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Weekend reads: Letters to a young journalist
Real talk for the next generation
During my last year at the CBC, I was asked to mentor new journalists. I enjoyed this form of coaching, and it is now one of the aspects of the newsroom that I miss the most. More than two decades into my career — with time working in radio, TV, magazines, newspapers, and digital — I have acquired some hard-won experience. And I miss having the opportunity to pass it on.
I found myself thinking about this while I was off on summer break, and decided to put some thoughts down on the page. Today, I offer this advice to all the aspiring muckrakers out there.
Since I’m a current affairs journalist and not, say, an investigative reporter, or an opinion columnist, this advice is naturally geared to my own narrow segment of the press corps (which debates the big issues of the day, seeks out a diversity of viewpoints on them, and aims to put news developments into a broader social, cultural, political, or economic context). But, honestly, what I have to say here is not that different from what I would tell anyone starting out in media. The following is essentially my editorial ethos — the bar that I strive, however imperfectly, to meet. So, without further ado, here are my top tips for those entering the Fourth Estate.
Be realistic about the business. The number one thing to understand about the media right now is that our traditional business models have collapsed and our industry is in serious, catastrophic decline. If you insist on becoming a journalist in this extreme climate — if you really must do this, because there’s nothing else in the world you would be happy doing — it’s crucial that you harbour no illusions about what it is that you’re signing up for. Trying to be a journalist in 2023 is essentially like to trying to be a poet or a performance artist. Suffice it to say, it’s not an easy road to walk. Make an effort to understand the era that you are stepping into. (Ross Barkan has an excellent essay on this at his Substack. And if you’re in Canada, here’s standout ones from The Line and Paul Wells.) If, after reading such pieces, you are still determined to proceed on this perilous path, you should expect precarious work, absurdly low freelance rates, layoffs if you’re lucky enough to land a staff job, and cutthroat competition that’s often expressed through high schoolish online politics. Meanwhile, paying your rent will be a struggle, you will need to live like a student for far longer than you anticipate, and the constant and often arbitrary rejection that comes with this profession will likely take its toll. None of this is good, or fair, or right — but it is a reality you must face. Know that whatever emotional distress you experience as a result of poor pay, poor working conditions, and poor collegiality is normal, and to be expected. Be easy on yourself on the hard days that will inevitably come. (And know that the really good days often make the struggle worthwhile.)
Don’t compare yourself to your peers. This person has bylines at all the top outlets!
Why don’t I? What’s wrong with me? In journalism comparisons are, as the old saying goes, odious. What you don’t know about the journalist that you envy is that (a) many of those plumb web (or newspaper! or radio! or magazine!) assignments that they have landed pay $200 for weeks of work, and these cheques don’t even arrive for months after publication, (b) each successful byline represents a dozen labour-intensive pitches that never went anywhere, (c) the editors at the sterling outlets you admire rarely even return said journalist’s emails, (d) the journalist’s parents are paying their rent, and e) they are older than you might think. In other words: Pull back the curtain just a little, and you’ll see how odd the metrics of success are in this business. No need to be jealous of someone who’s earning less per hour than your local Starbucks barista, and, truth be told, is a hair-trigger away from flipping the entire media the bird and heading off to make an actual living in a lucrative if soul-sucking communications role. All of this is to say: We are all in this mess together. Let’s act accordingly.
Celebrate your colleagues’ successes. Anyone who’s had a book come out — or who’s published a big story or done a big speaking engagement — knows how nerve-racking, and even demoralizing, this can be in the current era. And how far a little support can go. Read this excellent new essay on the perils of book promotion from Canadian novelist and Globe and Mail columnist Tom Rachman. (Who, by the way, has a book out this week, The Imposters, which I can’t wait to read. Congratulations, Tom!)
Understand that there really is nothing like being a journalist. Nothing! What an incredible way to get to spend your days. Remind yourself of this regularly. Read Nora Ephron’s “Journalism: A Love Story” when you can’t summon any positive feelings on your own. Let those who came before uplift you.
