What do journalists say about journalism as a high-impact career?

Ta-Nehisi Coates' "The Case for Reparations" seemed to have a significant impact on the national debate about race. Photo credit: Sean Carter Photography.

I interviewed three journalists who have written articles that promote important causes: Dylan Matthews (for example, on a guaranteed basic income); Derek Thompson (for example, on effective giving); and Shaun Raviv (for example, on open borders).

Key takeaways:

  • The impact of journalism is difficult to quantify as it tends to take the form of having an incremental shift in public perception of an issue, though it clearly sometimes has major impact.

  • By focusing on neglected topics like animal welfare or open borders, you may be able to have a comparatively larger impact by bringing attention to the cause.

  • A strong indicator for whether you’re a good fit for journalism is simply how much you can write per day.

 
Dylan Matthews is a writer for Vox.com

WM: If you’re doing well at a good university, and want to become a journalist with the aim of making the world better, what are the first steps you should take?

DM: The first thing you should do is write. Start a blog or a Tumblr and tell yourself you’re going to write at least one post every week day. If your school has newspapers or student-run magazines, find the one that’s closest to your temperaments and join it. Get on Twitter and follow journalists whose jobs you envy. Get into debates with them. If you can financially swing an internship, or if your university can support you in one, apply to publications you admire.

WM: How promising do you think journalism is as a path for someone who wants to use their career to do as much good as they can? For what sort of people, or under what conditions, do you think it’s a good path?

DM: I think journalism is a potentially promising path for people seeking to do as much good as they can through their careers. I think it’s particularly so for people who want to engage in opinion and/or advocacy journalism, which enables them to focus on stories meant to sway opinions among elites; for people who are interested in neglected top areas like global health, animal welfare, or existential risk where there isn’t as much writing as on, say, domestic policy or foreign affairs, and thus where people’s opinions are more malleable and easier for writers to influence; and for people who are naturally prolific and capable of producing several thousand words a day on a regular basis.

WM: Do you know of any concrete positive impact that has resulted from articles you’ve written? If so, what?

DM: Concrete positive impact is hard to come by in journalism, and the arrow of causality is never firmly pointed. But there are two cases where I think articles I wrote probably had some small influence. One is a profile I wrote of Stanley Fischer when he was governor of the Bank of Israel. When I wrote the piece, he wasn’t really being discussed as a possible successor to Ben Bernanke and I thought he deserved to be one, based on his superior track record in Israel. Fischer is now deputy chair of the Federal Reserve. I didn’t make that happen, obviously, but on the margins, I think the article slightly improved Fischer’s reputation in DC economic policy circles and helped make it more viable for President Obama to appoint someone who’d so recently worked for a foreign government. The other article is a piece I wrote exposing the dissertation of a Heritage Foundation fellow who co-wrote a very widely cited report attacking immigration reform; it turned out he believed that Hispanics are genetically inferior to whites, intellectually speaking. Within a week of the post running, the fellow had left the think tank. I take no pleasure in costing someone their job (he’s now a consultant and by every indication doing fine), but I’m glad that citations of his study fell off after that, since it was a bad, misleading study.

 

Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic

WM: If you’re doing well at a good university, and want to become a journalist with the aim of making the world better, what are the first steps you should take? How promising do you think journalism is as a path for someone who wants to use their career to do as much good as they can? For what sort of people, or under what conditions, do you think it’s a good path?

DT: This is a very hard question to answer. There is no question that some journalism achieves immense good, even when it’s immeasurable. I think that Ta-Nehesi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” for example, galvanized the national debate on race. It was not the only thing to galvanize that debate, and it’s not clear what outcomes we should expect from this debate. But the piece was momentous and I think it’s changed the way many people talk about race, at least within my limited group of friends, peers, and journalists.

That said, journalism students have asked me this very question, and the truth is that I’m torn. On the one hand, I want to say that journalism is a light, and without it, the world will be a darker, more corrupt, less moral place. I believe this is true. On the other hand, let’s be honest: What percent of journalism meets that bar? The vast majority of published work on the Internet that is journalism, and I’ll accept the liberal definition of the word, is just entertainment. (I’m not blaming the Internet for this effect, that’s just where the vast majority of published work lives.) Entertainment is great. But it’s also perfectly useless. It’s not concerned with the greatest good.

