Letter to a young journalist

This is what we do.
This is what we do.

By Caitlin Kelly

Inspired by a post on Small Dog Syndrome; a great anonymous letter from a nurse with 12 years’ experience to one studying for the exam to nursing school.

Here — H/T to Amber Hargroder — is a terrific 8:45 video of artist Marina Abramovic with her advice to young artists, much of which can equally apply to any ambitious writer.

The original is a series of letters between a young military student, Franz Kappus and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke between 1902 and 1908, when Kappus was deciding whether or not to become a poet.

I’ve been writing journalism and non-fiction books for a living since my third year of university, when I began selling stories to national newspapers and magazines in my native Canada. I’ve since written for dozens of publications in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, with staff reporting jobs at three major dailies. Freelance, I write frequently for The New York Times.

I’ve never studied journalism, but have taught it at several colleges; my class, “Legal and Ethical Issues in Journalism”, which I created in 1995, is still being offered by New York University to its adult students.

Here’s what I think every young/new journalist really needs to know as they enter this chaotic industry:

Dear YJ:

You’ve decided to enter a profession that actually isn’t one — we like to think of ourselves as professionals, but we have no licensing exams or board certifications or CEU credits.

Today, thanks to the Internet, anyone, anywhere, can call themselves a “journalist” and hit publish.

This is both a great equalizer and a dangerous challenge. It’s great that anyone with ideas and passion and access to the Internet can share them with the world, allowing people with minimal political or economic power to tell their stories directly. It’s a dangerous challenge because the fundamental essentials of journalism, however naive and idealistic they sound, are accuracy and trust. Trust that the information being shared is accurate, has been checked and vetted and is not just some sexy promo for a new product or service disguised as “news.”

Don’t work without getting paid for it. Just don’t — unless it’s your choice, done for strategic reasons and/or a cause you deeply believe in. People still value most what they have to pay for.

There’s no clear career path anymore. Be fun under stress, optimistic, well-groomed, 150 percent reliable, polite and super-helpful. Your emotional inteligence will go a lot further in creating and sustaining the essential professional contacts you’ll need for decades to come than the fanciest degree from the fanciest school(s.) Very few people you’ll work with care much where you went to school. We care what you can do (really well) for us today.

Ask so many questions you risk being annoying. Your job is not to be liked or admired or welcomed at the dinner parties of the powerful but to hold them to account. Your readers expect and deserve it. Journalists, however badly paid and professionally insecure, still hold tremendous power to shape public opinion, a responsibility to take seriously.

Don’t be seduced by your job title or that of your employer. You can lose both tomorrow — 24,000 journalists were canned in 2008. Never assume it makes you better than anyone without it, since you have no idea where they’ve been or what they’ve accomplished.

This is a team sport. You’ll be working with fellow journo’s and editors, some decades older, who bring tremendous knowledge of this game and how it’s played. Don’t dismiss those with gray hair, assuming we have no clue about technology or how to communicate stories effectively in the 21st century. It’s called experience.

Don’t be a diva. See above.

Don’t privilege one medium (OK, on-line/digital) over another (snoozy old print.) The point of what we all do is finding and telling compelling stories, regardless of the way they’re offered to readers. Freelancers who still focus primarily on print are focused on earning a living, something digital journalism has yet to offer anyone without a salary within its ranks.

Break social rules and ignore polite expectations. Women are often socialized to be nice, to get along, to make everyone feel happy and welcome. That’s not your job! Many of the questions you’ll need to ask are going to piss someone off. You’ll get yelled at, thrown out of meetings, receive angry phone calls and emails. People might call you names. None of this matters. It’s part of the territory. Your job is to tell a story well.

And yet, your job is not to be a robotic bulldozer. Interviewing well demands the kind of combined listening skills, empathy, sensitivity and compassion of the best nurse/minister/teacher/bartender. It’s one of our greatest challenges — knowing (and no one teaches you this; it’s an instinct) — when to be ruthlessly tough and when to be gentle and present as someone shares the brutal facts of their story, a rape or their child’s murder or their loss of employment.

