Advice to young people trying to get into journalism

I very frequently get emails from young people, usually studying now at one of my alma maters, asking me for advice on how to enter journalism. Obviously, their hope is that I have an internship or something even better to refer, but I just don’t. And really, I don’t. But I do try to respond honestly with my advice.

Since my replies have over time become more and more similar, I thought I might just publish my most recent one, written a few minutes ago, here:

Dear [OMITTED],

I sympathize very much, because around the time you were born I was writing these letters to journalists in the medium of our time, cuneiform clay tablets.

I have to rain on your parade a little bit, hopefully without drenching you. It was hard to enter journalism back then and it is much harder now. Back then it was merely glamorous (=> too many young people going after too few opportunities). Nowadays the industry is still glamorous (not sure why) but also decimated by the interwebs or whatever that thingy is you people use.

In short: all the mainstream media organisations that you can think of have been laying off people for about a decade or at least not hiring new talent en masse. For every good job, there are now many, many very qualified and experienced journalists lining up. Most of the ones my age have taken to drink, although I would not advise that option for you yet.

The energy has for years, especially in the US, been with the “new” media, by which I don’t mean social media but these start-ups, such as, for example, [OMITTED] or [OMITTED] in [OMITTED] journalism. Those kinds of things are where I would start my search, if I were you now. They hire young and exploit you in ways last seen during the years of Manchester Capitalism. You will burn out within a couple or years and leave disillusioned. And then you will discover that you now have “experience” and can get a real career.

Beyond that, and most urgently, I would advise you to start a blog (not just twitter) and actually put good stuff on it frequently. That can

  1. become your portfolio over time and
  2. actually force you to practice writing and thinking (though not necessarily reporting), thus allowing you to get better. (And even if you’re good, you can always get better.)

I would also advise you to get some real expertise in, well, something. I personally got a Masters in international relations and then joined a bank for a year or so, which was both miserable and educational. You’ll find that journalism is much less about writing stunningly beautiful sentences that obviously (!) deserve a Pulitzer and much more about knowing what the heck you’re talking about when you interview somebody in a suit and then go back to the newsroom to convince an editor that this was remotely interesting.

All that said, don’t get dejected. I think I’m saying: don’t think there is a shortcut. It took me, back in the 90s, about [OMITTED] years from my graduation to the career I’m now in.

Chin up and good luck,

A

The throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia

My employer, The Economist, is 170 years old. Another British publication, the Financial Times, turned 125 today.

It turns out that we are

  1. loosely affiliated in some complicated corporate way and
  2. very dearly affiliated in a personal way, because I, for instance, share an office space with them in Berlin.

By pure coincidence, their Berlin Bureau Chief, Quentin Peel, has exactly the same deep, sophisticated British voice and accent that one of our editors in London (Xan Smiley, if you must know) has, so I keep doing double takes whenever Quentin is on the phone, expecting Xan to come waltzing in. I digress.

The first of my points, if this post has any, is that the FT is a spring chicken by our standards. I mean, we were friggin’ middle-aged when they were born. But what’s a half-century or so among friends?

The second point is that it can be strangely revealing to go back in time to what journalism back then was like. And so I indulged myself during my coffee break today by reading their first front page, the one from February 13, 1888.

As was the custom at the time, the articles were listed (no pictures, it goes without saying) in unadorned columns. And so my eyes alit, after the headline on “Russia and Finance” and before the one on “Speculation in Copper,” on an article that began as follows:

The Crown Prince

What is to be the result of the very serious operation which has been performed on the throat of the Crown Prince of Prussia? This is not a mere question of ordinary politics, but one which vitally affects the peace and prosperity of Europe. It is not merely that the Crown Prince is the son of our ally, the Emperor of Germany, and the husband of England’s eldest daughter, but he is a Prince of pacific tendencies, though not less a soldier than the rest of the Brandenburgers. The operation only took ten minutes to perform…..

For those among you who are, or are related to, hacks, let’s just savor such themes as:

  • lede
  • context and history
  • grammar (=> passive tense, hyperbole, …)
  • presentation

Is this not a gem? Happy birthday, FT.

