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You Want Advice? Don't Ask Journalists

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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"I’m sure that many people have told you this already, but take it from me as well: journalism is a dumb career move," Felix Salmon says to aspiring journalists. "If there’s something else you also love, something else you’re good at, something else which makes the world a better place  --  then maybe you should think about doing that instead. Even successful journalists rarely do much of the kind of high-minded stuff you probably aspire to. And enormous numbers of incredibly talented journalists find it almost impossible to make a decent living at this game."

Ezra Klein thinks this is too pessimistic: "My advice is very different; namely, become a journalist!" he writes.

The Death of Journalism is a favorite topic of many older writers, and for good reason: The industry is undergoing a wrenching and unusual transformation, and that's made it very tough to be midway up the old ladder. But that same transition has also created a lot of new opportunities for journalists who are just starting out. To give just a few examples, Vox, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Politico didn't exist as recently as a few years ago, and now we hire tons of young journalists.

If you, too, are an aspiring journalist, you're listening to two of the most successful Web writers out there, so you should pay attention. But to which one?

Well, it's hard to deny what Felix says: Journalism has never been a tougher career path. Wherever there are two or more journalists gathered together, there will be discussion of what else we might be fit for if our whole industry implodes, rather than merely shrinks. A major magazine editor of my acquaintance told me that he had stopped accepting speaking invitations to journalism schools because he could not in good conscience encourage them to continue on this mad endeavor.

Ezra is certainly right that there are loads of outlets that didn't even exist 10 years ago, doing great work and hiring lots of young reporters. But before you decide to hitch your wagon to that star, there are a few things you should consider.

The problem that should loom largest in your imagination is green, and it folds. The revenue model that funded journalism for more than a century is collapsing. I know what you're thinking: You're thinking that old, fuddy-duddy publications like the New York Times are getting disrupted by great new outlets like Vox and Politico, and it's a good thing, too. And, of course, old-style journalism is facing a lot of competition from new outlets. But that's not exactly some revolution in public affairs; old publications have always faced competition from new publications, and some of them went out of business as a result. Before Time and Newsweek and the Rocky Mountain News entered the ICU, there were Look and Life and the Saturday Evening Post. They failed; their journalists sought other jobs. This sort of disruption is normal in any industry.

No, the problem is not competition for eyeballs from new outlets that are writing news in a different, fresher way. The problem is competition for ad dollars from companies that don't produce news at all. Making news is expensive. It's hard to compete against companies that don't bother. Journalism's biggest threat comes from companies like Google and Facebook that cheaply aggregate our expensive content and sell low-cost, demographically targeted ads in huge numbers. They can kill the whole business.

Five or 10 years ago, there was some hope that we'd figure this out. The problem as we saw it then was that companies wouldn't pay for digital ads the way they did in print -- "Dollars in print become dimes on the Web, and pennies on mobile," as one executive editor told me. Now the grimly whispered consensus is that we're probably not going to figure it out. The Web does three terrible things to ads: It shrinks their form factor, produces a virtually infinite inventory and makes them very easy to avoid. The industry has sought salvation in things such as video (where the ads are harder to skip), but this has come nowhere near making up for the drought elsewhere. If you are thinking about going into journalism, here's a sentence that should send the icy fingers of fear dancing up your spine: "The soft TV ad market this year extended even to Super Bowl XLIX, where NBC didn't declare inventory sold out until days before the game." Television has been the one media industry segment that was still drawing reliable ad money, and now it, too, is struggling -- even as the economy recovers.

So before you decide to send that resume out, try this exercise. Find a copy of your favorite venerable magazine from 2000. (They're readily available on eBay, or at the main library in any big city.) Then buy a copy of the latest issue. Notice anything different? The current version is anorexic. Page through and look at the ads. Now go to its website and look at the advertising there. What do you see? Ads for T-shirts or bed linens? Ads for the magazine itself? Welcome to the brave new world of journalism, where there are more ways to do great reporting than ever before, and fewer and fewer ways to pay for it.

