehend and explain political and social issues. For example, there's plenty of existing writing about the financial crisis, yet I have the urge (and believe I have the ability) to write a piece that synthesizes events and explains them all better.

I'm also interested in writing about science and technology, career choice and relationships, and even food and movie criticism. I'd like to have an eclectic career where I can tackle a variety of topics.

If I can avoid it, I'd prefer not to cover day-to-day news stories. I'm more interested in wide-lens explanatory pieces.

I would also like to be able to be paid enough to live and pay off my student loans. (I also like unicorns and rainbows.)

Any ideas on how I might do all this, where I should start?

Should I be considering unorthodox places I might apply my skills, like hedge funds or think tanks?

Should I be writing a blog? Considering internships?

Should I work as a lawyer as a day job and do all the other stuff on the side as a hobby?
posted by Malad to Work & Money (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Work as a lawyer and write on the side. Journalism is currently dying as a profession - there is no money. There is certainly no money for thoughtful pieces.
posted by mleigh at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Eclectic topics, synthesis rather than day-to-day coverage, and wide-lens explanatory pieces describes a lot of blogs. This is not a bad thing per se; certainly it describes a lot of very successful blogs, some of which actually make money. But journalism as a whole is dying, there's a shortage of work even for people with decades of experience, and I would gently suggest that "Working a day-job as a lawyer while writing as a hobby" is about the closest you can come to this. My friends who are trained journalists with years of real experience are underemployed at best; there's just no room in the industry for a newcomer without very specialized knowledge to offer.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:57 AM on October 10, 2011

As they told us on my first day of journalism school, "Welcome to journalism. You will never make any money and, as a result, at least one third of you will wind up working in public relations."

Any friends from that class who made a decent paycheque did so working at newspapers and radio stations in the UAE.
posted by fso at 9:58 AM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

The brutally practical and not very Steve Jobs-ian advice (although keep in mind our relative levels of career success- meaning I shouldn't even bother to finish typing this) is to at least continue with law as a day job until all of your law-school-related loans are paid off. Making a self-sustainable living at journalism is difficult enough- making a living that also allows you to pay off law school debt may also require the finding and then re-selling of one of the unicorns you mention. Although- hey, what would Steve Jobs say?

(You could always write in the evenings and have success early on like Stephen King which would allow you to quit your day job, or you may have to keep working and have delayed success like Frank McCourt. Or you could keep a blog and enjoy the process, making the success a personal happiness, maybe not a financial happiness sort of thing. )
posted by bquarters at 10:10 AM on October 10, 2011

You can't do the longer stories without first having done the day-to-day shit. If you were, say, twenty-two about ten years ago, I'd tell you to go out and find a local weekly and start there. The pay would have been awful, the hours would have been worse than those of a new associate at Skadden Arps, and the meat and potatoes of your work would have been "City Council votes to double parking meter fares" potboilers.

But that would have taught you the basics of reporting: interviewing, organizing, writing. You'd have learned to create the inverted pyramid by heart, then you'd have learned how to break the inverted pyramid.

Here's the thing. If you were twenty-two about ten years ago, and you had started at a local weekly, you'd have worked your way up to a national publication within about three years. Maybe. If you had the talent, the voice, the dedication. The willingness to sacrifice everything, to move to Abu Dhabi or Milwaukee if a job popped up.

But then the industry would have bottomed out, and you'd have been one of the first in line for the chopping block, what with being so young.

You would have watched friend after friend laid off, leaving the profession, going off to PR hack land. You would have worked every waking hour just to keep your job. If you'd been twenty-two about ten years ago, and just starting out in journalism, you'd have gone through hell just to call yourself a writer.

It's worse now.

Back then, the newspaper industry was dying, but we still had newsrooms that were fully staffed. We had editorial assistants and beat reporters and assistant city editors and plenty of folks on the copy desk, and we had enough photographers to get out to every assignment. But then they got rid of the assistant editors, and half the copy editors, and half the reporters, and most of the editorial assistants, too.

This under-staffing problem, in which twenty people try to do the work of forty, isn't because there aren't enough writers and editors clamoring to work. It's because there's no money to pay those writers and editors.

Which brings me to your problem, now, in 2011: there are lots of trained, experienced reporters who can do those enterprise stories. There are lots of folks with blogs who can sometimes do the stories just as well as the trained reporters do. The editors, though, don't have nearly as much time to spend on nice big "Sunday stories" as they did back in the day. They can't sit with you and talk about structure, or about interview techniques, or about finding the local angle to a national story. They can't help you hone your craft because their newsrooms have turned into nineteenth century factories. They don't have time now to do more than edit those parking meter stories by the dozen.

