If you are a young journalist or think you might like to be one, I implore you to read Megan McArdle’s advice to your kind. She says that the collapse of the business model on which journalism has been based changes everything. It may be a golden era for journalism, but it’s a terrible era for journalists. Excerpt:
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.
“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.
Read the whole thing. Seriously, do. I can’t emphasize strongly enough how important this is.
I was e-mailing over the weekend with a journalist friend in his twenties. He’s stuck in a job that’s killing him, and trying to figure out what to do next. I hated to do it, but I advised him to strongly consider leaving the profession. He is very good at what he does, and has a passion for writing. But he also has a young family to support, and I cannot see the business getting any better for him. As Megan explains, there is no longer much of a career path in journalism. He is young enough now to change careers, to do something else in communications, and write on the side. If he sticks it out for another decade or two, he may find himself burned out, struggling to pay the bills, and worried about holding on to his job.
“But Rod,” I can hear you say, etc. The fact is, I’m 47, and benefited from the same happy set of circumstances that gave Megan her career. I am incredibly blessed. My path was completely unpredictable, and depended as much if not more on luck and the kindness of people I knew in the business than on my own skill and talent. It was possible for something like that to happen for my generation. Unless there’s something I’m not seeing, that’s no longer there.
It’s like this: at my age, I’m working harder than I ever have (and loving it!), will publish two books this year (my Dante book and another title I’ve co-authored), and have a blog that gets between 600K-800K page views each month. And I worry all the time about what my next move will be. I would be very happy to write for TAC for the rest of my life. I love my job; I really do. Best job I’ve ever had. I believe in this magazine and its mission. But we depend on the generosity of donors for our existence, and that’s just not something that provides the kind of stability that I expected I would have as I approached 50. When I say that I love our subscribers and donors, I’m not just saying that. What y’all do for me and my colleagues is deeply, deeply appreciated. We would not exist without you, and there’s not a day that goes by that we don’t know that.
I’ve been through four rounds of layoffs at newspapers. You see that once or twice, you will never take your job for granted. You see it four times, and you know in your bones that nothing is ever guaranteed. Ever.
I heartily endorse Megan’s advice here:
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.
I wish things were otherwise, but they aren’t. My first job after college was at the Baton Rouge Advocate. Today, the Sunday Advocate is as thick as the daily Advocate was back then. If you had told me in 1989, when I joined the paper’s staff, that in 25 years, the daily newspaper would be as thin as it is today, my knees would have gone weak. I would hardly have believed it. But it’s true, and it’s true everywhere.