In a nutshell: For the right person, becoming a journalist could be very impactful. Good journalists help keep people informed, positively shape public discourse on important topics, and can provide a platform for people and ideas that the public might not otherwise hear about.
Potential to spread important ideas to a large audience and shape public debate and opinion
You get to build a strong network of contacts, which is useful both for advocacy and as a backup for entry to other careers
Possibility of freelance work, which offers flexible hours and remote options
Shrinking industry, somewhat poor outlook
Relatively low pay
Fast pace with constant deadlines and long hours
Key facts on fit
Ability to write engaging pieces for a large audience very quickly
A bachelor’s degree from a top university is useful but not required
We recommend this career if it is a better fit for you than our other recommended careers.
The potential value of journalism is to provide a public good: a constantly updating account of world events (including scientific discoveries and other intellectual advances), which can serve as an independent monitor of power and a mechanism for public education and discussion.
Although the news media tends to focus more on the most dramatic current events (which we’re not sure is always a good thing) and plenty of journalism is likely harmful, we think that journalists can try to steer their careers in positive directions by picking the right kinds of projects and publications.
One subpath we’re especially excited about is science journalism, due to the important role of science and technology in many of the problems we highlight as most pressing. There is a lot of oversimplification and confusion in much current public discussion of science and technology, perhaps because few people have the right combination of skills: communication, interest in improving public understanding, and a sufficient understanding of science and technology. Improving science journalism seems like it could be very useful — and if you’re reading this, you might be more likely than average to be able to help bridge the gap.
Journalists can also write about ideas in effective altruism and apply them to current events, which we think can be very valuable. The potential for this is increasing due to a recent resurgence in advocacy and point-of-view journalism.1 An example that advances ideas we think are important is Vox’s Future Perfect.
The audience you can reach as a journalist is potentially very large. The estimated total US daily newspaper circulation — meaning print and digital subscriptions sold — in 2020 was something like 25 million,2 and back in 2016, a story that was on the New York Times homepage for half a day got about eight million views (this figure might be lower or higher now).3 How much engagement articles get is heavy tailed, however — for example, something might get 10–100 times as much engagement if it goes viral on social media.
An important note of caution: in most journalism, the incentives strongly favour publishing stories that get a lot of views, because this is what drives advertising revenue and is core to the business model of most news organisations. This means that many journalists don’t have as much freedom to write about the topics they think are most important.
In spite of this, our impression is that many journalists still have considerable discretion in what they write about, though you may need to spend several years to get into this position. Journalists who work for nonprofits like Future Perfect and ProPublica, or publicly funded organisations like NPR and the BBC, get more freedom to write about important issues due to the smaller role that market pressures play in these organisations. And even within for-profit journalism, there are many examples of journalists writing about important causes. One example is Vox journalist Dylan Matthews: before founding Future Perfect in 2018, he still wrote about topics like immigration policy and effective giving.
All that said, journalism careers are very competitive, especially when it comes to the kinds of work that seem best for communicating important ideas (which are often complex), such as long-form articles, books, podcasts, and documentaries. For example, in the UK, 47% of newspaper columnists went to Oxbridge and 68% went to a Russell Group university — this suggests that having attended a highly ranked university is very useful for entry and progression.4
The level of competition also means that you often have to spend a long time doing part-time or unpaid work before you can get a paid position, and that you might never get a stable, paid position even if you try. (Though we do know a couple journalistic outlets that are hiring for people to write about ideas with an effective altruism lens, so there could be some increasing demand for that segment at least.)
Moreover, even if you succeed in having a career in journalism, it’s hard to be confident that your stories will make a positive difference — it depends on who reads them and when, plus of course getting the ideas right.
It also seems relatively easy to make things worse as a journalist by directing people’s attention the wrong way — so this path may require especially good judgement about which projects to pursue and with what strategy.
All in all, our impression is that standards for having a high-impact career as a journalist are very high — both in terms of writing and reporting talent, as well as judgement to pick the right stories to pursue. But we have seen successes, and we think it’s a worthwhile path to try for people seeking to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.
What does this path involve?
Many journalists start off as entry-level reporters. These younger journalists typically don’t get to choose what they cover (particularly at large organisations), and are instead assigned stories and beats by editors.
Some progress to roles in which there is more freedom to choose what they write about, as well as add opinion, perspective, and more complex analysis. These include columnists who write opinion pieces, and correspondents who cover various locations distant from their main workplace (e.g. the White House) while adding their perspective on the news.
Senior roles are usually as editors or producers, who coordinate the work of other journalists. There are also freelance journalists, who usually write as columnists and commentators on areas they have expertise in, and often work part-time alongside other jobs.
