In Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the digital age of journalism, Eric Newton describes the traditional process of journalism as a one-way assembly line, from journalist to story to medium to audience. News distribution today has become less linear, but today’s media landscape may resemble a machine more than ever before. Felix Salmon recently wrote a post offering advice to young journalists that, in short, says “do something else”. Part of the problem with becoming a journalist today, according to Salmon, is reporters are cogs in the system, easily removable and replaceable. Salmon attributes his journalistic success to a mix of luck and privilege, and tells aspiring journalists “The job I’m doing now was inconceivable when I was your age, and, similarly, if you’re lucky enough to have done well in this industry by the time you’re my age (I’m 42), then you’ll almost certainly be doing something which almost nobody today could foresee.”
The changing media landscape is causing a great deal of uncertainty for people working in the industry and those who aspire to. One of Salmon’s main contentions is that journalism as currently constructed is not a financially sustainable career path. In an article about freelance writing by Noah Davis, fellow freelancer David Simon talks about the erosion of support structures and mentorship opportunities that help young journalists learn and grow. “The problem now is, who are you going to learn your craft from? What structures are going to support you in doing work that’s any good? And how are you going to know if it’s any good?” Simon says. “When all the older people are begging for spare change by the side of the highway, you don’t have a lot of incentive to listen to their wisdom.”
In a rebuttal to Salmon’s post, Slate’s senior technology writer Will Oremus wrote, “A world in which productivity trumps credentials should be welcomed by those who are willing, or even eager, to be constantly judged on the value they’re creating today, rather than the names on their résumé or the number of years they’ve served in the industry.”
Vox media founder Ezra Klein also disagrees with Salmon’s bleak assessment of the field. In a February 9 article, Klein argues that young journalists should fight to do the kind of work they want someone to notice. Klein’s advice is to develop subject area expertise, and work with the people around you.
“In my experience, horizontal mentoring — basically, very tight working relationships with people who are approximately at your level — is more common, and usually more valuable. So keep your eyes out for opportunities to learn from your peers, as they’re often generous with their time, and don’t get too hung up on trying to cultivate mentors up the food chain, as they’re often busier, and frequently have less that’s relevant to teach you.”
In Searchlights and Sunglasses, Newton quotes journalist Hodding Carter III, who once said, “This is the most exciting time ever to be a journalist — if you are not in search of the past.” And this seems to be the best rebuttal of Salmon’s argument. As he notes, there is no sure-fire path to success in journalism, just as there is not in any other field. Success does require a bit of luck, and the future is rarely discernible. But that doesn’t imply a lack of opportunity. Rather, it is the definition of opportunity. The world will always need communicators. People will always seek information. The “how” in that process is rapidly evolving, and change is always scary. But I’m confident that when the dust settles, the “who” in the new media landscape will be populated by smart, passionate, innovative people who will develop will develop ways of obtaining and distributing information that we can’t imagine today. One form of journalism may be on the way out. Career ladders aren’t as predictable and safe as they once were. But the future is open to development. Young journalists today can shape and mold the new age of journalism. And they will.