___

PS: As far as I can discern, the Crown Prince (never named in the article) is Frederick III, and “England’s eldest daughter” is Victoria Adelaide Mary Lousia.

Frederick III Vicky

Ich bin ein Berliner

I)

In the late 80s, when we still thought the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were as good as eternal, my friend Matt Lieber and I, fairly fresh out of high school, traveled around Germany and got a visa for a few unforgettable hours in Communist East Berlin. We entered through Checkpoint Charlie (pictured above in 1961, during one of the many standoffs). Then we walked up the famous Friedrichstrasse toward the equally famous Unter den Linden.

I’ll never forget those first few blocks behind the Iron Curtain.

Crosstreets:

  • Krausenstrasse
  • Leipzigerstrasse
  • Kronenstrasse
  • Mohrenstrasse
  • Taubenstrasse

II)

Just a few years later, in 1993, I was back on that same stretch of that same street: Friedrichstrasse, between Taubenstrasse and Mohrenstrasse.

Except this time I was an unpaid intern for CNN, that (then-) unbeatable American, Western, Capitalist media success story. By sheer luck, n-tv, a German start-up that wanted to be, and indeed became, the German CNN, had just opened in the same building and CNN owned a part of it. In the utter chaos of n-tv‘s first weeks, I did all sorts of jobs for both companies that I was entirely unqualified for and benefitted hugely from.

III)

Now, many years later again, I will be back once more at that same stretch of that same street. This time (as of mid-June, 2012) I am Berlin Bureau Chief of The Economist. Our office is right at a corner that Matt and I walked past all those years ago.

It’ll be my fifth beat in the 15 years I’ve worked for The Economist so far. (You may recall my meditation on being that kind of “generalist” when I last switched beats, three years ago.)

IV)

When I visited the office the other day, before the actual move from Los Angeles, I loitered a bit on those blocks, looking for something familiar from the past.

Wasn’t this where that East German cop stopped Matt and me for jaywalking?

And wasn’t that where, in 1993, that god-awful East-Germanesque sausage snack bar was?

I simply couldn’t tell. Yoga, Starbucks, Gucci, banks, BMWs. Physically, the street had become aggressively 2012, and nothing else.

I remembered how somebody once told me about visiting, in 1978, a tiny fishing village north of Hong Kong. It was called Shenzhen. Three decades later he went back to try to find the spot where he stood. Well, you know.

But even that did not capture the feelings I had while standing again at that particular corner of the world. In my imagination, I rewound and fast-forwarded through life on that spot. From its Slavic time through its Prussian time, to its Wilhelmine and Twenties time, its Nazi time, its Cold-War time, its Wende time. Then I opened my eyes again.

V)

Why do people become journalists? For different reasons. But many, I am guessing, want to feel that they lived history.

This year and in the coming years, Europe seems likely to be making history again, and Berlin seems likely to play a big role in that history. If I do my job right, and even if I just do it mediocrely, I’ll see a good bit of it up close.

How the French view my media habits

You might remember that I wrote a post last fall about my own, personal media habits and how they have been changing.

Based on observing only myself, I concluded that, contrary to what you might have read or heard in the media, there is no media crisis for citizens and consumers, who can inform themselves better than ever — and indeed that we may be at the beginning of a second Renaissance.

La Francophonie écoute

Well, somewhat to my surprise, that little post has had quite a career in the French-speaking world. It probably began when Francis Pisani, a respected French blogger in America, picked it up in Le Monde.

A while later, a French-Canadian newspaper, Le Devoir, ran a cover story (picture above) on it. 😯

And now Owni, a cutting-edge website, has not only translated my post but invited two experts to rebut my thesis. (As you know, intelligent rebuttals delight me, because they make me learn and refine my views, which is sort of the point of life, isn’t it?)

