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To All The Journalists That Give Advice, Here's Some Advice

Image credit:  Newseum

Image credit: Newseum

About six years ago, a young writer emailed me. He was 24. His name was David Johnson-Igra. He was looking for advice.

He wrote:

"Hello Ms. Breslin-
My name is David, and I’ve been reading your blog 'Reverse Cowgirl.' I’m a young (24) aspiring writer, and by aspiring I mean, hoping to someday be reimbursed my for contributions. I don’t mean to bore you, but I’m intrigued by your style and topics, and would like to know more about how you forged your writing career. If you have time I would love to know more about:
1. Did you attend journalism school? Is it a good way to 'break-in?'
2. Are you able to support yourself solely on your blogging and writing? If so, how long did it take for this to become possible?
3. What was your 'break'?
4. What suggestions might you give for someone like myself who has a years experience writing for a handful of small magazines?
I understand you’re very busy, and however you prefer to answer my questions (via email, phone, later on) please just let me know. Thank you again for your time, and the best of luck to you.
David Johnson-Igra"

I responded to him on my personal blog, a missive I reposted a year later to the now defunct True/Slant, where I was a blogger. In "A Veteran Journalist Offers a Advice to a Young Journalist," I was decidedly unkind. I sneeringly described him as a "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed" upstart and told him to "Learn how to use apostrophes." I was, I confessed, "12 years into a little-rewarding writing career," had "grown bitter, jaded," and described myself as "a broken person whose industry is slipping through her hands like a gelatinous jelly fish." Suffice to say, I wasn't very helpful.

More recently, I was reminded of our conversation, such as it was, when I read Felix Salmon's, "To All the Young Journalists Asking for Advice...." Salmon wasn't any more encouraging than I had been. His advice: "I’m sure that many people have told you this already, but take it from me as well: journalism is a dumb career move."

Which got me wondering: What happened to David? Six years had passed. He was 30. Was he a journalist?

I emailed him to find out.

Susannah Breslin: As soon as I saw Salmon's piece, I thought of our exchange. I still feel bad about it, almost six years later. I found the post archived in the Wayback Machine, since True/Slant is no longer online. Even the title is assy: "A Veteran Journalist Offers Advice to a Young Journalist."

Your email asking for advice on becoming a journalist was nice. My response is best captured in this line: "Why would I help you?" Although, I did give you some advice -- for example: "Find out what it’s like to get jizzed on for a living."

Anyway, I see now my response was much more about me and my professional frustrations than it was about you. How did my response impact you at the time -- or did it?

David Johnson-Igra: I wouldn't call myself a "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed upstart" anymore. I'm tired. I gave up freelance writing. But I'm not as jaded as you were to me, nor as Salmon seems to be. I wouldn't tell an eager writer "get out of here." Maybe it was because my "career" was short, or that I never got jizzed on, but journalism doesn't feel as bleak to me.

I listened to Eric Schlosser give a talk last week about his book, Command and Control. Schlosser explained that he remains an optimist, even though he's revealed so many terrifying truths that suggest we're on the brink of a nuclear devastation. I admire him for that. Maybe that's why I'm optimistic that technology will not perpetuate the on-demand labor workforce that will further alienate individuals in a capitalist system.

A point in Salmon's article that resonated with me:

"The answer is simple: Capital has realized that it has an advantage over Labor, and that its advantage is here to stay. The trick is to build a formula which works."

The reserve army of labor has always existed. I don't think the click-hole debate is a good one to go down. There's a reason people still follow Salmon, or yourself. We love great writing. Yes, a "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed upstart" can write a listicle on Buzzfeed garnering triple the reach of your carefully crafted investigative report, but so what? Fix the advertising model. Work for Fusion! Try to fill Andrew Sullivan's shoes.

Salmon is right: the financial foundation that has supported journalism has been tenuous. But again, I return to optimism. Journalism was a $94-95 billion dollar industry almost a decade ago, but today is down by almost 30 percent. That's $30 billion dollars on the table for journalists to earn with the right framework.

Today, I work at an online radio company called 8tracks. It's funny, because I hear the same gripes from people within the music industry about the economic crash. What has driven me to this point has always been my underlying desire to be involved with music, but I think your advice also guided me:

"Write for love. Do gigs for free. Stop churning out the same boring fucking copy that your peers are dutifully filing like a bunch of self-congratulating monkeys and find out what 'beyond the pale' really means. Read this. And this. And this. Go into the ghetto. Interview a homeless person. Find out what it’s like to get jizzed on for a living. Fuck the pyramid, fuck j-school, fuck writing for a living. Fuck your computer, fuck your rent, fuck whatever your parents said. Go and live. Go be in the world. Go push yourself until you cry and then go back for more and then write about it."