You are not the story. Your subject is. Let them tell it in their words, at their speed. Whenever necessary, find a translator or interpreter to make sure you are able to get that story accurately.

The story isn’t only what the PR people tell you it is. Their job is to put their clients in the very best light, whether they’re a PIO for a government agency, head of corporate communications for a Fortune 500 multinational or the spokesman for an NGO. They’ll sit beside you and tape you and limit how much time you get. They might ask to see your story before it appears. Never allow their agenda to intimidate you.

Some assignments will make you cry.  Don’t let your emotions rule you on the job or during the interview, but never be ashamed of your feelings. Some assignments will provoke powerful emotions. If they don’t, take a vacation or get a different job. The day you fail to feel compassion for those who struggle is the day you’re headed for burnout.

It’s not “just a story” — often we are hearing and then publicly sharing the most intimate and unforgettable (to them) details of someone’s life. This is a privilege and an honor. Never forget that.


You may experience “secondary trauma” if you do a lot of this kind of work; listening to and witnessing traumatic material can cause a sort of PTSD that is very real. Check into the programs of the Dart Center for help and guidance.

Run away from the pack whenever possible. This is much easier if you’re freelance and not facing hourly or daily deadline pressure to match whatever’s on Twitter. But pack journalism will easily consume your days, and your life, until or unless you can carve out a beat or a way to work that allows you the freedom to (also) pursue deeper, more thoughtful stories.

You will probably burn out. The pace, the stress, the competition, the crummy pay, the job insecurity. It adds up. There are six major components to burnout: work overload; lack of control over the work; insufficient rewards; rude or unhelpful co-workers; unfair treatment and a conflict between your values and the job requirements.

Which is why veterans keep a f**k-you fund, enough savings to allow you to quit a position that’s toxic and unworkable, take a breath and take some time to find a better fit somewhere else.

Will these doors still lead you into a long or lucrative career?
Will these doors still lead you into a long or lucrative career?

You may choose instead to freelance, for a while or forever. If you’re in a position to assign them work, treat freelancers as the hard-working small business-owners (and colleagues) they are. Don’t abuse them with no/low pay or endless rewrites or delayed or “forgotten” invoices. It may well be your turn one day.

A few of the challenges you may face along the way, (from an earlier post of mine):

Missing a deadline, getting someone’s name wrong (or several), getting the name of the company you’re covering wrong, losing your press credential, “forgetting” to turn in your official credential(s) after you’re canned or quit because you can’t bear to lose it, missing the bus or train or plane that will get you to the place you need(ed) to be to cover the story, not having enough money to get the next one.

Misunderstanding a foreign-language word or phrase, translating it, and mis-quoting. Having 10 minutes to file. Doing a stakeout, being scared to pee for hours — and being scared to drink anything because then you”ll really have to pee — and possibly missing the exact moment you’ve been waiting 15 hours for.

Have fun!

Fight for the weak and challenge the powerful.

Eschew dogma, (and remember karma).

Find and tell the truth.

Make us proud.




14 thoughts on “Letter to a young journalist

  1. Absolutely do not act like you can hold anyone accountable. That part I totally disagree with. Everyone reports these days without attribution. The other night Jameis Winston of Florida State, was asked repeatedly about the alleged rape and he was gracious the first few times but she persisted. He turned around and the interview was over. She can opine that she thinks he is guilty in the press and that is her right, but when I commented over the interview on WordPRESS about the way she played this, and how fans and readers are sick of the arrogance, almost everyone agreed and this is hard to do in the area of sports. With divergent interests.

    Since I have been in broadcasting, my trust for media outlets is at an all-time high.

    1. Not “everyone.” I take your larger point, but many news outlets (like the NYT, which I write for) demand deep and specific sourcing whenever possible, with attribution.

