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My advice for young journalists

by: Samarth Bansal | 31 March, 2024

Hello hello, twenty-something journalists or aspiring twenty-something journalists. How are you? (Don't tell me the truth right away—I have enough to deal with already.)

I turned 30 last year, and suddenly started feeling like a proper adult. Like, I think I lost the right to share no-one-told-me-adulting-is-so-fucking-hard memes anymore. It's really weird. And these proper adult vibes are inducing a sense of responsibility, as if I owe something to the younger lot — i.e. you.

Unfortunately, the rich people in this country haven't yet realised I am Editor-in-Chief material (how humble, I know), so I can't offer you a job—yet. I can, however, do what journalists do: share what I know, and then hope it may lead to something good.

Which is why this blog post: I am documenting what I tell younger journalists on the phone when they reach out for advice on navigating this anxiety-inducing profession.

Important caveat: whatever follows is heavily skewed with my experiences in the English-language press, as a reporter and writer, and a specific way of looking at journalism—it's not meant to have universal appeal.

PS: Also, you might want to check out my older posts on freelance journalism, data journalism, my conversation with Amit Varma on The Seen and the Unseen podcast (most relevant bits start from 3hr 20min mark), and this interview with In Old News.

1. Journalism? Why? Are you insane?

Take one: There is no logical reason to be a journalist: financial returns are poor, talent is rarely respected, many newsrooms are toxic, trolls are everywhere, and those with power—like the government and big corporations—often behave like a clownish bully.

"I didn't sign up for this nonsense," one may wonder.

At the age of twenty two, when I started reporting for The Hindu, I just wanted to be a reporter: observe what's happening, ask questions, do some reporting, and write a good story.

But if you have been around for a while, you probably know that even getting to this basic job with sanity, dignity and integrity feels like an achievement. A bit nuts.

Which is why, listen to me: if you were forced into this profession—for whatever reason—or you joined in auto-pilot because you didn't know what else to do with your life, or you can't stand it anymore, please quit. Just leave. Right away.

Build skills and find another job. The news media is really fucked: it will mentally drain you, it won't pay you, and it has the greatest potential to make you cynical about the world.

There are senior journalists whose physical presence is so nauseating that it reveals how terribly stuck they feel in this profession. Age is not on their side, and the barriers to switch jobs are high, especially in today's economy. It's hard.

But relatively speaking, it shouldn't be that hard for you. If you really go for it, you should find something better. And it will serve you well in the long run. Think about it.

Take two: Now turning to the idiots who, like me, willingly choose to be a journalist. Who made a conscious decision to subject themselves to this misery. (It really does feel like that on many days.)

Let me ask you what I ask myself: Why are you even doing this? Do you not want a simple joyful life? Why on earth do you care about whatever the fuck is happening inside the Prime Minister's office or boardroom of rich corporates? ̇Why do you care about telling the story of a sexual assault victim or the exploitative side of the gig economy? Why do you want to write explainers on laws and policies that most people don't even care about?

Whatever your answer may be, let me just tell you: I get it. I really do. Because I am you.

The bug has either bitten you already or it's slowly growing on you. (Welcome to the club.)

In moments of existential despair, I feel all the ideals of why journalism matters are self-delusional. Does it really make a difference?

And then, I think of the counterfactual: would I want to live in the world without any journalists?

Zero points in guessing the only right answer: No!

So yeah, we know things are not ideal, and logic suggests all of us should leave. But then, imagine how mind-numbingly boring our beautifully broken world would be if if all of us ran on strictly logical choices?

Our work matters. (I mean...if we don't exist, who will play the villain in Vivek Agnihotri's movies?)

I do think you need something that pulls you towards this profession that's intrinsic—else it's hard to justify why you'd do this. Journalism does need some commitment to the public good. I don't know what else can keep one going.

Maybe you have some societal privileges that allow you to make this choice, or maybe you have an insatiable desire to tell stories, or maybe you are driven by the hope that a better world can exist if truth is elevated in public discourse.

Whatever it maybe, the point is to enter journalism with realistic expectations. Be fully aware of what you are signing up for. Things won't be easy—that's the hard fact, and I don't want to sugarcoat it: things will only get worse before they get better.

However, if you make this choice consciously, with a clear understanding of the realities you'll face, you'll have a much saner journey navigating this profession.

2. The Expectation Problem

Another crucial question to ask yourself: what do you expect your work to do?

Do you publish investigations on pharma industry because you want the drug regulation to change? Do you report on data privacy because you think a more aware citizenry will start resisting social media platforms? Do you report on the Supreme Court proceedings because you believe that more people should understand how the legal system works? Or maybe you just want to feel really cool among your friends, or want fame?

What drives you?

Broadly speaking, there are two types of people: those who derive meaning from the process of doing something, and those who find meaning from their output.

