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.
But the most influential positions in the field are highly competitive, and journalists face a lot of mixed incentives that may detract from their ability to have a positive impact.
- The opportunity to spread important ideas to a large audience and shape public debate and opinion
- Developing a strong network, versatile skills, and an understanding of the media that significantly increase your career capital
- Involves creativity and learning about a variety of areas
- Competitive for most influential roles
- Shrinking industry in US, somewhat poor outlook
- Relatively low pay (and sometimes little job security)
- Fast pace with constant deadlines
Key facts on fit
- Ability to write engaging pieces for a large audience very quickly
- Comfort navigating an uncertain job market
- Willingness to work long hours and in a competitive environment
- A bachelor’s degree from a top university is useful but not required
Sometimes recommended — personal fit dependent
This career will be some people’s highest-impact option if their personal fit is especially good.
Based on a medium-depth investigation
Why journalism could be a high-impact career
Some of the most promising ways to have a positive impact with a career in journalism include:
- Encouraging the adoption of good policies or discouraging the adoption of bad policies
- A single article or reporter is unlikely to be solely responsible for a given policy change, but they can play a significant role in influential coverage.
- Acting as a check on bad or dangerous actors in the public arena
- Public officials and figures can be forced out of their positions as a result of news reporting, and fear of exposure might have a chilling effect on bad acts.
- Inspiring readers to take specific high-impact actions, like making donations or changing their careers to work on pressing problems
- Helping to promote positive values, such as respect for the interests of nonhuman animals
- Supporting social or political movements that are trying to do good — we’re especially excited about journalism that informs people about the ideas of the effective altruism community
- Also, you can potentially strengthen ideas and communities you agree with by subjecting them to analysis and criticism.
- Instilling better reasoning skills in readers — often by acting as a model — and keeping the public informed to promote good decision-making
- Positively shaping the discourse to better prioritise major problems and solutions, including introducing new topics for wider debate
- Though note that sometimes drawing attention to an important topic can backfire.
We believe the most neglected yet important problems in the world are those that involve existential risks or impact future generations. So we’d be particularly excited to see journalists who could eventually help us make progress as a society toward preserving the potential for a bright and flourishing future by, for example, prioritising coverage of the threats from nuclear war, pandemic disease, artificial intelligence, climate change, and the possible decline of liberal democracy. We discuss some of the potential for this kind of impact in our review of communications careers.
Despite the potential, though, much of journalism probably has minimal impact (and, as discussed below, some is actively harmful). Based on my experience in the industry, a lot of journalistic work is duplicative, and news outlets often compete in zero-sum contests to see whose story can rank the highest on Google search results. Even many prestigious outlets prioritise breaking news stories faster than their competitors, despite there being little to no benefit to the news consumer. For instance, journalists might race to be the first to report who a presidential candidate has picked to be their running mate, even though there’s actually little or no benefit to readers knowing this information a day or two before it’s officially announced.
But the news industry as a whole tends to reward these priorities.
If you plan to prioritise helping others, though, there is clearly the possibility of having a big influence — with the right role and the right content.
How many people are actually reading news articles?
This piece primarily focuses on the potential for impact in print and online news, though many of the points apply more broadly. As a reference point, Vox’s Kelsey Piper told us in 2019 that the median story she might write would get roughly between 15,000 and 20,000 readers. Getting 100,000 readers would constitute a very successful article. Some less popular articles may get as few as 2,000 views, she said — but even that lower amount can be worth it if the right person reads it. (Note: Other outlets may have benchmarks that vary widely on either side — but these figures give an idea of the size of the audience you can reach at a publication like Vox.)
Some journalists do have considerable discretion in what they write about, though they often need to spend several years to get into this position.
Journalists who work for nonprofits like ProPublica can have more freedom to write about important issues due to the smaller role that market pressures play in these organisations. Future Perfect, a subsection of Vox, was launched with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation (though it now has separate sources of funding) to tell stories about big and neglected problems in the world.
