At Vox, Ezra Klein writes up what he thinks is his best guidance for aspiring journalists, and I think it’s very good.
His guiding principle:
You always want to be doing work that is as close as possible to the kind of work you want to be doing in your dream job. The reasoning here is simple: Insofar as you’re building skills, you want to be building skills you actually intend to use. If your dream is to be an economy reporter, the best possible way for you to spend your time is reporting stories about the economy. It is not to be an associate editor for campaign coverage. Which leads to perhaps my biggest concrete piece of advice:
Trade prestige for opportunity. One mistake I see young reporters make is to prize the prestige of the outlet above the nature of the job. So a process job at a heavyweight institution like Slate is better than a low-level writing job at a tiny policy magazine. In my view, that’s dead wrong. When Slate goes to hire its next economy writer, it’s going to look first to people who have done some excellent economic writing. It will hire — as happened — someone like Matt Yglesias or Annie Lowrey or Jordan Weissmann, all of whom were showing themselves to be ace economic writers at smaller outlets and in the blogosphere.
While writing skills are important (and I maybe put a bit more of a premium on that than I should), in his next piece of advice, Klein suggests it’s not of paramount importance:
Klein is also encouraging about “horizontal mentoring,” and I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of good friends who pursued writing right out of undergrad to help me out. Even having friends to ask for advice, contacts with editors, or just a friendly pair of eyes to go over a story can be extremely helpful:
Learn things about things. Pretty much everybody in journalism can write. The fact that you can also write probably won’t set you far apart. But not everyone in journalism can understand policy, or interpret the minutes from the Fed’s most recent meeting, or use the C-SPAN archives, or make a good graph. Try to figure out what your particular interests and/or skills are. Then work to make those competitive advantages. Subject area expertise is wildly undervalued in journalism, but it’s what makes the best journalists.
Don’t get too hung up on vertical mentoring. A lot of young reporters appear to come into journalism thinking some gruff, wise veteran is going to take them under their wing and teach them the tricks of the trade. Sometimes, that happens. Usually, it doesn’t. And then they complain about the fact that it hasn’t happened.
In my experience, horizontal mentoring — basically, very tight working relationships with people who are approximately at your level — is more common, and usually more valuable. So keep your eyes out for opportunities to learn from your peers, as they’re often generous with their time, and don’t get too hung up on trying to cultivate mentors up the food chain, as they’re often busier, and frequently have less that’s relevant to teach you.