I am a process-oriented person. I am curious by nature, and I feel the high in finding out stuff and sharing what I found out with the world. As long as I am able to do that, all's well.

This belief comes from the social-contract theory of journalism, which argues that we have a specific role to play in a democratic society: providing contextual, factual, and accessible information to the public.

Translating this information into change is the responsibility of others—civic-minded citizens, activists, bureaucrats, politicians, etc.

A well-functioning society relies on everyone fulfilling their roles effectively. As journalists, our primary task is to offer an accurate representation of reality, equipping people with the knowledge they need to live well and drive change.

Our job is to tell the story; let others change the world.

However, for many of my friends, this doesn't cut it. They want their work to have a more direct impact on change. Ultimately, this is a personal preference, and there's no right or wrong approach.

I'm mentioning this because once you have clarity on what you want from your work, many other decisions down the line become easier to navigate.

3. Every story matters

I often see younger journalists or aspiring journalists wanting to work on big investigations and write stories that make a significant impact. They would watch Spotlight and imagine themselves playing Mark Ruffalo in real life.

This aspiration is good, and I had it too. Three months into my career, I got my first big break: I wrote a story showing that the numbers on rural electrification progress, which the then Power Minister Piyush Goyal would tweet out frequently, were exaggerated. The Hindu splashed it on the front page, famous people started tweeting it, and it gained so much traction that the minister had to acknowledge it and promise to look into the matter.

It feels amazing when your work makes an impact. However, the reality is that such stories don't happen every day. Much of the daily work can be mundane, and you will write pieces that may disappear into the abyss, but that's totally cool.

I told you this to make a simple point: don't discriminate between your stories based on the impact they might have. Every story matters. Write everything you write as if your life depends on getting it right.

Because you never know what happens when the story goes out in the world. How it travels, who will use the information, and how. What will come out of it? You can't know. Your responsibility is to ensure the words you are throwing in the world meet the standards of journalistic integrity. Big story or small story — that doesn't matter.

Technology is changing at a fast pace. A smashing new platform or format comes up every few years. It has its moment, it steals the show and we start directing our energy to crack its code—until a new one appears. You have to evolve with the times, so you have to adapt.

Because you can't predict what's to come, your best bet to stay relevant as things change is to focus on the things that don't change and build skills that will always be relevant no matter what technology exists.

As a journalist, you should focus on three broad things: reporting, writing, and thinking.

Reporting: This, for me at least, is the most fun and challenging part of the job. If you've done it, you know it—the shameless pursuit of invading people's privacy, time, mindspace, and everything else to get the story. You can't learn this in a classroom; you can only learn it on assignment.

Things like: How do you get this person to open up to you? How do you find that confidential document? How do you identify the right people inside the organisation who will tell you the truth?

Reporting tips deserve a separate post, but here are some top-level highlights: pick up the phone and talk to people. Write emails. If possible, go to the spot where the action is happening. More often than not, the story you thought you were going to report and the story you will return with will be quite different.

Always remember the words of the legendary editor Harold Evans: “Things are not what they seem on the surface. Dig deeper, dig deeper, dig deeper.”

It takes skill to know how to put together a story that meets the standards of what qualifies as journalism — and you learn it by following the process, again and again.

And for heaven's sake, don't fall into the trap of thinking, "What's the point of digging deep if the editor won't publish my story anyway?" just because the internet has told you that hard-hitting stories get censored. Instead, pour your energy into becoming the reporter who consistently brings in stories that are so well-researched, so compelling, and so undeniably important that editors will have to think long and hard about whether to publish them.

That's the level you want to reach. Trust me on this: most reporters never get there. It takes real skill.

Writing: This might sound crude, but hear me out: if you're a reporter, the odds are very high that your writing is dull as dishwater.

In newsrooms, they'll tell you to write the inverted pyramid. That's okay for some stories, but it doesn't work for many others. In feature writing, they'll advise you to start with a bleeding-heart anecdote, write the nutgraf, and then tell the rest of the story. Sometimes it works, but often, it's just plain boring.

This is where you need to put in extra effort because we generally don't have conversations about good writing in the newsroom. And if your concern is "but my editor won't let me write my piece with flair" or "they don't let me experiment with my voice", then my dear friend, let me ask you this: Who is stopping you from starting your own blog on the side?

That's right, no one. It's a great way to practice and grow as a writer without the constraints of your day job.

Thinking: I have strong views on this one—so many well-meaning journalists do a really poor job here because they don't even think that thinking is part of their job. And poor thinking leads to poor writing.

You need to seriously up your game on critical thinking skills, work through your biases, improve your intuition and judgement, make an effort to see the big picture, constantly wonder about the best questions to ask for the story you're writing, identify gaps in your understanding, think about the story from multiple perspectives, and make sense of the data—all of that. It's so essential, especially if you want to work on more ambitious stories in the long run.