And even within for-profit journalism, there are many examples of journalists writing about important causes. Vox journalist Dylan Matthews, before founding Future Perfect in 2018, was already writing about topics like immigration policy and effective giving.
There have been more opportunities in recent years for journalists with an interest in effective altruism, longtermism, and related topics. In addition to Future Perfect, outlets such as BBC Future, Works in Progress, and the newly founded Asterisk magazine present exciting opportunities for writers who want to publish on these kinds of ideas. There may be even more opportunities like these in the coming years, given some funders’ interests in impactful writing.
But even if there are more opportunities like these, the specific area of journalism focused on the issues that we think are most pressing is likely to remain quite small in the broader media landscape. And if you’re successful in journalism, there might be greater opportunities for impact within traditional news outlets.
One path we’d be particularly excited to see some readers take is to establish themselves as credible reporters in the areas of science and technology, especially because emerging technologies are related to many of the problems we think are most pressing.
You don’t necessarily need technical expertise to excel in this way — and in fact, if you have technical skills related to some of the world’s most pressing problems, there are likely more promising career opportunities for you outside of journalism. But you’ll need to develop a sophisticated understanding of the field and a set of critical thinking skills to assess complicated claims and degrees of evidence. Otherwise, you may fall into the trap of perpetuating overly sensationalist and sometimes misleading science journalism, which some incentives in the industry encourage.
Some examples of high-impact journalism
One strong reason to believe journalism can be a high-impact career is that there seem to be many examples of journalism causing concrete benefits and harms for the world. By considering some examples, you can get a sense of how journalism can have an impact — and how it might go wrong.
A note of caution: It’s inevitably contentious to make historical claims of causation, so there’s likely no example on this list that is beyond dispute. Assessing the practical difference made by a single article or reporter, or even a group of stories, is difficult, and we have struggled to find systematic studies of the impact of journalism. (Please let us know if you have any!) It’s completely possible, for example, that positive effects that appear to be attributable to a given work of journalism would have come about regardless.
But it still seems quite likely that journalism does often have an impact, and it’s worth examining some plausible cases, such as:
- Zeynep Tufekci advocated for mask-wearing in March 2020 to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by publishing an op-ed in The New York Times when public health experts argued the opposite.
- Ben Smith later wrote for the same newspaper: “The C.D.C. changed its tune in April, advising all Americans above the age of 2 to wear masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Michael Basso, a senior health scientist at the agency who had been pushing internally to recommend masks, told me Dr. Tufekci’s public criticism of the agency was the ‘tipping point.'”
- This seems like a very big deal. It’s unclear, though, how impactful Tufekci’s piece was. Was the CDC on a clear path to recommending masks regardless? Did she only speed up the trajectory by a few days or weeks? Though it’s also possible she was more influential than that — other health agencies in the world were very slow to adopt masking recommendations. And in general, it seems good to have incisive writers applying critical scrutiny to public health pronouncements.
- Coverage of surprise medical bills in the US appears to have led to a new law restricting providers’ ability to catch patients off-guard after treatment with large, unexpected service charges.
- Trudy Lieberman, a public health professor and a journalist, wrote for USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism: “In many ways, the law is also a victory for the media since it was their sustained coverage that spurred public outrage. In particular, I would say it was the product of a continued focus on surprise medical bills by Sarah Kliff, now at The New York Times but who started collecting such outrageous bills when she was at Vox, and Kaiser Health News and NPR, whose joint bill of the month series beginning in 2018 kept the focus on this insidious practice.”
- 538‘s Nate Silver argued in May 2017 that the media coverage around the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton likely played a significant role in determining the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election.
- Of course, any election is probably dramatically influenced by the media coverage of the relevant events and candidates. And no one person or even one outlet is wholly responsible for the general pattern of how an issue is covered. But this case does point to decisions made in the news media that plausibly contributed to an extremely significant course change in American politics.
- Reporting on former US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s conduct in office, particularly his personal use of public funds, led to his resignation. He explicitly cited what he called the “unrelenting attacks” he faced in his resignation letter.