So to answer your question, this is what I learned. I learned fortitude. I pitched and got rejected. Again. And again. I used the connections I built to build new ones and so on, because I understood that nothing would come easy.

I took your advice about J-school. (I didn't go.) I told my Jewish mother you advised against it. Looking back on the mistakes I made as a writer, I wonder if I would have found a mentor in school that could have helped me avoid them.

Your encouragement to break the mold was what broke me. Soon after we first connected, I met a rock journalist. She was a free spirit that let chance lead her to parties with the Arctic Monkeys at the Fairmont Hotel, dinners with Chris Martin, and onward. I thought to myself "This is what Hunter S Thompson and Susannah Breslin would want for me." I couldn't do it. She didn't pay taxes, had no health insurance, and supported her photography by clipping marijuana in northern California.

Don't feel bad, Susannah. You told me I could write, even just a little bit, which was all I needed.

Next step, let's flip it. If you could go back, and rewrite what you wrote me, knowing what you know now, what would you say?

SB: That's a great question. I believe our original exchange happened in '09, and then I posted it on True/Slant in '10. Eventually, I ended up working with some of the same people from T/S when I became a blogger for Forbes, and in '11, I did two sort of mentoring things on my Forbes blog.

I put out a call to young female journalists, saying I would pick one of them, based on their pitches, and pay her $100 to write a guest post on my Forbes blog. I ended up choosing Lauren Rae Orsini, who ended up getting a full-time journalism job not long after, in part because of the guest post she wrote on Forbes. After that, I did the same guest post thing with a young male journalist, and I ended up picking Alan Blinder, who wrote about surviving and covering a tornado.

I don't think of myself as in any way impacting their careers, because they were on their own trajectories, but it's been neat to follow them. Lauren is an author, and a journalist, and covers all kinds of subjects, and Blinder works in the Atlanta bureau of the New York Times. Thinking about them makes me feel positive and happy for them.

Like I said when I started this exchange, I feel embarrassed about my response to you. But. These days, when young people email me asking me for advice, I don't even respond at all. I just delete their emails. And. I think if I got your email today, I would skim it, and then delete it. That's the honest answer.

What I wish my answer would be is that I would make you write. Because I don't think people who write asking for advice are really looking for advice. I think they're looking for permission. And I think people just want to be told, yes, you can do this, and, my god, you should at least try, and, hey, if there's something that you really want, you should have at it. I should have told you to write something for me, a piece of journalism, and I should've posted it on True/Slant, and then I would have been giving you "permission" to do what you wanted to do, which was to be a journalist. Instead, I slammed the lid. In other words, I should've said, "You want to write? Write." Which is very stupidly simple advice, but also true. Like, people should stop asking for permission, and people should just create. (I'm talking to myself here, too, for sure.)

You're director of marketing at 8tracks. Do you use your skills as a journalist in that role? In a way, are we defining what "journalism" is today too narrowly? Sometimes I think we need a new word. Like Life Curator. Maybe that's enough.

DJI: I understand deleting an unwanted email. I can't keep up with the pitches I receive from publicists. But, you're right that I was seeking affirmation. What you provided those two journalists, whether it enabled them to get their next gig or simply encouraged them to write more, is important. If journalism school is becoming a thing of the past (suggesting, not stating), who can a young writer turn to in order to learn and support them? A simple yes is important. People don't need permission, but as an impressionable twenty-year-old trying to get by during an economic downturn, encouragement is reassuring when everyone tells you "How the hell are you going to pay your bills?" 

Marketing, journalism, PR are they all the same? I'd say the parallel is storytelling. I understand journalism as the objective truth told by a reporter. Marketing is the branding and advertising of a product. PR is the storytelling of that brand. So, yes. I've learned how to tell a story. To build arguments around a central idea I feel I should convey. I don't think we're defining journalism too narrowly. I think the notion of journalism is expanding too quickly.

Do you think there are citizen journalists on Twitter? Can personal blog posts transcend into journalistic pieces? What is the line? Who is a journalist today when everyone can photograph a moment or post an update?

You recently shared this post by Jim Romenesko rehashing Herbert Gold's 44-year-old piece:

"The delight in self, the lack of delight in subject matter, implies a serious ultimate judgement which ought to be faced by the first-person journalist: What matters? Does the world matter? Does anything matter but me? Is there anything out there? Is my business to stroke myself, and let the voyeuristic reader watch while telling him he is learning something..."

The statement seems to encapsulate some of the schism we face today between new and old journalists.

I'm not sure if we're going anywhere, or if this is helpful. Are we lost at this point with this discussion?

SB: Yes, I believe we are lost in a forest of words. Maybe that's a good thing.