Work on these skills. Keep learning, day after day, and let compounding do its magic.

5. Don't go to journalism school. Instead, build subject matter expertise.

I never went to a J-school—I have a degree in mathematics—and I think they are highly overrated as a necessity for pursuing journalism. And yes, I am including the fancy degree from Columbia Journalism School. You don't need it.

I'm not saying you won't learn anything useful at J-school—you might get good industry connections or get your first job. All I am saying is I don't believe having a J-school degree makes a remarkable difference to the quality of your journalism.

What does make a difference is having subject matter expertise. For instance, if you majored in economics and have a strong grasp of fundamentals, you are more likely to excel at reporting on the union budget compared to someone who lacks that background. Having a degree in environmental science will make you better equipped to report on climate change and its impacts. A deep understanding of history can provide context and perspective when reporting on current events.

Your understanding of the subject will allow you to offer valuable insights in your story—which will be far more beneficial to your journalism than any formal journalism education can be.

6. Become data literate

It's no longer acceptable, in today's day and age, to say, “Oh, I don't get numbers because I majored in English.”

It's one thing to admit that you are struggling with learning how to use and think about data and would prefer collaborating with those who know better. It's another thing entirely to be ignorant about this significant limitation and not care about it. We live in an information environment flooded with numbers, and you will struggle in your job if you can't think critically about them.

I am not suggesting you have to start crunching numbers in an Excel sheet or make data visualisations—just that you become data literate.

As I wrote in a previous blog post:

We don’t emphasise enough on empirical thinking as a foundational element for understanding the world when we talk about data in journalism. You don’t need any number-crunching skills to find relevant data for a story. What comes first is asking the right empirical questions and having a frame to evaluate claims.

Data literacy is different from data analysis. It’s a skill in itself. You don’t need a math degree to assess the quality of data and think about possible errors and biases in sampling or measurement process or to gauge the limitations of proxy statistics.

If someone sends you a survey report or a press release, you need to run basic sanity checks before referring it in your story.

Data often misleads. To guard themselves, journalists need to become data literate and regularly fine-tune their bullshit detector.

Work on it. Please.

7. Don’t chase big brands

In the long run, the brands you work for don't matter as much as how good you are at what you do.

Yes, working for big brands offers benefits like exposure and resources. Telling someone “I am a reporter at the Times of India” is more likely to get you the interview than “I am a reporter at xyz-platform-that-you-dont-know”.

It also feels like you are part of an important institution. And if you do get there—at a big paper or TV channel—you can learn so much from just osmosis: from observing how the people you look up to work, what they say in editorial meetings, how do they think about the stories they write etc.

I started my career at big papers, so I am not trying to diss on the importance of being there. But I still think that if you were to make a choice, you'd do better by working at places that help you become a better journalist—where you can develop your skills, challenge yourself, and have a strong relationship with your immediate editor.

Because when you become really good at your craft, the brands will come to you. (This is true for reporters and writers whose work is public-facing.)

However, many younger journalists tell me that there doesn't seem to be an abundance of good jobs available, making the choice feel like an illusion. They want to work as reporters, but newsrooms are hiring social media content managers. They want to work on stories they believe matter, but the only openings are at the trends desk. With news of layoffs from bigger newsrooms, it can feel like there's no choice at all, leading to a 'beggars can't be choosers' mindset.

I understand this and don't want to downplay this systemic problem in the industry. However, if you are in a position to make a choice or are considering your next move, don't chase brands—chase good managers and good work environments where you get to do your best.

And always remember: you won't get your dream job on day one. Get in, mess around, hang around, do things, and the chances of you getting closer to the kind of work you want to do will increase.

8. Don't chase social media metrics

Don't make the number of retweets, likes, or social media followers your primary targets. If your work gains traction, that's great, but don't optimise for it or stress about it. Many amazing reporters have small social media followings that are completely out of sync with the quality of their work.

Remember that algorithms often prioritise sensationalism over substance and outrage over nuance. If you chase what the platform deems valuable, it may incentivise you to create stuff that drives social media engagement rather than focusing on producing great journalism.

Instead, focus on writing high-quality stories and promote it well on your social media platforms. Let the metrics be the outcome of that process, not the goal you're chasing.

9. Write for your reader. Not to impress your peers.

The reader doesn't care about the awards you have won, your designation, the exclusives you have landed, or who you know in the power structures.

What the reader wants is a damn good story that informs them. So, write that damn good story—for the reader. Respect their time and intelligence, and remember that they are capable of making up their own minds.

The danger lies in losing sight of your reader and what they want to know. Don't fall into the trap of writing to show your peers what you know or to impress your editor with the complicated thing you have finally cracked. It doesn't matter.

10. Don't preach or take a moral high ground

Take your work and your stories seriously, but don't let it give you an inflated sense of self-importance. Your work matters, but it doesn't make you morally superior to those who have made different career choices or who you believe are not 'contributing to society.'