- While the resignation was very plausibly an effect of the reporting on Pruitt’s scandals, one can question the impact of the reporting, because he was replaced by someone who was ideologically similar.
- Elizabeth Warren, then a law professor, published a story in the journal Democracy in 2007 arguing for the creation of a federal agency to regulate financial products.
- In 2009, then-President Barack Obama referenced her arguments about the need for such protection.
- Obama later signed into law the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which, in part, created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Warren had envisioned.
- Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey at The New York Times, as well as Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker, published pieces in October 2017 surfacing allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse against Harvey Weinstein.
- While this may have seemed at the time to be a narrow story about a single figure in the entertainment industry, it helped spur a wider movement that exposed patterns of sexual harassment and abuse in many different industries.
- Anecdotally, we’ve heard of several policy advocates who’ve found the existence of highly accessible, mainstream coverage of issues they think are important to be very useful for showing policymakers what the issue is all about and why people might care.
Journalism might also have a more diffuse impact, though these effects will be even harder to directly measure and assess. For example, Naina Bajekal wrote a cover story for TIME in August 2022 about the effective altruism community, which likely introduced many people to a number of ideas that we think are important, and which could have a profound impact on what they choose to do in their lives (she even mentioned 80,000 Hours in the article!).
A lot of important journalism might have its biggest impacts in this way — by influencing a large number of people in ways that are small at the individual level but add up to being a substantial impact on the world.
And sometimes, the highest-impact decision a news outlet can make is not to publish a story. For instance, in 2006, Bill Keller, then an editor at The New York Times, revealed that his paper had withheld stories “that, if published, might have jeopardised efforts to protect vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear material.”
Why having a positive impact in journalism might be challenging
Because they rely on ad revenue or paid subscriptions, many news outlets are most motivated to maximise the engagement of their readers. This leads to a focus in a lot of the news media on dramatic current events and contentious hot-button issues. While some of this coverage is surely important, much of it is not, and a lot of it may be actively harmful.
Examples of generally harmful types of journalism include:
- Hyper-partisan journalism
- Unnecessarily inflammatory coverage
- Misleading reporting or outright misinformation
- Journalism that promotes or embodies bad values, such as racist stereotyping
- Overly credulous reporting
- Reporting that distracts from more important issues
- Reporting that reveals information that is dangerous for the public to know (e.g. private personal information or national security secrets)
Unfortunately, even well-intentioned and thoughtful journalism may end up being harmful. Consider, for instance, the following possibilities:
- The story draws attention to an important cause, but it creates more backlash than support.
- Policymakers react to address a problem highlighted in a story, but they overcorrect and create a new problem.
- Critical mistakes in the reporting spread falsehoods.
One now-infamous and concrete example of harmful reporting is The New York Times 2002 story “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest for A-Bomb Parts,” about Iraq’s supposed effort to create weapons of mass destruction. This report, which relied heavily on anonymous sources in the Bush administration, was found to be based on dubious claims, and the idea that Saddam Hussein was building a nuclear weapon in the run-up to the 2003 invasion was discredited.
Historian Daniel Strieff noted that many other media outlets played a role in pushing the narrative, but this story played an outsized role in pro-war rhetoric.
For a more hypothetical example, consider that some people who are concerned about potential risks from artificial intelligence worry that coverage that focuses on the impressive capabilities of AI systems could help inspire an arms race in the technology, potentially increasing the dangers.
In general, you might care a lot about avoiding harmful journalism. But once you have a job, you’ll likely face a lot of incentives that distort your priorities. You might work for an editor who assigns you stories, and you may have little say in what you get to write about or what the final product looks like. In many cases, journalists have complained that they have no say over misleading headlines that top their articles — a particularly troubling situation, since many more people will see the headline than will read the content of the story.
Even if you get more autonomy, you’ll be aware that keeping your job is often contingent on keeping readers engaged.