I'm sorry to say all this. But honestly, you need to know. It's not that there's no place for writers or even enterprise reporters, just that there is no paid place for them. Start a blog. Attend some workshops. Maybe go to a mixer or two. Keep your day job. But please, for the love of God, don't pin your hopes and dreams on being Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, or Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men. Those folks were rare in their own day, and nowadays you're as likely to see one of them as you are to see a rhinoceros walking down the street.
posted by brina at 10:22 AM on October 10, 2011 [14 favorites]

Work as a lawyer and write on the side.

What that guy said. A hundred millions times. Not only will you be happier, you will actually have more credibility than Random Writer Guy.

Should I be considering unorthodox places I might apply my skills, like hedge funds or think tanks?

Not unless you already have built relationships with these groups.

Should I be writing a blog?

Yes, absolutely. What are you waiting for?

Considering internships?

Hell no.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:36 AM on October 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Where are you? A friend in New Zealand recently changed careers in her thirties and is now a working reporter on a thriving print publication.

In the U.S., it will be much, much harder. I know a ton of laid-off writers and reporters, as well as a ton of writers and reporters who are getting by, barely, on subsistence wages and long hours. I wouldn't even consider J-school at this point.
posted by vickyverky at 10:36 AM on October 10, 2011

The newspaper industry is losing thousands of jobs a year. See Paper Cuts.

If you want to write, do a blog and write in a specialized field -- for you, that would be law. That way you have less competition.
posted by maurreen at 10:44 AM on October 10, 2011

Well, I kind of can't believe this, but I'll be the relative optimist in this thread. Please do bear in mind what everyone is saying about the business dying, and the pay being shit, and there being no money for anything, and all that. It's true.

But if you really want to make a career in journalism...well, I'm a young guy who has managed to build one in the past 3-4 years with no connections and a degree in political science from a public college. I don't make a lot of money, but I make enough to live a pretty normal middle-class twentysomething life. So, it can be done.

Caveat, though: I have no debt. If you make what I make and have a six-figure law school debt, you'd have to manage your money very carefully. You could probably do it, but it wouldn't be easy.

Anyway, the first thing to remember is, as brina said, you're not going to write those kinds of think pieces right way. Why? Because who the hell are you? You could be the sharpest, most knowledgeable guy in the room, but nobody knows that yet. You are almost certainly never going to be Michael Lewis, you are absolutely certainly not going to be Michael Lewis tomorrow, or next week, or next year, or five years from now. It takes time.

So, yeah, you are going to have to write a lot of the day-to-day stuff, no matter what. Do not eschew this. It's important.

Bearing in mind that you will have to write some rather boring, day-to-day type stuff no matter what you do, I think your law degree could actually be a useful asset in business journalism. I've met a few successful business reporters with law degrees, and there's lots of news out there relating to a variety of legal-ish topics, many of which are quite esoteric.

I work in business journalism, and I assume you'd be OK with that, considering your mention of the financial crisis. The good thing about it is that, compared to other parts of journalism, it's doing relatively OK. There are a few more jobs, and they pay better. All of journalism is hurting, but it's newspapers that are really dying off. Steer clear of newspapers, unless the idea of working 70-hour weeks for $25k a year with zero job security appeals to you.

Anyway, I think you could continue to work in the law (though the legal job market isn't exactly hot, either, these days) and start a blog, trying to position yourself as a sort of person-with-legal-expertise-and-writing-chops. Write about newsy topics that are related to what interests you and what you've studied in the law. Once you've got that going, find some websites that would be interested in that sort of content and pitch them ideas. Or, you could even just get in touch and say "hey, are you guys looking for writers? Check out my stuff!" Many of these places don't pay or pay very little, but if they have a readership and some respect in the areas they cover, they'll be a feather in your cap.

Once you've got a nice portfolio of published clips, you can start looking for a staff job. These are, without question, difficult to get. However, there are some business magazines, websites and newswires that would probably value your legal expertise, so you can use that as a selling point. Don't be afraid to work in places that sound kind of lame (I work for a trade magazine), it's the only way to get experience and work is better than no-work. Most journalists I know, myself included, who have staff jobs spend a good bit of their free time freelancing, blogging, and developing their own ideas so that they can eventually - hopefully - find their way into something they're really passionate about. And if it doesn't work out, hey, at least you're spending some time doing interesting work. So, even if you manage to land a staff job, make sure not to put all your eggs in one basket, if you can.

