When most people say someone is from “inside the Beltway,” they don’t mean it as a compliment. This is doubly true if the speaker happens to be of the libertarian persuasion. But being a denizen of the District of Columbia—and a “Washington insider,” at least in some twisted sense—can be incredibly useful if you want to do what I do: write about politics and policy for opinion-oriented publications.
I have walked a narrow path into a specific niche in the journalism industry, snagging an internship and then a job at the conservative Weekly Standard right out of college, moving on to work as a researcher on the New York Times op-ed page, and finally landing as a writer and editor at Reason magazine. I freelance for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and a host of other publications. Sometimes, I get all spackled up with makeup and appear on cable news, or sit at home in my pajamas and do radio interviews.
As I have wended my way through full-time jobs and short gigs, my greatest career asset has often been my physical presence in Washington. This is not because I am some kind of pavement-pounding, Capitol cloakroom gotcha reporter. On the contrary, I spend virtually all my time with my behind firmly planted in an ergonomic chair, reading stuff on the Internet.
But if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to convince at least one editor that you’re up to snuff. Sending editors reams of well reported, peerless prose on timely topics is a good way to do that, but first you have to convince them to actually read your email.
DC editors are a desk-dwelling species, and on the rare occasions that they leave their native habitat, they are usually in search of food, drink, or the companionship of other people who can debate the finer points of the defense appropriations process but would rather talk about bad movies. These people are your prey, and ultimately—if all goes well—your friends and colleagues.
Much of the advice I have to offer is generalizable to other cities and other types of journalism, but below I mostly obey the timeless injunction to write what I know. Thus, some notes from a prematurely crusty editor about how to survive (and maybe even thrive) in the DC opinion journalism scene.
Ignore the Fogies
Disregard the well-meaning advice of grizzled elder reporters. They will tell you to move to an otherwise unappealing small town with a slightly better-than-average small town paper and get a job covering fires and cats in trees. They are wrong. This strategy may have worked decades ago. But virtually none of the gainfully employed writers and editors I know in Washington under the age of thirty-five got their start covering bake-offs or PTA meetings.
If you want my job, the quickest route is not through the Alexandria Gazette-Packett. Nor is it through journalism school. Instead—assuming politics and policy are your drugs of choice—you should move to Washington, get a cheap apartment, and get started.
Go to Happy Hours
I’m going to assume that you are a decent writer. Not because the odds are in your favor there—your writing probably needs work. But there’s not much I can do for you on that front during our brief acquaintance in these pages. Instead, my goal is to help you get noticed.
Editors, surprisingly, turn out to be human and therefore strongly prefer to assign stories to people they or their colleagues (a) know and (b) like. You can be one of these people. All you have to do is (a) get known and (b) be likeable. If the latter sounds like something that would be difficult for you to do in a crowded bar (as the kids in Delphi say, know thyself ), consider other venues in which you might come across as charming and intelligent. I have a few useful professional relationships that have been conducted entirely on Google chat, for instance.
But for most people, friendships are made and sustained face to face. DC cocktail parties and happy hours—the kind decried by “outside the Beltway” types of all stripes—have replaced the smoke-filled rooms of yore. Most drinking venues are not particularly fancy or full of star power. Especially if you are a recent college grad, at least part of this process will likely involve cheese fries. But going to happy hours hosted by institutions you know and respect—like the Institute for Humane Studies, for example, or Reason—is a good way to learn the lay of the land and make some contacts.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is managing editor of Reason magazine. This post is part of the Institute for Humane Studies Journalism Career Guide.