And indeed, having an impact is often contingent on keeping readers engaged. A story that few people read is less likely, in most cases, to have much influence on the real world. So even in the ideal scenario, you’ll have to find a balance between writing stories that grab readers’ attention and those that share important information. Sometimes doing so is easy — other times, it’s much harder. And navigating these mixed incentives may distort your assessment of what really matters in your work.
Striking the balance between important writing and writing stories that people want to read is an extremely valuable skill, and if you think you’d be good at it, you should definitely consider becoming a journalist (or some other kind of communicator). But if you think you’d feel uncomfortable in this position, or find it too difficult to weigh up these competing priorities, it may be a challenging career path for you to pursue.
It may be quite difficult on the whole to be confident you’re having a positive impact with a career as a journalist. But we also think the world would be better off for having more people in journalism who are motivated to work on the most pressing problems.
How to pursue a career in journalism
Many journalists in print or online media start off as interns or entry-level reporters. It typically helps to have a bachelor’s degree, though it doesn’t need to be in journalism — and you may be fine without one if you demonstrate an ability to get published or bring a highly valuable knowledge base.
If you’re just starting your career out of university or college, experience at a student newspaper can be valuable for getting your foot in the door.
For certain roles, such as legal or financial reporting, employers often seek job candidates with some level of subject matter expertise.
Master’s degrees in journalism are rarely if ever required, and getting them can be extremely costly — it’s probably better to learn on the job. This is especially true because many jobs in journalism aren’t particularly high-paying — so having a lot of student debt might be a big problem.
Pay and industry prospects
The median American journalist made $48,370 a year in 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In that year, there were an estimated 47,100 people employed in these jobs, and the Bureau expects the industry to shrink by 9% by 2031. Still, it also estimated that there will be an average of 4,900 job openings for news analysts, journalists, and reporters each year for the rest of the decade.
Some data suggests that in the UK, the prospects for the news industry look comparatively brighter. In 2020, there were an estimated 96,000 journalists in the country, according to the media trade magazine Press Gazette. That’s more than double the amount in the US, despite having roughly one-fifth of the total population; however, this fact also makes us doubt the figures in each country are calculated using comparable methodologies.
Nevertheless, the trendlines for employment are particularly encouraging in the UK. The industry has grown rapidly in recent years, up from around 78,000 reportedly employed in journalism in 2018. Press Gazette also calculated that the average salary posted for UK journalism job listings on Indeed was £35,244.
If you’re not looking for an entry-level position or internship, and you don’t have any publishing experience, it makes sense to start by writing articles part-time to build up a personal library of content you can link to on a personal blog (Medium is quick and easy to set up) or Substack. Substack can allow you to charge your readers for access to your posts, but that’s probably only a viable business strategy after you’ve already developed a large audience. Some organisations have offered large prizes for blogs and writing about effective altruism ideas, which might give you an incentive to keep at it.
Once you’ve gotten in the habit of blogging, try getting pieces published in existing media outlets. Your first instinct may be to go for well-known names like The Guardian or Vox, or even more prestigious newspapers, but you’ll likely have an easier time publishing at smaller outlets or local publications. You’ll be able to use your blog posts as writing samples.
Some writers even get noticed for having a strong Twitter presence. It’s not unheard of to have a story solicited based only on your tweets. If you’re able to impress people in the news industry with thoughtful and insightful posts on social media, you may have a leg up on those who avoid Twitter. (But be warned: there are many risks to spending too much time on Twitter, and careers can be ruined at least as easily as they can be started by a tweet. So post carefully.)
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, and you may be able to use your published work to get a full-time job.
Newer journalists typically don’t get to choose what they cover, particularly at large organisations, and are instead assigned stories by editors. However, even new journalists can sometimes earn more autonomy if they become successful at pitching stories that they want to write to their editor.
This is most likely to happen if you successfully carve out a “beat” for yourself — a specialty subject that you’re deeply familiar with. Once an editor trusts that you know the area well, they may come to rely on you to shape the course of your outlet’s reporting on the topic. You’ll likely still be subject to the same incentives that drive the rest of the media, but you’ll have more discretion in deciding how to navigate competing demands.
