Letter to a young journalist

Don’t conclude from my previous post that I dislike journalism. All through middle and high school I woke up early to read the local newspaper each morning. I was the editor of our newspaper in high school. My mother wanted me to be a journalist. I’ve been thinking of the issues confronting journalism for a few years now.

Back in early 2007, a journalist friend in the Midwest emailed me. He saw the impact of the web, changes in the newspaper industry, and he was worried about his newspaper’s–and his own–future. He asked my opinion on all of this. With his permission, this is what I wrote to him back in 2007 with a few minor edits.

Definitely take me with a large grain of salt–I got lucky in joining Google, but I wouldn’t give my opinions any more weight than an average person’s. 🙂 My personal hunch is that newspapers will have some issues in the years to come. If you think about the fraction of revenue that comes from classified ads, it does seem that revenue will eventually migrate online, and sites like craigslist.org are more likely to capture a big fraction of that traffic compared to individual newspapers or even newspaper syndicates. If a newspaper loses ~30% of classified ad revenue over 5-10 years, that’s really hard to adjust to without structural change.

It’s funny because my Dad basically took a job out of grad school and stayed in the same post until he retired. It seems like the odds of that happening for people like you and me are a lot lower. There’s just not as many companies that are doing things like taking care of their workers for 30 years at a time.

So the first thing I’d recommend is to grab a domain name and work on burnishing your personal reputation online. It’s definitely not the case that everyone needs a blog, but having one place that acts as a face to the world can really help. There’s room for a resume/CV, but also for some writing samples that show off your abilities.

Which takes me to how open-minded [Midwest newspaper] is. I’ve heard newspaper policies ranging from “If you blog, we’ll fire you” to “If you don’t blog, we’ll fire you.” I hope that the paper is pretty open-minded. But they shouldn’t be able to stop you from building up your reputation online in your own time, and even if there’s copyright issues with putting full articles up on your personal site, you could no doubt quote a few excerpts of choice stuff as a part of fair use.

So making the switch to a mental model where you are more like a consultant for any company that you work for, but you look for ways to improve your reputation and learn new skills as you go–that’s a good way to make sure that you’re protected if you unexpectedly end up as a free-agent.

You’ve got a good sense of humor and you’re well-spoken, so the biggest questions to me would be
– what do you love or what are you interested in?
– where do you want to be in 5-10 years?

For example, it would be interesting to know a little bit about your interests. Things like games, gadgets, politics, or technology make great subjects if you want to try some active blogging + something like AdSense to make a little bit of money on the side. But some of the larger issues are things like
– how introverted you are vs. how much you enjoy talking to people.
– what ties do you have to [Midwest city], and do you want to stay around there or are you willing to move?

I’ve noticed that networking and getting to know a few people in an industry can make a big difference. If the tech-field is interesting to you, [Midwest city] is going to be a more limited pool of opportunities compared to something like Silicon Valley/San Francisco or New York. If you like to travel and like meeting new people, it turns out that becoming an expert in a niche and then getting on a conference speaker circuit can be good. You might start out on panels about journalism or media or ethics, but that could quickly lead to consulting gigs, for example.

I do think that the tech industry will be a leading one for the next 10-20 years, and probably biotechnology will start to emerge after that. But I think the service economy will remain strong throughout. Starting to get on a conference speaking circuit is really a way to rebrand yourself as an expert on some topics. That role would let you expand and offer your services/advice in different ways.

I guess the larger issue is that working for a salary is great, but if you can find ways to participate more directly in the success of a company, that can be a faster way to make money. The whole dot com boom demonstrated that there are a lot of dumb start-ups out there, but at the same time, when you’re young is exactly the right time to take risks like that.

Re-reading your email, I guess the smallest step forward would be to find out what you can legally do online that wouldn’t conflict with your employer’s guidelines. Then I’d just try a few experiments. It doesn’t cost much to buy a domain name, so you might consider starting a blog about [Midwest city] or a news site (probably the blog is a little easier to start). Set aside $100 or so (or ask for someone to register a domain for you as a birthday present) and try a few things. Sign up for AdSense and see what sort of articles do well on places like techmeme.com or reddit.com or digg.com. In general, I’ve found that starting with a small niche and building your way up is great practice and teaches you a ton about what sort of things attract attention and good discussion.

Some of that advice has aged well, some less so. I still think that grabbing a domain and experimenting is invaluable. I believe that the entire world is being digitized–from businesses and places to people–and it’s better to be involved in that process than to stand passively and let other people define you online. I believe that participating in the upside of a company is better than only drawing a salary. And I think that most of the time, no one cares about your career ladder or skills development as much as you do. No good company opposes the development of its employees, but ultimately you have to take the initiative and drive your career in the direction you want.

By the way, the title of this post is an allusion to Letters to a Young Journalist, an excellent book by Samuel G. Freedman.

27 Responses to Letter to a young journalist (Leave a comment)

  1. Matt,

    Are you SURE you didn’t read my blog post in my last comment before writing that:-)


  2. Still great advice, and in some ways only becoming truer as time goes on – the rate of technological advancement (particularly in the realms of search, rich content and other ‘new media’ fields) is accelerating – not slowing or staying the same.

    The world changes every day – sometimes it takes time for peoples perceptions of that world to catch up. If you can get a bead on a good way to make that process (adaptation of perception and belief) quicker, then you’re set for life..!

  3. “So the first thing I’d recommend is to grab a domain name and work on burnishing your personal reputation online.” – great advice for anyone, no matter where they are in their career or what industry they are in.

    Thanks for sharing Matt!

  4. Matt: excellent words! I totally agree that the creation of an online reputation is a great way to take control of some aspects of our career. People should not trust about companies taking care of all their lives anymore. Currently, people need to take the control of their lives, especially in things related with financial topics. In this recession, many people has learned this in the hard way.