Divina Frau-Meigs

The first expert is Divina Frau-Meigs, a media sociologist and professor at the Sorbonne. In her rebuttal, she

  • concedes that access to news and information has become more “democratic” for those who are “intellectually and technologically equipped”, whom she calls the “info-riches”;
  • laments that this does not resolve the economic, social and cultural “divides” — in other words, she worries that people whom she calls “info-précaires” lose out;
  • dismisses the idea (which she believes I espouse) that we can just get rid of journalists, since most citizens don’t have the time to do the hard work of investigating and reporting on the world’s problems;
  • appeals for a wholesale reform of media education, both for the young and for poor adults;
  • sets out principles she believes should guide that reform.

Bruno Devauchelle

The second expert is Bruno Devauchelle, a researcher at a think tank in Lyon. In his rebuttal, he

  • redefines the crisis as one of overinformation;
  • argues that blogger-journalists like me feel good only because we have all the necessary skills to deal with this, whereas most young people today lack those skills;
  • also appeals for better education;
  • calls in particular for teachers to be trained in internet technology and internet culture;
  • calls for new pedagogic techniques.

De quoi s’agit-il?

I will respond to these rebuttals in a separate post. But first, I want to make sure that I do justice to Divina and Bruno. My own French went from passable (circa 1992) to laughable, so the translation was hard work for me. But among you, there may be more proficient speakers of French.

If you’re so inclined, read their rebuttals and put their main points, to the extent that I have not captured them above, in the comments.

And, of course, go ahead and give your own opinion.

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PR people and internet etiquette

In September 2007, I received — as part of that never-ending, never-even-ebbing stream of emails from public-relations people that all journalists used to get — a message from one of the better known PR women in the San Francisco Bay Area.

At the time, I tried to reply to all emails for the simple reason that I was raised to be polite. If somebody sends you a message, it behooves you to answer.

That day’s email chain put an end to that gentilesse. I will reproduce it below, with all the names XXX-ed out to protect the individual.

It started on September 11, 2007. This PR woman emailed me (Subject: “Quick Q”) to ask whether I covered a certain industry segment in which she had a client she was hoping to introduce me to.

On September 12 at 10:58 PDT I replied:

Sure. But I’m not planning an article right this second

At 11:02 PDT — in other words, four minutes later — her reply showed up in my inbox, except that it was addressed to her client. She must have accidentally hit Reply instead of Forward.

In any case, I now saw my email (the one she thought she was forwarding), which she had edited:

[Client’s first name],

With your permission, I am going to set up a lunch with you and Andreas – in early October.

XXX

From: Andreas Kluth [mailto:andreaskluth @ economist.com]

Sent: Wednesday, September 12, 2007 10:58 AM

To: XXX

Subject: Re: Quick Q

Sure. But I’m not planning an article right this second. Let’s plan a lunch in October?

AK

This was strange, and I thought it appropriate to point it out. So I sent one more email to her:

Er, XXX, there is something highly bizarre going on. Today I replied to your email with the first and second sentence in the email trail that allegedly comes from me below. I did not write the third sentence and i don’t sign with AK.

I don’t recall asking for a lunch in October

A

And, not entirely to my surprise, I never got another peep from this lady (who had been firing off emails at a rapid clip).

***

What was I to make of this?

On one hand, I like to consider myself, whenever possible, a Cavalier, not a Roundhead. Basically, that means smirking at life, not frowning.

On the other hand, I was somewhat puzzled and miffed.

If the exchange had not been so utterly trivial and boring, one might have called this fraud. But it was simply too petty. Did this woman really think that her client would be impressed if he saw an email from me to her with (as opposed to without) my initials? Did she really think that she could somehow insinuate me into a lunch in October that I had never suggested?

***

So I took a look at my inbox as it was at that time. In 2007, I received more than 500 emails a day — 90% from PR people — on a weekday. This robbed me of a lot of time and thus made me less productive. PR people were interfering with my work and life.

Worse: they were also calling. My phone (at the time I had an actual — as opposed to virtual — phone) was constantly ringing, and it was usually an intern at a PR company, announcing that she was updating their database and asking me whether I was so-and-so at this-and-this address and so forth.