Finally, there are other mediums you could use: you could share your views via podcasts (e.g. as a guest on someone else’s show), YouTube, social media, or documentaries — though these aren’t always counted as journalism, they use many of the same skills and have a similar case for impact (see our profile on being a public intellectual for more).
What is it like day to day?
The day-to-day activities of journalists vary by industry, role, and level of seniority, but almost all journalist jobs involve researching stories and interviewing people, preparing content for publication, and staying up to date with the area they cover.
Here are typical days for a few types of journalists:
To assess if this path might be a good fit for you, consider these questions:
Are you a fast writer? One of the most distinctive things about journalism jobs is they tend to have very rapid deadlines following current events and a very regular publication schedule.
Are you an excellent communicator? The key skill you need to have is writing stories that get a big audience, and/or good speaking skills for working in podcasts, radio, or television, plus comfort with interviewing people.
Do you have experience working for a college newspaper or an internship, or a portfolio of published work? If you do have journalism experience, did you enjoy it?
Are you willing to work long hours, including nights and weekends? This is common in journalism careers.5
How important is a high salary to you? It’s hard to get paid work early on, and even after you get a full-time paid position, the average salary for a journalist is relatively low.
Have you written a blog? Do you find it relatively easy to produce large amounts of content?
Do you get good feedback on your content, relative to people who have spent a similar amount of time on it? (Don’t forget that most public communicators have honed their craft for years, often long before they were famous.)
Then try getting pieces published in existing media outlets like The Guardian or Vox. You’ll be able to use your blog posts as writing samples.
Getting your first piece published is often the hardest step. If you do a good job, it will be much easier to publish with that same publication and editor in the future. Having been published by a mainstream outlet will make your future pitches much more likely to succeed, or at least be seriously considered.
How to pitch your first piece
We asked Garrison Lovely, a freelance journalist, how he’d recommend pitching to publications. He said:
1. Use pitch guides. Many publications have guides that explain what they’re looking for and how they want the pitch formatted. Generally, you can Google “how to pitch [publication name].” Pay attention to the format they ask for — publications may reject an otherwise good pitch just because you didn’t follow directions. 2. Aim low at first. Start by pitching smaller, less well-known outlets before trying the New York Times. Some well-known outlets publish a lot (e.g. HuffPost) and may be easier to get published in than less well-known outlets that publish less frequently (e.g. N+1). Big publications often don’t want to take risks on someone unproven, especially when it comes to reported pieces and features. 3. Think about what you bring to the table. If you have some unique and interesting perspective on the world, try to use that for your first pitch. 4. Be timely if possible — i.e. at least reference current events. This applies most to op-eds. Some pieces, like print magazine features, are more likely to be ‘evergreen,’ though these are harder for first-time writers to get than shorter articles or op-eds. 5. Get to know other journalists and editors. Relationships drive a lot of decision making. Personally knowing an editor won’t guarantee you will get published, but it will make it much more likely your pitches will be seriously considered. 6. Don’t write full drafts. It’s rare that editors will want a full draft as a first pitch (again, check the pitch guide). They often want to weigh in on the direction of the piece before you write the whole thing, so writing full drafts wastes your time and makes you less likely to succeed. 7. Don’t worry about your first piece having a big positive impact. When you’re first starting out, it’s more important that you get publications under your belt than to make sure that each piece is optimised for helping make the world better. You can (and should!) do that later, when you have built up credibility and a track record with publishers. 8. Don’t get discouraged. Publications typically reject the vast majority of pitches that they receive (they often don’t even reply). Unsurprisingly, the more prestigious the publication, the less likely you are to get accepted. Don’t be discouraged by this. Plenty of very successful journalists were rejected dozens of times before having a breakthrough piece.
News reporting tends to be different from long-form journalism, and involves a somewhat different set of skills. The best way to learn is on the job — e.g. through an internship (especially if you don’t have a journalism degree).
After you have your foot in the door with a few publications or an internship under your belt, apply very widely!
Find a job in this path
If you think you might be a good fit for this path and you’re ready to start looking for jobs, see our curated list of opportunities in this path:
Want one-on-one advice on pursuing this path?
If you think this path might be a great option for you, but you need help deciding or thinking about what to do next, our team might be able to help.
We can help you compare options, make connections, and possibly even help you find jobs or funding opportunities.
“NYT recently filmed in our lab for an upcoming story. When we asked how much traffic we should prepare for, they told us that a “popular story” receiving half a day on the NYT homepage (standard for an editorial) gets about 8 million views. They had no estimates on click through from article.” Quora – How many pageviews does a popular NYTimes article get?↩