That went on a hell of a lot longer than I thought it would, so, in sum: Journalism is dying, but you can still make a go of it if you work hard and find a good niche. Your law degree can be a useful asset. Do start blogging, don't bother with internships because they are all unpaid.
posted by breakin' the law at 10:56 AM on October 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

How about staying within the field of law, writing scholarship for law journals at first, and then transitioning to being a "public intellectual," like Alan Dershowitz, Patricia Williams, Stanley Fish, or Larry Lessig. (Stanley Fish isn't "within the field of law" but he writes about it a lot...).
posted by Jagz-Mario at 11:20 AM on October 10, 2011

(I see I got beaten to it several times over, but since I've written this now, I'll post it anyway.)

I am a journalist, among other things. I'm UK-based, but I don't think there are significant differences between here and the US in terms of what you're asking.

My advice is very blunt: Don't do it.

The opportunities for "an eclectic career where I can tackle a variety of topics" are essentially non-existent. Yes, there are a handful of people who do something resembling this. Without exception they either a) started a long time ago when the industry was not yet dying b) are extremely well-connected in a highly nepotistic business c) come from another background such as fiction-writing and leverage that quasi-fame for media work or d) all of the above.

The idea of getting able to write in-depth features about a specific area is slightly more practical, even without the standard reporter background (I was never a reporter) but it's still pretty unlikely to lead to anything fulfilling for a new entrant. Unfortunately, the willingness of the industry to pay for thorough, researched, in-depth reporting and analysis is declining all the time. More and more journalism is based on press releases and PR stories. The time and resource to use the kind of analytical skills you probably hope to exercise are slim to non-existent in most places and getting worse.

This is also a bad line of work if you enjoy writing. The ability to write is not a prerequisite for journalism. I have edited copy from long-standing journalists who could barely string coherent sentences together and had a spectacular gift from writing stories back to front. Friends of mine who have edited work from superstar columnists say the standard there is even worse: one says that raw copy from a well-known and well-paid UK commentator is "like someone has vomited onto the page". All this is cleaned up to publishable standards by the sub-editors, who generally can write but are thoroughly miserable as a result of doing this all day long.

Then there's the financial side of this. One of the problems with journalism is that both staff salaries and freelance rates are low and falling (at least in real terms and even in nominal terms in some cases I've seen), partly because the industry is in dire shape and partly because so many people want to be journalists that it's a buyer's market. To make matters worse, you do not generally earn much of a premium for being competent and knowledgable, because right now the industry doesn't care much about quality - it just wants to keep costs down while filling those inconvenient pages between the adverts. In the view of many people in charge, journalists are a cost centre not a revenue generator and need to be squeezed.

The result of all this is that increasing numbers of smart and capable journalists quit to work in PR or the industries that they have previously covered if they acquire sufficient expertise. Hence the standard of journalism degrades further, people grumble about the poor quality of the media, readership declines, revenue declines and cue another round of cost-cutting focusing on the journalists and what supports them.

Perhaps I'm stating the above fairly strongly and maybe someone will say 'what about journalist XYZ'. I'd just say they will be the exception. It's like actors aiming to be a film star. Today, most journalists do not have that fulfilling career that they aspired to and are doing the equivalent of bit parts and waiting tables.

I'm relatively lucky in that I cover a specialised topic (finance), I'm unusually knowledgeable in my area and I have a fair amount of flexibility in what I write about. I can make a decent living as a freelancer. But I'm still very likely to abandon this for something else soon, as much as anything else because it's depressing to be involved in an industry that has poor prospects and is doing its best to make the situation worse.

Now, to be more constructive on what you could consider doing, the most obvious solution to writing about subjects that you are deeply interested in is definitely to do it as a hobby. Focus on things you want to write about and pitch those ideas to relevant newspapers and magazines. Be realistic here: if you have a great concept about the financial crisis and you pitch it to a major outlet as an unknown writer with no portfolio, they will say "no thanks". If the idea is good, they will then give it to a staff writer/favoured freelance to write instead. But you might be able to get features into specialist publications related to your interests (these often run on a shoestring and are grateful for competent outside writers).

Another possibility if you want to write and research as a living is along the lines of hedge funds and think tanks as you say - consulting and research work can pay better and be more geared around analysis and original thinking. Gigs in these things are not easy to come by these days without extensive connections, but it is worth investigating.

Internships could be useful there. Do not consider doing an internship for a general media organisation though - much of the industry is built on exploiting people straight from college for three consecutive six-month stints of office admin and leaving them with nothing but an empty bank account at the end of it.

