March 27, 2013

Confounding the Sourpusses: How to Find Your Journalism Career

By: Matt Welch

Most successful journalists, when called upon to speak in front a group of aspiring young reporters, writers, and editors, tell them that, sadly, the glory days are long gone. There’s no more gold in them thar hills. The very future of journalism—and along with it, democracy herself—is hanging by a thread.

“Welcome to a dying industry, J-school grads,” bestselling author Barbara Ehrenreich, who once made $10 a word for Time magazine, told Berkeley students in 2009. “You won’t get rich, unless of course you develop a sideline in blackmail or bank robbery.” Five years earlier at the same university, multimillionaire Ted Koppel sang the same song. “Don’t get into it because of the money,” the television star warned. “Don’t get into because you think you get to be well-known.”

“I am far less optimistic,” New Yorker writer and Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann told graduates last year, “that journalists will have the economic means of producing journalism.” Sounding somewhat more optimistic though no less defiant was Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, who told Medill students in 2009, “I have yet to meet a journalist who was in it for the money.” It should be pointed out that Weymouth’s millionaire maternal grandparents were both publishers of the Washington Post, and her millionaire uncle Donald remains the CEO.

Why do successful, rich people spend so much time telling you that you can’t make money the way they did, and that—anyways—you somehow shouldn’t want to? There are many plausible explanations, but I would focus your attention on one: journalists are generally unschooled in economics and history, particularly the economics and history of journalism itself. They are notorious about exempting themselves from the kind of merciless conflict-of-interest rules they otherwise enjoy foisting on politicians and academic researchers. In other words, they are locked into what I like to call the “A&P view of journalism.”

A&P was not some 19th-century railroad immortalized in the board game Monopoly; it was—as recently as the 1950s—the dominant supermarket chain in the United States, with a stunning 75-percent market share and 16,000 stores at its peak. It was the Wal-Mart of its day: omnipresent, unstoppable, permanent.

Nowadays, like so much of what seemed indelible in the “Organization Man 1950s”—Kodachrome and U.S. Steel, anyone?—A&P has retreated to comparative insignificance, with less than 400 stores in just seven states. Two months ago, the company filed for bankruptcy and was de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange. Such, as you know well, are the joys of creative destruction.

Well, imagine for a moment that the popular history of modern American supermarkets—the rise of upscale health-conscious outlets like Whole Foods, price-slashing monsters like Wal-Mart, online upstarts like—was chronicled not by financial reporters an retail academics but by life-long employees of A&P. Imagine that the people trying to document and interpret a revolution for you are the exact same people whose friends and colleagues are being sent to the guillotine. It is a conflict of interest so utterly foundational, so deterministic to the way people talk about the media industry that almost nobody even mentions it. Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily, gobbling up innovation wherever it appears.

What does this have to do with figuring out how to orient your journalism career? A couple of things. First, know that much of what you are generally told about the media business is flat out wrong. You can get rich. The industry—or better stated, the vocation—is not dying, it’s thriving; and despite every insider indication to the contrary, the journalism racket is one hell of a lot of fun. And understanding the contours of the market you’re entering is the most important of seven basic steps to jumpstart your media career.

Next time, I’ll give you those seven specific tips for your journalism career.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason Magazine. This post is part of the Institute for Humane Studies Guide to Public Policy Careers.

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