I realized, of course, that my habit of replying was part of the problem: Whenever I answered an email or phone call, I confirmed my presence to them, and they would put me on their automatic distribution lists of press releases. (These emails then as now did not necessarily have a one-click unsubscribe button).

Seriously: When was the last time anybody read a press release?

So I decided to interrupt the vicious cycle.

Genuine (meaning bespoke) emails and emails from people I personally knew, I still answered. The rest I ignored.

That did not restore my inbox to health, but it arrested its deterioration.

Then, a month later, Chris Anderson wrote a blog post that got quite a lot of attention. (Chris had been a colleague at The Economist — in fact, I replaced him as Hong Kong correspondent in 2000 — but by this time he was editor-in-chief of Wired)

Chris took a two-pronged approach:

  1. He whacked any unsolicited and inappropriate email into his Spam filter, and
  2. he published a blacklist of prime offenders.

I decided that the blacklisting was too harsh — the modern equivalent of a pillory — but that the spam-filtering was a great idea.

So I have been doing the same: If I get an automatically distributed press release, or even just a really inappropriate email, it goes straight into our corporate Postini. (And Postini, of course, “learns” this way which emails to consider spam, so that my click indirectly helps other journalists.)

***

Over time, this solved the problem. My inbox now often looks like this:

And I have become productive again.

Not only that, but I have learned to love email again! It has actually become useful to me.

Those people, including PR people, who ought to be able to reach me can now do so more easily than ever. The others no longer bother me as much.

And etiquette is making a comeback. Every new technology causes a change in social protocols. Our grandparents used to have to learn when and how to call people — and simultaneously how to be called — without being rude. Now PR people and the rest of us are figuring out how to be civil in the Internet era.

Breaking news

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Your correspondent, in his closet

I climbed into our closet yesterday, with a laptop and a Flashmic. This was much less kinky than it might appear. In fact, I did so in the line of duty.

At The Economist, as at most other media organizations, we correspondents are being encouraged to produce occasional videos alongside our reporting pieces. So I did that this week: I wrote a piece about California’s “petition industry” for ballot initiatives, and produced an accompanying video.

Allow me to regale you with the rather comical process involved, and with some observations about technology.

First, I should point out that print journalism is as distant from video journalism as a Bach concerto from a a Salsa bar. You can excel at one and suck at the other. I stipulate that The Economist has been quite good at print for 167 years, but that we have not transferred that success to other media (for instance, when we tried to do television in the 1990s).

That said, multimedia seems to be the future, so it makes sense for us to buy a call option (ie, to risk a small amount for the potential of a big upside).

So a cameraman, Eric Salat, and I joined John Grubb, Tyler Vanderbilt and the team of Repair California as they collected signatures to put two measures on California’s ballot later this year. Eric then sent the footage back to London, where Marguerite Howell edited it. The first thing she did is to take me out. (You still see me briefly in a few frames.) That’s because, for the time being, we must stay on brand, you see. Meaning: anonymous. Apparently, you are allowed to hear my voice in the “voice-over”, as long as you don’t know my name.

Now, about that voice-over:

Marguerite wrote a “script” that would fit with the footage she selected. The first thing we had to do was to edit that script together. In the old days, we would have emailed a Word document back and forth. This time, I just clicked on “Open as a Google Doc” in my Gmail, then “shared” the doc with Marguerite.

This meant that we were now able to edit the script together — she in London, I in California — as though we were typing at the same computer. We weren’t even pressing “save” or “refresh” in the browser. Whatever change one of us made, the other saw in almost-real time.

“Please tell the others in London how easy life could be,” I begged Marguerite, aware that some of our colleagues are not yet ready to abandon their … typewriters.

Then it was time for me to read the script out loud. Skype is not good enough for this sort of thing, so I used the Flashmic, with Marguerite on speaker phone.

“You sound hollow, echo-ey,” she said. “Can you go somewhere with fewer bare surfaces?”

I took the laptop and mike and sat on our bed, amid the pillows and blankets. Still not good enough.

“There’s always the nuclear option,” said Marguerite. “Would you consider climbing into your closet?”

