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.

Recent piece by Sanford and Brown

(I work for Google, but this is my personal opinion.)

Last week I was on vacation down in Florida and I had a chance to tour Thomas Edison’s winter vacation home. The tour guide told us that Edison wired his house and switched on electrical lighting in 1887. Then the tour guide leaned in and quietly mentioned that it took 11 years to install lights in the rest of the town. Why so long? Because the townspeople were worried that cows would stop giving milk.

For some reason, I was reminded of that anecdote as I read a recent piece in the Washington Post. Rarely do I pause in the middle of reading an article and think to myself, “Wow, I disagree with almost everything that person is saying,” but that’s what I found myself doing. Luckily you don’t need me to marshal counterpoints. Instead, I suggest that you read what Jeff Jarvis wrote, or what Mike Masnick wrote, or what the Markos Moulitsas wrote, or what Danny Sullivan wrote. Or read Timothy Karr’s post about the authors’ undisclosed potential conflicts of interest.

I believe good journalism is critically important to a well-functioning society. I love newspapers, magazines, and the journalists that they support. But I disagree with Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown, and reading their piece reminded me of those townspeople sitting in the dark, afraid to switch on their electric lights.

How Not To Launch A Twitter Account

Recently someone registered a Twitter account name “mattcuttsmapxl,” which is very similar to my Twitter account name. The account was following many of the same people I follow, which is pretty annoying because people had to check whether it was me or not (it wasn’t). The account got suspended, but someone made a new account to claim that the “mattcuttsmapxl” wasn’t spam:

I am not a spammer!

Here’s the thing: if you have to explain to everyone why you’re not a spammer, you’re doing it wrong. It’s this sort of thing that can give a field a bad name. If everyone is mad at you because you’re abusing the trust within a community, that’s uncool. And if you’re in it for the long-term, it’s better to earn a reputation on your own. That seems easier.

Living in the cloud

I used Wakoopa to track which applications I run on my home Windows machine. Here’s what it says:

Browsing the cloud!

When 96% of your computer time is spent in a browser, that’s living in the cloud. 🙂

My RSS Reader Stats

I noticed that The Guardian drew up a list of top 100 sites for 2009. There’s a lot of great sites on their list, from stackoverflow.com to popurls.com to xkcd.

One snag for me is that The Guardian only recommended two sites for blogging: Bloglines and WordPress. WordPress is great and just came out with a new version. But I haven’t seen as many changes happening in Bloglines compared to Google Reader. So I thought I’d hit FeedBurner to check on my recent RSS reader stats. Here’s are my stats:

Feedburner stats for December 2008

My readership data is going to be way-skewed, but I do think Google Reader is more popular than Bloglines these days. What do your FeedBurner or RSS reader stats look like?

P.S. If you haven’t see Lee Odden’s post about it, Lee collected the subscriber numbers for a bunch of search-related blogs a while ago.