Everyone has their own path and reasons for the choices they make. Choosing journalism as a profession doesn't give you the right to look down on others or to treat your work as a moral crusade.

Journalism is a job that serves a purpose. Focus on doing it well, without turning it into a platform for preaching or moral grandstanding.

11. Learn how to take feedback and criticism

As journalists, we often do a poor job of explaining to our readers how we do what we do. Don't expect them to automatically know that the Editor wrote the headline for your story, not you, or that the desk cut out the last paragraph of your story, which contained the important nuance that a reader accuses you of having missed. Avoid impulsively going on the defensive.

It's not that difficult to distinguish between someone who is trolling and someone who is genuinely criticising your work. Listen to the latter. Consider their feedback carefully. If possible, engage with them and provide more context about your reporting process.

We frequently talk about holding others accountable, but don't forget that we, as journalists, are also accountable to our readers.

12. Perseverance is the job

I loved this bit in Arun Shourie’s memoir. He writes:

“It is never enough to set rulers and institutions right once or twice, howsoever completely or drastically this may be done. They have to be set right one by one, they have to be set right again and again, and we have to go on doing so forever. Therefore, reformers, their very lives, reach us: ‘Begin, yes, but also persevere.’”

As journalists, we can take this wisdom to heart.

Read that again: a life in public service demands perseverance. You have to keep going. That is the job. And know that it's not the most glamorous job. And know that you don't have any moral obligations—if the time comes when you can't handle it anymore, or feel crushed by the forces beyond control, exit.

13. Read, read, read

I cannot stress this enough. Many journalists simply stop reading books. “We don't have the time,” they say.

I don't know how to respond to that, but what I do know is that reading widely—both fiction and nonfiction—will make you a better journalist and writer. It enhances your storytelling abilities, broadens your understanding of the world, improves your command of language, sharpens your critical thinking skills, enables you to draw interconnections across disciplines, and deepens the insights you can offer in your work.

14. Have friends who have no interest in your work

Yup, you'll need them! These are the folks who keep you sane, the ones with whom you can forget about all that's broken in this world and cry about why your crush refuses to go on a date with you! (Don't. Even. Ask.) Hold them close.

Also, have friends who know what you do but care about you more than what you're writing next.

15. Build a relationship with money

No one joins journalism to become rich, but that doesn't mean you should take pride in not caring about money. You need a shit load of generational wealth to be so careless about your finances—or you're just plain careless.

If you're poorly paid for your work, it's not okay, because constantly worrying about paying rent will drain your mental energy. Negotiate with your employer. It's absolutely normal to ask for more if you don't think the salary on offer is not in line with what you deserve. No one will offer you more unless you ask for it. Never be apologetic about it.

You may find yourself dealing with the trade-off between making more money at X or doing more meaningful work at Y—at that point, weigh things down, and if you feel that Y truly can't meet your needs, choose X. Don't look down on jobs that pay the bills.

Most importantly, build a healthy and thoughtful relationship with money. Educate yourself about personal finance, maintain a low cost of living, and prioritise saving. Create an emergency fund and plan for your future with smart investments. Don't forget to get a good health insurance policy.

Taking control of your financial life isn't about getting rich; it's about giving yourself the stability and peace of mind to focus on doing the work you love.

16. Focus on your health

It's a bit nuts how little conversation we have about food and fitness in newsrooms as if it doesn't matter. The work hijacks everything, and you just don't seem to care about exercise, eating well, and getting great sleep. But here's the thing: neglecting your health can lead to burnout, chronic health issues, and ultimately, a shorter career.

Being fit and healthy is the greatest productivity hack you can find. Make this your top priority—even if your colleagues don't care about it. Trust me, when you're the odd one out in the newsroom because you're actually taking care of yourself, you'll be the one laughing (and feeling great) in the end.

17. Your job is not your entire identity

While you're busy chasing stories and deadlines, don't forget to have fun and live life to the fullest. Make coffee. Cook food. Dance. Ride a bike. Go for a nature hike. Flirt. Go on dates. Laugh with your friends. Eat Tiramisu. Watch cinema. Or whatever that gives you joy.

Think about the hobby you've always wanted to try but haven't made time for yet, and go do it! Then, come back the next day, sit on your chair (or go to the field), pick up the damn phone, and write the best goddamn story with the greatest integrity—in service of the truth. This is all it takes.

Journalism matters more than ever: a commitment to journalism is a commitment in hope. It's an act of everyday resistance and a fight against conformity.

Just remember to focus on your craft, prioritise your well-being, and always strive to serve your readers with integrity. Stick around folks, if you can, because we need more of us.

Cheers to you. Cheers to the free press. And a big "fuck you!" to everyone who doesn't let us do our jobs.