  5. This is just as valuable advice today as it was in early 2007. Try to build a name for yourself, build an audience. A blog is a perfect opportunity for that. Easy to start, easy to update, and the easiest way of getting your name to rank in search engines. And somewhere down the line you may not even need to depend on working for a company anymore.

  6. Hi Matt, Great advice, even 2+ years later!

    Personal and professional online branding and testing are so very important…just curious, did your journalist friend ever take any of your advice and how has it worked for them?


  7. Matt

    “It’s funny because my Dad basically took a job out of grad school and stayed in the same post until he retired.”

    It seems academic people retire very early in USA. Big lose for Tuition.

  8. Morris, I promise I wrote the meat of this post back in 2007, so I didn’t read your post first. 🙂

  9. So Matt, how about those winning lottery numbers?? 🙂

    It’s funny, I have been marketing others on the Internet for over 12 years now and only very recently starting trying to build up my personal brand. I feel like the shoemaker with holes in his shoes…

  10. had remembered the last paragraph u said,someone who can drive your career directions just can be one and the only one you!but still have no idea in myself,that the baddly terrible problem!=(

  11. Reading this almost seems surreal. It has me wondering if you ever run into people you went to high school with, that ask what you “do for a living” when you see them. I hope for your friend’s sake that he took you up on your advice.

  12. So you write all this and then don’t even link out to your friends blog?

  13. Strangely enough, I have never actually met you, but I feel like this letter was written directly at me. Thanks for the words of wisdom – a street magazine I help publish is making it’s first strides into the wonderful web and I am sharing this post with our entire board.

    Reamo – it has been my experience that the most intense inspiration/direction will hit you square in the face when you least expect it. It has also been my experience that the best path to walk is the on that seems the most rugged and difficult. If you feel like you do not know what direction to take, get out there, get involved, volunteer, meet new people and have new experiences. There is an entire world of inspiration waiting for you. Best of luck!!

  14. himynameis john

    Unrelated: Interesting, Google searching your name only shows TOP 5 RESULTS on first page. I take it, when looking at the links, they are all highly regarded, authoritative websites and thus, keeping bottom feeders out of the top page? Interesting!

  15. Hey Matt,

    Could you edit the template so that any of the blockquotes show up darker? The light grey on white is hard to read. Thanks, man.

  16. Hey Matt,

    I wish I would have received that letter when I was just out of college and into the newspaper biz. I’m now left wondering what to do next.

    all the best,

  17. Google searching your name only shows TOP 5 RESULTS on first page

    That SERP is NOT the only one! I think it is due to Google lowering the bar for YouTube videos now Google own it and have shareholders to answer to. These videos are shunting relevant pages down and out of what WERE organic SERPs. YET, Google have the option for Video Search. I have onto Matt for months about this, but he dances around and gives Politician type answers that make no sense. Which, in itself IS an answer that confirms my thoughts.

    Short sighted, IMO, and is the total opposite of what got Google to the top. I fear this may see many migrate to other SE’s overs time.

  18. Matt – Cool retrospect (and interesting cross-section of comments). Your ‘down to earth’ style is refreshing as always. @Brian Hancock Went through that curve myself about 2 1/2 years ago. It was a touch easier back then …. but bought a few URL’s … a LOT of writing, some early adopting (to create networks of contacts) and it all stuck. Ultimately, once you’re recognized in a now crowded field … face-to-face at conferences is perhaps one thing Matt left out that you and others might find very helpful (I don’t do enough of that :).

  19. So you write all this and then don’t even link out to all your friends?

  20. I use much of this but the wp-admin thing is new and I’ll figure it out. So is the dash separater the best in all web names, etc., or just blogs?


  21. its g8 to see how well you have explained everything n given suggestions for an EMAIL. BTW are Digg n reddit still imp? Now Digg is showing a site’s URL in its own wrapper so is that site still getting any link juice & backlink benefit from it ?
    Hope you’ll reply 🙂

  22. That was some stellar advice there Matt. I’m curious whether or not he took action on it or not?

    While newspapers are dying hard because of lost classified revenue, it’s amazing to me how much of an opportunity it brings for marketers on the web who neglect this form of advertising. You can get ads for DIRT CHEAP now. And while the readership may have dropped quite a bit, the ability to turn a profit on a good ad is not all that hard.

    However, people are so caught up in online advertising, PPC, article marketing, SEO, etc that they often forget just how easy it can be to drive leads from the good ol newspaper.

    (An imagine of Don Lapre just creeped into my mind, haha).

    On a serious not though, I think more people should at least test out newspaper advertising since it’s such a cheap and easy test. Create a URL that is used no where else on the web and run an ad in a paper and see how well it does. Cheap and easy.

    If it doesn’t work, you’re out no more then a few bucks.

    Anyhow, good post man.

  23. Thanks for sharing this informative article. 3 year back I had purchased a domain with my name (ayushkumar) and now its working for me. I usually get many calls from companies who wanted to hire me, so this is really a positive sing of having a domain.

  24. Good Article Matt its really help by having a personal blog as you can share your experience with other and it help in building a good network but one have to be regular.

  25. Well said Matt. Good insights for someone like me who had just been laid off.

  26. I dont think news papers have anything to worry about for the next 20 years. The older generation love there paper and tea in the morning and dont want to be figuring out how to get it up on the magic box on the desk. /once this generation has passed, then I think there will be a problem.

  27. Ey, this letter was amazing!!! It is exactly what I tend to think about my life and my career, except for my procrastination moments :-)!! I am having all the time ideas, but many knowledge stills being a gap to fill. There are lots of work even being unemployed. Good to know your opinions about investments.

    Have a good day