How are the new outlets managing? Well, a few ways:

  1. Highly, highly specialized ads that cater to a select audience. This is basically what Politico does, but it's not a model that is going to work for many publications. A brief story: A few days after I moved to Washington, I went out drinking with some fellow journalist. I was riding back to my sister's place on the Metro, and I rather blearily realized that I was staring at an ad for some sort of very fancy fighter plane. As you can imagine, very few people who ride the Metro can afford to buy a Joint Strike Fighter for weekending at the summer place. But some of the people who ride D.C. mass transit are staffers to important politicians, and the economics of lobbying are such that it makes sense to advertise your product to the whole city just for the chance of making an impression on those few. Politico can reliably deliver those eyeballs, with better targeting than Google or Facebook, and therefore it can reliably charge money for ad space. But that's not a generalizable business model unless you're seriously considering a career on the yacht beat. Right now, it seems to be working best in sports and gadgets, and it's not hard to see why: You've got highly focused target audiences who are prepared to spend a lot of money on their passions.
  2. Selling content to professionals. There are people who will buy a Web subscription out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than hacking the paywall. But as Andrew Sullivan's experience showed, there don't seem to be enough of them to actually make it profitable to produce the content. Companies like Reuters and the Wall Street Journal manage some version of this strategy, but note that these are subscriptions that people use to make a lot of money in the markets. Again, this simply doesn't describe a whole lot of firms.
  3. Philanthropic funding. This is how political magazines, from the Nation to the American Conservative, stay afloat: Rich people give them money to promote ideas they believe in. This is a parlous business model, because if the rich people stop giving, you stop publishing. But right now, it looks more stable than the "sell ads against content" model of mainstream journalism; little political magazines you've never heard of may well outlive the LA Times.
  4. Conferences. This has been very successful for the Atlantic and the New Yorker: Invite a lot of famous people to do panels, and get corporations and foundations to sponsor it. But it didn't save Newsweek, and it needs either a specialist audience (like tech publications) or a very prestigious brand to pull off.
  5. Native advertising. This is Buzzfeed's business model; the company is a curious hybrid of viral content generation, serious long-form reporting and an advertising firm. Many old-school journalists are deeply worried about the influence that those corporations will come to have on the reporting that is done about them. I'm sure they're right, if the model is widely replicated. I'm worried it can't be widely replicated.
  6. Chase costs down the revenue curve. Basically, this is what a lot of digital outlets do: They rely on freelancers who may get a couple hundred bucks an article, or young staffers who can churn out multiple articles every day without requiring expensive travel or lots of (time-consuming) interviews. The difficulty with this strategy is that the working hours and pay mean it's not necessarily a sustainable career path for people who eventually think they might like to have a few (time-consuming, expensive) kids.

So if you want to go into journalism, first answer this question: What is the revenue model? Don't think about the great journalism you want to do; think about who is going to pay for it.

"But Megan," I hear you cry, "you did it! You have an awesome job at an amazing outlet with splendid colleagues and a congenial working environment! Why are you telling me not to follow in your footsteps? Are you afraid of the competition?"

I get this question all the time: "How do I get your job?" And I give the same answer: You can't. I do not say this because I am afraid of other people getting my job; I wish everyone could have my job. It's great. More people should be able to do this.

But my career path wasn't a path; it was me stumbling blindly into something I happened to be good at, at a moment when that happened to be economically valuable. I can't seriously advise the rest of you to major in English, meander through a series of jobs, end up as a tech consultant in 1999, decide to go to business school, graduate into the teeth of the 2001 recession, get laid off from your consulting gig before you ever start, take a temporary position on the 9/11 disaster recovery site, and decide to start a blog that surprisingly picks up thousands of daily readers. Not unless you can also guarantee that several years later, as you are wallowing in the pit of unemployed despair, you will happen into the right blogger meetup, make the acquaintance of a woman who works on the Web team at the Economist, and thereby learn of an entry-level position on their staff for which you will eventually be hired. It's not a good plan. If I'd planned it, it never would have happened.

