Why today’s journalists have more leverage than ever before

Felix Salmon

Felix Salmon

There are a lot of things to which journalist Felix Salmon ascribes his success in his advice to young journalists essay he published at Fusion. One is blind luck — that he “just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Another is his privilege of being born white, male, upper class, and in an urban environment. Nowhere, though, is it mentioned that his success came just as the internet allowed him to amass an audience that he can take with him from job to job, thereby making him incredibly valuable to any media company that wants to hire him. On Twitter alone, Salmon has 146,000 followers, a significant number of whom are among the most influential players in finance and policy making. There are well-known news organizations that have fewer Twitter followers than Salmon.

In his essay — which essentially boils down to one piece of advice: don’t bother with journalism — Salmon argues that the internet has created a supply-vs-demand issue that has been beneficial to publishers and detrimental to journalists. There’s an abundance of good writers on the web, many of whom are willing to write for free, and so that drives down labor costs.

Capital has realized that it has an advantage over Labor, and that its advantage is here to stay. The trick is to build a formula which works. (Or, even better, to build a formula which constantly evolves and stays one step ahead of the game, since no single formula works for very long.) But once you’ve done that, you just send your easily-replaceable workers out onto the assembly line to do what they’re told.

But there is another layer of differentiation beyond just writing and reporting skills that set journalists apart from each other: their ability to market themselves and their own writing. A good example of this is Bloomberg reporter Dave Weigel. In the wake of Salmon’s piece, Weigel offered his own advice to young journalists, and he readily acknowledged that he was giving said advice despite having been “fired twice, once with the whole journalism world seemingly gawking at the wreckage.”

What he’s referring to is his resignation, in 2010, from the Washington Post after emails of his were leaked — emails that conservatives used to accuse him of bias. Pre-internet, such a job loss would have been a serious setback, but Weigel had been particularly savvy at marketing himself and generating goodwill online, and, in the hours following the resignation announcement, thousands of Twitter users rose to his defense (I remember watching his Twitter following swell by several thousand within a few hours). Shortly after the resignation, he received a contract offer from MSNBC and also a job blogging at Slate. If anything, the Washington Post fiasco actually boosted Weigel’s career and personal brand, making him more valuable to future employers (I’m sure Bloomberg was happy to accept the benefits of his 152,000 Twitter followers).

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This is precisely why you see many examples of journalists ascending the ranks without having to first trudge through the career rigmarole endured by previous generations. It used to be that if you wanted a job at a national publication like the New York Times, you usually started at a small county newspaper, then moved on to a regional daily, and then finally landed at your dream job a decade later. These days, a journalist like Andrew Kaczynski can gain national recognition while still in college and land a high-profile gig at BuzzFeed upon graduating. Two decades ago, it would have been unheard of for a journalist under the age of 40 to edit a nationally-circulated publication. Ezra Klein launched Vox, a site that now regularly reaches 11.7 million monthly uniques, before the age of 30.

Look at any journalist who has achieved his or her success in the last 10 years (Ezra Klein: 735k Twitter followers, 227k Facebook likes, 1 million Google+ subscribers; Matthew Yglesias: 130k Twitter followers, 16k Facebook likes), and you’ll find not only a good writer, but one adept at the personal branding and marketing that the internet makes possible.

So if there’s a piece of advice to be gleaned from all this, it’s that any young journalist shouldn’t settle for merely reporting his stories and leaving the marketing to others, but instead should become actively involved with the promotion of his work. Sometimes something as simple as asking your employer to display your Twitter handle next to your byline has tremendous value in securing subscribers that will follow you to whatever job you take. Amass enough of them, and suddenly your hiring is that much easier to justify for any prospective employers. After all, what publisher would turn down a free audience?

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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