      I did see that video interview.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I’ve been in journalism for some years now but still consider myself quite “new” to it. This is a good reminder to come back to from time to time. The burn-out part worries and terrifies me, but as a freelancer with all the insecurities it seems to be inevitable at some point I guess.

    As for the PR people and the like – not only do they try to intimidate, some try to bribe us, too. Recently I have learned that there are seminars and workshops for these people on how to bribe people from the media most subtly and successfully. And the best part of it is that they are taught by some fella who was a journalist once, too. He doesn’t even think it’s wrong to bribe the media, or as he put it, hand out little favours and incentives such as invitations to special parties or getting to “test-drive” a fancy new car for free. I shook my head in disbelief. So much for a free and independent press.

    1. Actually, that’s pretty standard stuff here in NY…not sure where you are living and working. I don’t consider any of those “bribes” — how else would you be able to review a car unless you drove it? As for all the other inducements, take ’em or leave them. They can dream up a million ways to sway us, but it doesn’t mean they’ll work. It’s up to each of us to stiffen our spines!

      Burnout…it does happen. I had a crappy fall but teaching — i.e. not writing for even six weeks — was a really helpful break. Self-care is key!

      Thanks for commenting!

  3. The part that says it’s an instinct to know when to be tough and when to be gentle makes me kind of afraid. I was never good with people. I grew up alone and I don’t have much social skill. That is to say I’m not a people person. But I love writing and journalism as it is. And it’s obvious that a big part of journalism means interviewing people, blending in with them and so on. Since I know for a fact I’m not very good with socializing, I don’t know if I’m chasing the wrong dream. 😐

    1. Thanks much for commenting…

      A few thoughts on that…Many journalists have remarkably poor social skills. :-)! Prickly, insecure, not easy to talk to socially…but when we focus on others to interview them and hear *their* story, different game entirely. It’s like being a therapist or minister…an attentive and sometimes sympathetic listener.

      If you love writing and journalism, it’s not the wrong dream at all. You might (?) focus on editing work (depending on your role, it involves much less people contact; i.e. a copy editor works internally and would only work with that publication or website’s writers, not the public.

      I plan to offer a interviewing webinar this February, so maybe (?) that would be of value to you. Interviewing LOOKS like socializing, but it’s actually not really social at all.

      1. I would love to focus on editing works, but I’m also concerned of my language. I think I wrote a big comment before about my language challenges. I’m already pretty well involved in journalism here in Bangladesh and my language of writing is Bangla. But I prefer English for it reaches a wider range of audience and my goal is to write for newspaper/magazines in English. But I’m afraid because, well, as you can guess, that’s not my first language. So, editing in a language in which I’m not very fit to write in the first place is totally out of the question at this time. 🙂

        And what about the webinar?

  4. Anyone can call themselves a ‘writer’ or a ‘historian’ too – all without doing the hard yards to get the qualifications available in both. To my mind that diminishes the value of these as professions. Same deal with journalism, as you point out. These days I lament the standards of what passes for journalism in New Zealand, and I guess it’s the same in the States. Kids who wouldn’t have passed muster as competent cub reporters even ten years ago are hired to churn out stories as entertainment, not news, complete with typos (the subbies who used to catch the gaffes have long since been disposed of in the redundancy heap). Discursive, investigative analysis of the kind salty old journos used to get their teeth into just don’t get published – or broadcast – or aired. And the business side of the papers themselves has got – well, pretty nasty on my experience. I probably sound like some crusty old curmudgeon, but there HAS been a sea change and it’s been at the expense of depth. Are we facing a twenty-first century dominated by shallow, trite, journalistic fluff? I fear so.

    1. There is, here anyway, a very narrow band of elite freelancers writing for the Big Name Magazines (that will still pay $5k+ for someone’s time and skill to do a longer story) and people with staff jobs. After that…

      I know a woman who makes a LOT of money. She writes “celebrity health” stories for the internet. She is, on paper, a “journalist” but I find it a difficult word to apply to fluff and war reporting equally.

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