I did. Miraculously, that took care of the echo.

On cue, some of my wife’s items, stacked in a female way, descended on me from above — the sound effects of which Marguerite on speaker phone seemed to enjoy. It occurred to me that I was lucky my wife’s high heels were on the other side of the closet — I was in the hiking-boot section.

Once you actually voice-over, you have to keep fiddling with the script to fit the timing of the video footage, and I kept thinking how cool it was that I could simply look at my laptop screen, without even touching it, to see Marguerite in London change my words in the Google Doc.

I have been on American radio a few times, where producers always pester you to exaggerate and over-enunciate your syllables, CNN style, and to say words with shock and concern, especially when those words are banal. I’ve never mastered that tone. Now, however, to my pleasant surprise, Marguerite said: “Don’t worry about that. Just speak however you feel.” Great place, The Economist.

And so it was done.

Now, a few closing remarks:

1) Don’t despair (yet)

You will be tempted to point out all the obvious ways in which our website is bad at displaying multimedia content. For instance, I was not able to embed the video in this blog (even though there is a deceptive “embed” button?!). I was barely able to get the permalink — in fact, I’m not sure the link works even now. The print story does not obviously refer you to the video, nor the video to the story. Et cetera.

Rest assured, that those and other shortcomings are just as apparent to us as to you. And we are fixing them.

The problem, I am told, is our existing content-management system, which we are phasing out, with difficulty. The new system is called Drupal, and it rocks. Soon, very soon, the website will be great, in all the obvious ways.

2) Technology conclusions

Based on this little experience, I am able to endorse two technologies.

  1. Google Docs, and cloud computing in general.
  2. Closets.

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Bad writing in the mainstream press

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=michael+kinsley&iid=1786394″ src=”1/e/8/a/Reporters_In_CIA_d2be.jpg?adImageId=8903306&imageId=1786394″ width=”234″ height=”309″ /]
Michael Kinsley, a witty and incisive journalist formerly of Crossfire and Slate, has an amusing critique in The Atlantic of the awful writing that dominates so much of America’s “mainstream media.” My only regret is that he was so gentle, by Kinsley standards.

I have long felt the same way, especially since I taught a course at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where a lot of the students in my class were already “spoiled” by the same conventions that Kinsley here lampoons. And yet, I could not dissuade my students from using those conventions. So they produced over-long and corny writing that you might find, well, in the New York Times.

What are those conventions? First, says Kinsley, grandiose verbiage:

Once upon a time, this unnecessary stuff was considered an advance over dry news reporting: don’t just tell the story; tell the reader what it means. But providing “context,” as it was known, has become an invitation to hype. In this case, it’s the lowest form of hype—it’s horse-race hype—which actually diminishes a story rather than enhancing it.

Next, the convention of banal, pointless and stupid quotes from “experts”, which repetitively restate what the article’s author has already stated, and where identifying the speaker takes up more words than are in the (unnecessary) quote. Example:

“Now is the chance to fix our health care system and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said as she opened the daylong proceedings. (Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words.)

Why? Because in this American convention,

it’s not [the reporter’s] job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one.

Compare this with our view on quotes at The Economist:

…all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised … I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers’”, I turn over the page… In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting.

Back to Kinsley. The next stupid convention is the equivalent of what the software industry calls “legacy code”, meaning yet more verbiage

written to accommodate readers who have just emerged from a coma or a coal mine. Who needs to be told that reforming health care (three words) involves “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system” (nine words)? … Anybody who doesn’t know these things already is unlikely to care. (Is, in fact, unlikely to be reading the article.)

Next, what I (as opposed to Kinsley) call “fake color“, the obligatory “anecdotal lede”, whether it is germane and riveting or not. As Kinsley puts it, these are

those you’ll-never-guess-what-this-is-about, faux-mystery narrative leads about Martha Lewis, a 57-year-old retired nurse, who was sitting in her living room one day last month watching Oprah when the FedEx delivery man rang her doorbell with an innocent-looking envelope … and so on.

