Being a young person is difficult. There's no money out there, at all. This isn't limited to journalism, though things are fairly dire. The heady days of publishing before the recession is gone, and journalism is still recovering. So the kids who run NYU Local, a blog run by a group of NYU students, organized a panel discussion on the things that challenge young journalists right now.
The panelists invited to speak consisted mostly of young people and of editors who employ young people. Speaking on the panel was Any O'Leary, a reporter for The New York Times; Dana Goldstein, who writes The Nation and Slate; Jake Dobkin, one of the co-founders of Gothamist; Elizabeth Spiers, the Editor-in-Chief of The New York Observer; Ben Smith, the current head honcho at Buzzfeed; and actual young media person Joe Coscarelli, who writes for Daily Intel.
The conversation began focusing on Twitter's effect on how journalists work, and how it shapes the conversation now. Everyone spoke about the effects of a "personal brand" and how it effects how your story is digested. Jake Dobkin said that you should never talk about yourself, or be mean, or say things about the people you've worked with. "Don't be negative and don't complain," said Dana Goldstein. Elizabeth Spiers said that Twitter, essentially, has replaced the way she finds news. Whereas she used to refresh a well-curated RSS reader, she now just relies on Twitter to find stories.
Joe Coscarelli said that he gets most of his story ideas through Twitter, and that it's a good place to "define your character." There was a lot of talk about your "personal brand," and how perception is important, even though every panelist said "personal brand" like it was dripping sarcasm. Joe stressed that being likeable is important to maintaining and building an audience, but Ben Smith disagreed, and said the most important part was breaking stories. If you break stories, no cares if you're a nice person or not.
The way traffic affects how writers choose stories was one of the most unanimous things they agreed upon: it's "a necessary evil," according to just about everyone on the panel. Coscarelli said he checked Chartbeat obsessively, and all the other panelists laughed knowingly, but at the end of the day he had no idea how to determine what would do well. "One of the stories you think is doing to do great can flop, and something you think is garbage is the top story of the day," said Coscarelli. "The reality is, there's no hard and fast rule," added Spiers. Writer never know what people are going to click on. They have to listen to the readers, and the information presented to them, while still relying on their judgement. It all plays a part. (Now excuse me while I go refresh my stats for the day.)
Internships were brought up, because some places use unpaid internships as excuses to take advantage of the work ethic of impressionable young kids, which is a problem. Internships are the primary way that young journalists are getting work, but they're almost never paid. Spiers said that she can't pay interns at the Observer because of the restraints of her budget. She said if she was given more room in her budget, but she had to pick between giving her writers a pay increase or paying he interns, she'd get rid of the internship program altogether.
Dana Goldstein and Amy O'Leary both advocated taking the old-school approach to journalism internships, which means getting out of the city and working for a romantic small town paper on the courthouse beat. "Leave New York City. Small regional papers need interns and they will pay you" said Goldstein. Technically, unpaid interns can't do work that paid staff would normally do. Whether that happens or not, ever, is a different debate. Taking an paid internship with a small paper would teach you how to actually report, because you're given the opportunity to do real work.
Jake Dobkin spoke about his experiences with burnout. He was writing ten posts a day, and realized that the quality of his work was deteriorating after about eight posts. He quickly discovered while running Gothamist that each writer has an ideal pace. "The trick to not burning out is to be interested in what you're doing," he said. If you're passionate about your work, then your quality won't drop. Elizabeth Spiers told stories about the early days at Gawker when she was writing 12 posts a day, seven days a week. She hated the pace, but started to feel a need to post. "I felt like if I wasn't blogging or writing, readers would get angry, which is kind of narcissistic," she said. She eventually hit a wall and had to stop (surprise!).
"Freelancing isn't the best way to start the first few years of your career," Dana Goldstein explained. She was finally able to get someone to do her taxes for her this year, which is a first for her. The whole panel agreed, but conceded that getting a regular staff ing job is a challenge. "Getting a staff job is great, but also very hard," said Coscarelli.
Working hard enough to get noticed, while also making sure there's enough money to eat at the end of the day, are easily the two biggest problems for young people working in media. It was no surprise, then, that the conversation almost always revolved around those things. They are the chief concerns of just about anyone working in journalism under the age of twenty five. During the questions period after the main discussion, when asked about the cost of getting into journalism, Jake Dobkin said that sometimes you need another job to pay the bills. "Who said your twenties were supposed to be fun?"