Above: Watch all-star political journalists Jeff Zeleny, Shira Toeplitz, Patrick O'Connor and Jonathan Martin disucss why journalism is still considered a public service.
Four all-star journalists, New York Times political reporter (soon to be ABC) Jeff Zeleny, Roll Call politics editor Shira Toeplitz, Wall Street Journal congress reporter Patrick O'Connor and Politico politics reporter Jonathan Martin, visted the Institute of Politics to talk with Harvard students and the Cambridge Community during Spring IOP Fellow John Murray's recent study group on the 2012 election. We were lucky enough to sit down with each reporter and ask what advice they could offer to current undergraduates interested in pursuing a career in journalism.
What advice do you have for current students looking to pursue a career in journalism?
Martin: The best advice I ever got was to read everything you can get your hands on. When I first started college in the dawn of the ice age, newspapers were still delivered days late to my college campus, because they came in the mail! When I graduated, I was able to go online and read the paper. In that short period of time, there was a huge change in technology. Now-a-days students can read anything they want any time of day on their phone, and so you really have the opportunity to be as informed as anyone else in the world. That is a fantastic opportunity. Read newspapers. Read books. Read magazines. Inform yourself of what came before you. Harry Truman once said, “The only new thing is the history you don’t know.” It’s important to have a perspective about the people and events that took place before you, because you can understand what’s happening today and what’s going to happen tomorrow. Beyond that, write. Write everything that comes to mind. Keep a journal. Write for your student newspaper. Write letters to the editor. Take courses that involve intensive writing. The only way you’re going to become a better writer is if you do more of it. It’s a great commodity to have now-a-days. A lot of people, smart people, college-educated people, can’t write that well, and if you can that’s really going to allow you stand out.
Zeleny: I think the best advice that I could offer is to get experience at any level possible. My whole philosophy has always been to be a big fish in a small pond rather than the reverse. Go to a place where you can write stories and do things that you couldn’t do anywhere else and then move up if you’d like to. Just experience - if it’s on a blog, at a newspaper, at a radio station, at a television station - just get that experience, learn how to ask questions, how to tell the stories. Having a level of curiosity is a great skill but having that experience through internships and things is really essential.
Toeplitz: Learn how to write. The ability to write well is invaluable, not only in journalism but throughout your career. The number of good writers in our industry seems to be decreasing and not increasing, so learn how to write well and learn how to write fast.
What are the challenges or limitations of your current work?
Zeleny: I think one limitation of journalism is that there isn’t always time or space to get to the bottom of every issue. Things move so quickly now. The news cycle used to be much slower and would allow people more time to think, report and talk to people. Now things move at a rapid pace with social media, Twitter and Facebook, there’s not as much time to go in depth. I’ve been fortunate to work at a place, The New York Times, that still allows its’ reporters to go very in depth and to go across the world and cover things that other people aren’t doing. But, I think the financial pressures on the industry have been a problem for democracy and journalism, because there aren’t as many people who are covering their senators or covering their members of congress or getting to the bottom of things, so I think the financial pressures have been one drawback. Things move so quickly it’s hard to sort of digest it all.
Where do you see the field going in the next few years?
O’Connor: I think as people digest news in smaller and smaller bites, I’m hoping that people will turn to sources like The Wall Street Journal and New York Times and people that actually spend a little time to digest issues that are complicated, like gun control or immigration or the environment or the federal budget. I think the way things are trending right now maybe it’s not going in our favor, but I think over time people will really appreciate the fact that, these guys in Washington are all talking about a subject, but they aren’t necessarily cutting to the heart of the matter, and here’s a group of people who are trying to strip it down and give it to you at its most basic and hopefully its most objective so that people can make better decisions about how they want to vote and who they want to support.
Toeplitz: Well, I definitely see one of the greater trends in our industry is towards what I would call semi partisan press, publications that don’t flaunt their partisanship but definitely cover news with a certain slant. This actually isn’t a new thing. Basically for the whole 20th century, we were on a hiatus from that and the standard in journalism was to be unbiased. But it seems like we are taking a swing back in the other direction and people work for publications that just have a little bit more of a slant to it than they did even a decade ago.
Obviously we have moved into a digital market instead of a print based market and the skills for that are a lot like the basic journalism skills and in a way totally unlike the basic journalism skills that you are learning in class today. So, you have to learn how to write fast. You have to learn how to write a story several times through, and you have to do it in an hour.