Kinsley’s conclusion: Cut out the crap. You might be better.

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“Density” he said, and died

David Halberstam

Strange how a voice can simultaneously inspire and haunt you.

As I go through the comments by my editor (at Riverhead, not The Economist) and write a new draft of my manuscript, I am constantly hearing the deep, deep voice of David Halberstam in my head, a voice, as our (The Economist’s) Obituary put it,

as sonorous as gravel shifting underground.

Halberstam was one of the great journalists of our time. He wrote for the New York Times, but perhaps is best known now for his books, above all The Best and the Brightest, about how a room full of smart people got us into a dumb war. His coverage of civil rights, but especially of the Vietnam War, influenced history.

I met Halberstam on April 21st, 2007. It was a Saturday night. Orville Schell, one of my mentors and the dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism at the time (where he had invited me to teach), had brought Halberstam to talk to the school. Orville had also booked a table at Chez Panisse for a small group after the talk–he was looking for me in the room to bring me along but I was nowhere to be found (I don’t remember why not), which is one of my great regrets to this day.

Anyway, Halberstam was talking to us about writing and journalism that night. He had that habit that many journalists do, of answering questions with questions. We are inquirers more than opiners.

I was already thinking about writing a book, so naturally I was interested in how he paired journalism and book writing. I wanted to know about his research and writing process, about his approach.

You know your book is getting really good, you know you’re close to finished, Halberstam said at one point, when

you find yourself leaving good stuff on the cutting floor.

Doing so meant that you’ve been putting in so much research and detail and color and anecdote that the book wants to burst. He loved that quality of good writing, which he called

density

That is probably one reason why, all this week, I am hearing his voice say the word density every time I cut good stuff to make my manuscript, well, denser.

But the other reason is that this was Halberstam’s last Saturday night. The following Monday I got an email from Orville announcing that Halberstam, who had survived the jungles of war-torn Vietnam, had died in a car crash on a boring intersection in Silicon Valley, as he was being driven by one of the Journalism School’s students to an interview for the book he was then working on. Just like that.

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The Economist’s women and men

Down under in Melbourne, Solid Gold Creativity has embarked on an intriguing investigation into sex (or “gender”, as the Americans among you might prefer in this context) in journalism.

She found that only 27% of the articles in The Monthly, an Australian magazine, were written by women. Counting only “major” articles, defined as those longer than 3,000 words, 20% were written by women.

With a research assist from Phillip S Phogg, she then turned her attention to America, where she found that women wrote:

  • 27% of the articles in The Atlantic Monthly, and
  • 30% of the articles in the New Yorker.

(Both of those are five-issue averages.)

So, naturally, I offered to supply the relevant metrics for The Economist.

At first, I started counting the articles in our current issue by author’s sex. (You out there cannot know who the authors are, of course, because we don’t have bylines, but I have an internal list to aid me.) Then I realized that this doesn’t give a good picture, because we are too small. If one or two people are on holiday, that skews the numbers. Then a freelancer writes the odd piece; or somebody writes a big piece and a box to go with it; or several people collaborate on one story, and on and on.

So instead I counted the editorial staff, both total journalists (ie, correspondents + editors) and editors. (I defined as editors only colleagues who actually edit a section in the magazine or a part of the website, not those who have editor as part of their title on their business card.)

Here is what I found:

Of the 84 journalists (I tried to correct for those on sabbatical, those half-retired, and so forth) 19, or 23%, are women.

Perhaps more interesting: Of the 21 editors, 8 are women, or 38%.

In other words, those women who do work at The Economist have twice the chance to become an editor that men at The Economist have. Innaresting, ain’t it?

And if I had excluded the website from the numbers and counted only the magazine, the share of women would have gone up both among total journalists and editors.

That said, the percentages are still well below 50%.

Now, I quite like something that Solid Gold Creativity said in her comments:

… I’m not so interested in the “reasons” for this absence of female thinkers/writers. I can always think up a hundred reasons why something is one way or another. My interest is not “why”; my interest is what’s so…

In that spirit, let’s find out more…


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