Talk to people from all walks of life. When I started my career two decades ago, we were out all the time. Then, we were on the phone all the time. These days, we’re on Zoom all day long. And journalism suffers for it. Make a habit of building in-person relationships with people from different backgrounds, and seeking out those with different opinions. Allow yourself to be surprised by how gloriously unpredictable your fellow human beings are. Talk to them! Talk to the person who pours your coffee, the person who bags your groceries. Talk to your bus driver, your neighbours, the garbage man, the dog owners on your block. Ask questions, and be curious about the answers.
Learn to listen. Listening is a skill, and probably the most important one that a journalist can cultivate. When you are interviewing someone, it is all about them. This is not the time to indulge in your own thoughts or opinions, or to allow yourself to jump to conclusions or make assumptions, or to cut someone off, or to project your own prejudices, or agenda, or politics, or anything else onto that other person. You are there to hear what they have to say, period. Learn to get into a zen-like zone of stillness and silence and curiosity and open-mindedness, creating a space for the other person to talk. This is how we demonstrate respect for others: We shut up and listen. There is always a way to probe or push back without disrupting this baseline level of respect for your subject. Your readers and/or listeners — who, we have to assume, are adults that are fully capable of taking in information and making up their owns minds about it — will appreciate your insistence on the humanity of those you interact with. Remember: You don’t have to agree with someone to show them respect. Make this your mantra. Repeat it often.
Don’t pitch stories from Twitter. There’s a whole world of stories out there that never get tweeted about. Let those stories be your beat, your bread and butter, your reason-to-be.
Never unleash on social media. If you want to lose the trust of the public, one surefire way to do that is to spout off on social media. Be disciplined about not sharing your impulsive hot takes. And never get into squabbles with the people who will — sooner or later, if you’re doing anything interesting — arrive to snipe at you. You have nothing to gain by reacting in anger, and everything to lose.
Understand the media is a bubble, and not representative of the public. If you work in a newsroom, and hang out on Twitter a lot, you can easily wind up thinking that your views are the norm. This is often not the case. In recent years, due in no small part to how economically precarious the business has become, journalists increasingly come from financially privileged backgrounds, and frequently hold views that are out of step with mainstream public opinion. This is true here in Canada, as well as in the States, where newsrooms often hire from the Ivy League, and in the UK, where many journalists are graduates of similarly elite institutions. British professor Matthew Goodwin has a compelling new essay out on this dynamic, building on a newly-released study. Read Goodwin’s words, and let them sink in: “The people who work in print and broadcast media are now twice as likely as the average person to belong to the elite graduate class, are far more likely to have been raised by financially secure if not affluent parents in the professional classes, and to have no real connection to, or experience with, ordinary workers.”
Resist the influence of publicists. Communications professionals, often referred to in newsrooms as “flacks,” now vastly outnumber journalists — in my home province of British Columbia, for instance, the ratio is 18 for every one reporter. This means that it’s much harder to get interviews with public figures, but it also means that PR people will try to control the process if and when you do. They will push you to provide questions in advance, to take certain topics off the table, and to cede parts of the editorial process to them. Resist all of this, all of the time. Their job is to serve their boss’s interests, yours is to serve the public interest. Your role is an inherently adversarial one, and you’ll have to get comfortable with that. You do that by learning to say no.
Read widely, especially books. You can stand out from the pack by reading in a sustained and wide-ranging way. Deep research is key to being a good journalist, providing rich context, unorthodox guest ideas, and novel story angles. Being a big reader also offers you a leg up by making you generally well-informed and well-rounded, and a more independent and critical thinker.
Think for yourself. Work to identify the orthodoxies of the day and sidestep them. Seek out thinkers you disagree with. Make an effort to wrap your head around perspectives you don’t understand. Reflecting the viewpoints of people you may not agree with, contrary to popular belief, is quite literally your job.
Be willing to change your mind. Go where the facts take you, and pivot when you have to — which will be often. For example, though I am embarrassed to admit it, I initially considered the lab leak theory a conspiracy theory. I realized I was wrong, and started covering it. Like Zadie Smith, author of Changing My Mind, I reserve the right to be wrong — and you should too.
Reject the “guilt by association” fallacy. I once wrote a whole essay about why this idea is nonsense and totally counterproductive for journalism. Please read it.
Evaluate each individual claim on its own merits. Most people are right at least some of the time, no matter what they have said and done in the past — nor what your personal feelings are about them.