Like Felix Salmon and Ezra Klein, I happened to start blogging at a time when the blogosphere was overflowing with energy and cross-links, and it was (relatively) easy to get noticed. I happened to have just graduated from one of the top finance schools in the country, which gave me just the background I needed to write about current events as the stock market wallowed in misery and firms like Enron and MCI got caught committing accounting fraud. I'm not saying that writing talent and hard work played no role, but if I hadn't been in exactly the right place and time, they would have had no outlet. And those days are over.

Are there new paths out there? Umm, probably. I can't tell you what they are. But I also made my way in a world where old journalism companies still had the money to pay old journalism salaries. Every day, more of those jobs disappear. The industry is currently doing a fine job producing jobs for cheap young writers, but it seems to have less and less of a place for folks who are later in their careers, who have family responsibilities and can't work 12 or 16 hours a day for modest salaries, unless they have a trust fund or a rich spouse to subsidize them.

I suspect that one key difference between Felix and me, and Ezra, is simply age. Felix and I are both 42. We're in our peak earnings years. And we're doing fine. But I, and I presume Felix, see lots of people our age who aren't doing fine, who find it harder and hard to get that next job when the place they used to work for folds. When you're 30, this all seems comfortably far away, and anyway, there's always graduate school. When you're 42, it's easier to put yourself in their shoes. Then we look down the ladder at the folks who are starting their climb, and we wonder where all those eager young kids are going to go.

Media as it currently stands has a lot of cross-subsidies built into it, of all sorts. Cable news fills its days with free appearances by journalists who are trying to advertise their work. Book publishers want a journalist with a built-in readership, and cash-strapped publications want their low salaries subsidized by book advances and speaking gigs. But as the cash drains out, this looks less like a solid lattice, and more like drunks leaning on each other to get home: If one of them topples, the whole thing is in danger of going down.

One of the most important cross-subsidies is the career path: You work cheap when young, then you graduate to more prestigious publications, or more responsible roles, that pay better and give you either the time to raise a family or the money to pay for help.

The new economics of digital advertising are steadily knocking out the more expensive content, as well as the editing roles that older writers used to fill. It's hard to get that first job in journalism, but it's even harder to get a job that will give you a middle-class, middle-aged life in the places where these outlets are located. I'm not saying that there are no senior positions left in journalism, because there are. There are people getting paid very well to do what they love. But it looks less and less like a career path, and more and more like winning the lottery. And with the change in advertising revenue and the number of new startups that haven't yet proven their business models, I can't even guarantee that there will be a jackpot to win when today's 22-year-olds hit their own peak earning years.

Winners of this particular lottery tend to work and socialize with other lottery winners, so it doesn't seem that remarkable. But it is remarkable. And when I look at the havoc that the digital landscape is playing with everyone's revenue models, I worry that it will get rarer still. 

As Felix notes, the changes are not necessarily bad for journalism -- some kinds of journalism are ailing, but others, such as in-depth coverage of technical subjects, have simply never been better. Unfortunately, "good for journalism" does not necessarily mean "good for journalists."

So when kids who are passionate about writing ask me how they can get a job doing this thing that they love, I don't tell them to follow their bliss; I tell them there are a lot of things they can love. I loved building computer networks. I loved business school. This is a fantastic job, and believe me, I count my lucky stars every day that I have it. But there are a lot of fascinating things in the world. Go get a job doing something in an industry that is not struggling so hard to get people to pay for their products.

And if you find, in the end, that you have to write, you will be a better writer for actually knowing something about an industry other than the production and consumption of white papers. One of the biggest weaknesses of modern journalism, and modern politics, is that none of the people in them have any idea what it is like to work for a regular company. Organizations are very different from the inside than the outside, in ways that are not obvious to you until you've lived through a couple of executive bloodlettings and experienced the high-stakes tedium of the annual budget process. If you want to report on the military or global development or poverty programs or health care, go work for that industry and come back with some actual knowledge that you did not gain from earnestly asking insiders how they do their jobs. You'll not only be a better reporter, but you'll also have something to fall back on if your outlet folds.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net