… and that’s okay. Some of my writing–say, on the immorality of public lotteries or the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate–has a chance to make a significant difference in people’s lives. But most of my writing is not engineered to maximize for global health, morality, and goodness. I write because I love writing, and I think that if you can do the thing you love all day long, you should probably give that a shot. So when a student asks me “do you write to make the world a better place?” the ugly and true answer is that’s not why I got into writing. I write for the same reason dancers dance and actors act and painters paint. It’s the thing I can do and love.

That said, I ALSO want to make the world a better place and think effective altruism is a great way to start. That’s why I write, earn money, and then give some of it to international malaria organizations.

WM: Do you know of any concrete positive impact that has resulted from articles you’ve written? If so, what?

DT: My article on effective altruism, The Greatest Good, in which I publicly thought through the implications of maximizing the good from my own donation reportedly inspired significant additional gifts to the Against Malaria Foundation and sparked interest in effective altruism from larger organizations like the Gates Foundation.

 
Shaun Raviv, a freelance journalist who has written from The Atlantic and The New Yorker

WM: If you’re doing well at a good university, and want to become a journalist with the aim of making the world better, what are the first steps you should take?

SR: I’ll have to guess at this one. I went to a good University (Duke, only good if you wear screwed-on blinders), but didn’t get high marks and didn’t do any sort of journalism at all until a few years after I graduated. Many of the journalists I have worked around in the biz were editors for their university papers, mostly at Harvard. That was pre-internet-news-explosion, so nowadays I’d guess it’s just as common for journalism-prodigy types to write for real news sites while studying. I’d also assume that working for the school paper puts you in touch at an early age with people who will be rising in the biz as you do, and you can more easily all grab hands and rise faster together if you are reporting together at school. When they graduated, most of the writers I knew interned at places like The New Republic and The Atlantic, and then got hired to be lowly editors/writers for those publications. That’s the stage when I met them, but I never did any of that. One day, I just decided to be a journalist and I used a connection to sell a pitch. Nowadays, most of my pitches are cold, and I’ve been surprised how easy it is to sell a good idea. At least for me, connections haven’t been very important.

Some steps I’d suggest are: (1) reading Jay Rosen to get tips on what journalism today is and is becoming; (2) writing and publishing now, for your own site or another, both to get reps and to start gathering readers; (3) living in, or planning to live in, unusual places because there will be unbelievable stories other people don’t know about; (4) reaching out or clinging to writers and experts you admire and asking them a ton of questions, which can maybe lead to (5) getting mentors, people who believe in your work and will vouch for you as you pitch stories and look for journalism employment. One example of a mentor/mentee relationship that you can read about is David Carr and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

WM: How promising do you think journalism is as a path for an effective altruist?

SR: I think there is a lot of room for an effective altruist to make an impact. Dylan Matthews has written a lot of convincing and entertaining open borders-related stuff for big audiences, but I wonder if we’re often preaching to the converted (this blog post makes me question everything), but not many people are converted to supporting open borders, so some of the 50,000-100,000 people people who read my article, and some of the several-times-as-many people that who have read Dylan Matthew’s articles on Michael Clemens must be learning something new. I also think open borders specifically is a huge low-hanging fruit, and that taking baby steps toward convincing people that border restrictions are akin to bondage can eventually add up to big impact. If you can get Mark Zuckerberg to say he supports open borders, then maybe other people start thinking differently, too. I had zero thoughts on open borders until I read an article about Clemens, so someone writing something has definitely had an impact on me.

WM: Do you know of any concrete upshots that resulted from your Atlantic piece on open borders, or from other articles you’ve written?

SR: Not sure if this is concrete, but I know my article on open borders directed more readers to the Open Borders website, which I thought was a small victory. Hard for me to measure, but at some point Vipul Naik did say that it was sort of a tipping point for their audience growth. Still, we’re probably talking about a few hundred or thousand people at most. Maybe it got some people thinking, but the only person I can say for sure that changed their views was my dad. Aside from that article, and another on a very specific serial killer case, I haven’t seen any change come from my writing. But there’s no doubt that journalism can have a huge impact.