When covering a conflict, always reach out to all sides for comment. You do this not only for legal reasons, or because it’s the fair thing to do, but also because you don’t want to embarrass yourself. In the era of sloppy hit pieces, I’ve seen numerous egregious errors published and then swiftly retracted — simply because the journalist never bothered to seek comment before publishing.
Aim, always, to complicate the narrative. Resist simplistic good/bad binaries, and see human endeavours for the endlessly messy and nuanced and conflicted things they actually are. Read Amanda Ripley’s excellent manifesto on complicating dominant narratives at Solutions Journalism, and check out her interviews with me here and here.
Continually ask yourself: “What if I’m wrong?” We in the media should have asked ourselves this way more during the pandemic — on a whole host of stories, from lockdowns and school closures to vaccine mandates. Our job is to question everything, but most especially authority. Our default position should always be skepticism. And low certainty. We get things wrong every single day. Knowing this, acknowledging it, helps us to approach our work with some humility, to avoid hysterical thinking and hyperbolic coverage, to be less knee-jerk and more thoughtful, and to admit it when we mess up. It also helps us to avoid groupthink, which is especially key right now.
Your job is not to advocate for social justice. If you want to be in the business of social change, become an activist. Journalism is not activism. Journalism is about pursuing the facts, and then, to the best of your ability, reflecting the reality you find back to the public. Then — this is critical — trusting the public to act as it sees fit. This is, of course, an unpopular opinion these days. But, as the investigative reporter Matt Taibbi has said, “Getting things right is hard enough. The minute we try to do anything else in this job, the wheels come off. Until we get back to the basics, we don’t deserve to be trusted. And we won’t be.”
Your job is to regain the public’s trust. You do this by telling the truth. Though things have slightly improved since 2020, the industry is still quite dysfunctional, and conformist, and ideological. In many cases, narrative still trumps facts. In an era of extreme economic precarity and cancel culture and online mobs, the stakes are high for those swimming against such tides. The easiest thing is to put your head down, repeat the correct talking points, and try to stay employed. This is a short game, and I understand why those with mortgages and children and complicated life circumstances have to play it (often doing what they can behind the scenes). But those who can should openly resist, and play the long game instead. The truth always comes out eventually, and no moral panic lasts forever.
Obviously what I have described above is an ideal, an aspiration, and one that we are all destined to fall short of all the time. And please don’t mistake this for a recipe for career success, which it most definitely is not. Following this advice won’t make you rich, or famous, or popular with your peers — and it won’t catapult you to the top of any impressive masthead. But it will make you a decent journalist.
If you’re interested in the state of the media, you might be interested in my interviews with media critic Steve Kraukuer, author Meghan Daum, media professor David Greenberg, and independent journalists Rupa Subramanya, Leighton Woodhouse, Freddie deBoer, and Holly Doan.
Before I sign off, some Lean Out updates: Lean Out guest Michael Geist has a new essay out on the Canadian government’s failed media strategy. Lean Out guest Richard Reeves has a new TED Talk out on solving the education crisis for boys and men. Lean Out guest Bridget Phetasy has a new interview on Internet censorship with Tablet editor Jacob Siegel. And Lean Out guest Winston Marshall has a conversation on the failures of the media with independent reporter Lee Fang. Plus, Lean Out guest Sohrab Ahmari has weighed in on the Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, over at Compact Magazine.
If you missed the Lean Out podcast this week, I’m thrilled to share a recent panel discussion from Plebity’s Free Speech and the Left conference, featuring myself and former Lean Out guests Amna Khalid and Jeff Snyder.
Also: This week, Lean Out guest Lydia Perović joined Lean Out guest Steve Paikin on TVO’s The Agenda for a panel discussion about Canadian identity — “Canada has abandoned optimism about its own project,” she argued — along with Lean Out guest Paul Wells.
Speaking of Paul Wells, he recently published a long piece exploring the need for a Covid commission in Canada. “One way to begin sleepwalking to the next crisis is to sleepwalk away from the last,” he warned. And while we’re on the topic of Covid, Lean Out guest Konstantin Kisin has a compelling new interview on pandemic censorship with reporter David Zweig.
Happy Canada Day everyone, see you next week!
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