Your absolute strongest selling point is to be a competent lawyer and try to develop writing work around that. Blogs, submissions to industry magazines, company publications, newsletters for clients and prospective clients. There are a significant number of people in finance, law and similar industries who are very fond of writing but figured that they would earn a better living elsewhere, hence work in something that might not be their first choice and try to get their writing kicks from making the material they produce about their area as entertaining and well-written as possible.
posted by Temagami at 11:33 AM on October 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

I work for a small market daily newspaper. The kind of stories you're talking about appear in my town's weekly independent paper, the tabloid-style free sort of publication..
posted by Occula at 12:09 PM on October 10, 2011

Keep your day job and write on the side. Focus on trade and specialty pubs. Depending on where you are and how you work your connections, you could do well.

I earned my grad j-master's at age 50. I'm working as a journalist and love my job.

But, even though I make not-too-much, I have no debt, no (human) dependents, no car, no mortgage.

Take a look at blogs in your field. And of course you should start one, and make sure it is of impeccable quality.
posted by jgirl at 12:29 PM on October 10, 2011

Also make sure you read about writing and presentation for the Web!
posted by jgirl at 12:59 PM on October 10, 2011

I was brina's example 10 years ago. I got laid off in the last recession and I am grateful as all hell to have had that happen to me now, because now I've had years to build up seniority elsewhere. Meanwhile, pretty much everyone I knew at my newspaper that was a writer or editor has been laid off. Even the most senior people have gotten the boot in the last year. I am SO glad I got out then rather than now.

Don't do it. Writing careers are useless now.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:50 PM on October 10, 2011

My journalist friends and I, ten years into the trade, have recently thought long and hard about exiting the industry for all the reasons listed above - it's declining, we have to do more with less, the work is hard and often far less rewarding and illuminating than we hope, everyone wants to do something thought-provoking and long-form but there's so little market for it, we've had to do crappy hackwork stories to pay the bills, we've to do assignments so depressingly inane it would make your brain bleed - and some of us have decided it's time to move on; others specialize in topics that allow them both room to become experts. In doing so, we've had to untangle and really closely examine what it is about journalism that we love - all the lovely idealistic stuff and the self-serving stuff too.

I think it's worth thinking about what it is about the often romanticized notion of "journalism" that appeals to you and figure out if there is a way to fulfill that urge with something you are already doing or can easily transition into.

For instance, among the reasons I loved being a journalist - I love a good story, I like asking questions, I like writing, I like making a visual impact, I believe at my core that people should have access to information and knowledge. On the more selfish side, I had to come to terms with the truth that it's important to me, day to day, to be around curious people, to be outwardly and obviously aligned with what I considered a force for good, and that being able to tell people I was a journalist - with the shorthand for idealism and tenacity and adventurousness that that implies, true or not - stroked my ego and confirmed what I wanted people to know about me on first impression. This is hard stuff to admit, but it's worth asking yourself what you want to get out of a journalism career, and then thinking carefully if there are other ways you can satisfy these needs. Ultimately I left, and found a non-journalism career that lets me do most of these things, although now I have to explain what I do and why it's important to me, instead of letting the word "journalist" do the work for me.

When people ask me if they should quit their jobs and go into journalism now, I almost always say no. I think you should study and deeply know a topic they care about - whether that's science or health or law or tech - and when you can, self-publish what you know and think. Maybe that will lead to more writing, maybe it won't. But in a world in which everyone has an opinion, true credibility is key.

I also like the advice that my husband gives wannabe filmmakers who are thinking about film school, which is basically that you should give yourself a year before you apply - and in that year, if you don't write two scripts or shoot two good shorts or whatever, then you shouldn't go into film, because you weren't ever going to anyway. I feel the same way about being a journalist. If you are thinking of blogging and writing and pulling concepts together in insightful articles or video clips, but aren't doing it already, you should be. The impulse and the action should come from within, before you have the official "career," if ever.
posted by sestaaak at 1:55 PM on October 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

What you're looking to do is not what I, or any working journalist I know, does. Journalists report on the news. A few lucky ones get to do analysis, but they either take years to work their way up to it, or they start their own blogs to post their personal essays. You want to be an essayist. Freelance your analyses to idea-friendly publications.

And to echo what's been said above: I don't know any print journalist who's gotten a raise in the past 5 years, unless it was by changing jobs. I do know lots of journalists who've experienced pay cuts, furloughs, buyouts and layoffs, and lots who've left for PR or headed to law school. To someone in this field, this question sounds a lot like, "I'm looking to get a job on the Titanic. Any tips?"

Business niche publications are a rare exception. You'll still have to start with grunt coverage of earnings and news of the day, but some niche publications do have jobs.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:01 PM on October 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for the excellent, thoughtful answers. It's clear I'm going to have to give this a lot more thought. I'm leaning towards the day job + side blog + freelance essay option and seeing if that doesn't make me happy.
posted by Malad at 7:58 PM on October 11, 2011

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