April 16, 2012

Dear Young Journalist,

I’m writing this letter to you because I get the feeling you might need some encouragement right now. (Lord knows, we all need some encouragement right now, but let me focus on you for the moment.)

I’m writing to you not as a sage sitting on top of a hill, but as a fellow journalist (firmly ensconced in middle age) who is fighting alongside you in the trenches.

I’m writing to you as someone who cares about you, and who wants you to stay in the business, because you’re going to help us save this thing we call “journalism.”

I realize that this advice runs counter to conventional wisdom. Many of your colleagues are telling you to flee the newsroom while you still have a chance.

Recently, author Malcolm Gladwell told students at Yale University that they shouldn’t try to make their mark via newspapers. “Newspapers are kind of dreary, depressed places,” Gladwell said. “I would go the penniless Web route to get practice. You can enter the mainstream so much quicker there.”

And Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News, told students at the University of North Carolina not to go into journalism if they want to change the world.

I’m not going to argue that newspapers aren’t dreary, depressed places. They are — though there’s still a lot of fun going on, too. I’m not going to argue that you shouldn’t work for a Web news organization — though working for one is probably just as hard as in a “legacy” newsroom.

And I’m not going to argue that you should go into journalism if you want to change the world.

Actually, you should go into journalism if you want to save the world.

My point is that you don’t get to choose the time that you’re called upon to be brave and do your best work. Don’t forget: A time of crisis and change is a time of incredible opportunity.

You can accuse me of being delusional (you’re probably right), but I think I’m pretty clear-eyed. Even as I approach my 25th year in this racket, I make mistakes every day. I get frustrated. I lose my cool. I wallow in doubt. I fall down.

And then I get back up.

I’ve learned some lessons along this bumpy road. They’ve helped me pick myself up and keep going. I haven’t mastered any of them. But I’ll share them anyway, because, well, if you’ve done your time in the news business, you should at least come away with a few bullet points. (Right?)

So let’s begin.

  • Be a learner. I can’t think of another business where you can learn as quickly, widely and, potentially, as deeply as in journalism. Whether you are challenged to understand the latest trends on your beat, how to comb through an obscure public record, or how to employ a classic narrative-writing technique, you are learning something new every day. We make our living by our wits and curiosity. We get paid to ask questions. That’s pretty cool. So even when learning is scary and exasperating (um, what’s that latest tech tool?), let’s embrace that part of our jobs.
  • Dream now. I’m pretty sure that you didn’t get into this business expecting it to be easy or to give you a great sense of security. If you are like me, you probably felt “called.” You fell in love with journalism. You dreamt about it. You decided to follow that dream. Well, now you’re here. Give it a year or two. Or three. Give it your best shot. And if your dream doesn’t work out, move on to your next dream. Dreaming gets harder when you get a mortgage and kids, and when your knees and other joints start to sound like a bowl of Rice Krispies. So: Chase your dreams now.
  • Have a life outside the newsroom. Or get one. When I was just starting out, I promised myself that I would never put my work above my family and friends. And then, over time, I broke my promise to myself. I began to neglect my loved ones, and I lost some along the way. Don’t make the same mistake. Surround yourself with friends and be committed to your family. The work is good, but it won’t be a soft place to land after a hard day. This is something I’ve seen: The journalists who become obsessed with work burn out early. The journalists who build lives outside the newsroom stay happy and productive, and they bring that human perspective to their stories.
  • Take good care of yourself. There’s no way around this: This is a stressful profession. So listen to your mom and dad: Eat well, sleep well and get exercise. It may sound obvious, but these are the basic things that help us stay sane and resilient, even as chaos descends upon us. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was when I was in college. A family friend — a professor — told me that, yes, it’s important to keep studying and learning over the years, but also to stay physically fit. Because that’s going to help you keep attacking the hard work, even as you get older.
  • Find a mentor – and be a mentor. I’ve already written about the importance of mentorship, but it’s worth repeating. Journalism is a craft that you learn mostly by doing, rather than by reading about it in a textbook. So getting the guidance of a mentor is essential. There are kindred souls in your newsroom who will be willing to help. You just have to be a good reporter and find them. We are happy to help you because others helped us, and we want to pay it forward. I’d encourage you to pay it forward, as well. It’s never too early to start; there are plenty of high school and college journalists who need your help. And as you help others, you will begin to see that you are not alone. You will stumble, as we all stumble. You will fall down, as we all fall down. And then you will pick yourself up again.
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Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s…
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