Some key roles in journalism
Investigative reporters are highly prestigious, and there are many cases in history of them having a positive impact. But it may be difficult to optimise for impact in these roles, because the goal of investigative reporters is to uncover exciting and newsworthy facts — which isn’t necessarily correlated with having a positive impact. (Though one potentially underexplored route to impact would be an investigative journalist who specialises in scrutinising charities.)
When journalists establish themselves in the industry, they sometimes progress to roles in which they have more freedom to choose what topics 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.
Opinion columnists may have the most latitude of anyone to pursue whatever stories they think are important, and we’d be excited to see more people interested in effective altruism take these roles at prestigious media outlets. However, precisely because these roles are so valuable and influential, they’re among the most competitive positions in the industry.
Senior roles are usually as editors or producers, who coordinate the work of other journalists. These too might be among the most impactful roles in journalism, because they can shape the coverage of a much wider range of stories. But even editors, producers, and publishers are subject to the financial incentives of the news business (unless they are philanthropically funded), so they’re not typically free to focus completely on having a positive impact.
Freelance journalists aren’t employed full-time by a news outlet but instead get paid a set amount for each article or column that an editor agrees to publish. Sometimes they have arrangements with outlets to contribute a certain number of stories or columns on a regular basis.
Usually, freelancers submit story pitches to editors, who will decide whether they want to pay for the story. In theory, anyone can submit a pitch and get something published — but editors are most likely to accept submissions from experienced writers, experts, or people with unique experiences. Sometimes editors will reach out to an established journalist or writer to solicit a story that hasn’t been pitched.
It’s difficult to make a living as a full-time freelance journalist. But freelance writing can be a productive way to start out a journalism career, and it may be financially sustainable when supplemented with income from other sources.
Training for Good has launched the Tarbell Fellowship, which provides financial support to early-career journalists who are looking to have a positive impact. There may be other opportunities for funding from philanthropists who are eager to support this kind of writing.
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. As with many other careers, you’ll have most of your impact later on, once you’ve built up career capital — 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 be accepted. Don’t be discouraged by this. Plenty of very successful journalists were rejected dozens of times before having a breakthrough piece.
One of the benefits of journalism is that you can explore it as a career option without investing in an advanced degree, which makes it easier to keep your options open while testing your fit. If you have a clear idea of how you want to have an impact as a journalist, and you have an aptitude for it, it may well be worth trying your hand at it for a few years.
(A caveat to this point, however, is that you should expect anything you publish will be accessible forever. Publicly taking controversial stances on hot-button issues may limit some of your career options down the road.)
You can try freelancing as a side gig and see how it goes, or if you’re early in your career, you may just try getting an entry-level job in the industry. If, after a few years, you find it’s not working out as you hoped, you should still have other options open to you. For example, roles in communications, research, policy, and advocacy can make good use of skills developed in journalism.
What is journalism 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’s how Kelsey Piper of Future Perfect described her typical day when she spoke with us in 2019:
Vox has a very fast pace, which was definitely something I was a little apprehensive about going in. Like can I write that much? But it’s been very good for me because I think the push to think about something you want to tell people every day just keeps you moving. On most days I will try and send my editor about three story ideas. Things that I’ve thought of that I want to write about, things that I have a lead on, things that I saw in the news that I felt like we needed a Future Perfect take on. My editor will get back to me with the one or two that he’s most excited about and say, Yeah, go ahead and write this story.
So, then I’ll email people who I want to talk to. I’ll try and get introductions. I’ll research for the piece. I’ll have those conversations and phone calls. I’ll try and write the piece. I’ll try and file it before I go home. Then often at the same time, my editor and I will be going back and forth with edits on yesterday’s story to get it to a state where we’re both proud of it and confident of it and ready to put it on the site.
Now, in practice, some pieces take longer to come together. Or they come partway together and then we realise there’s not a good story here. Or the situation is confusing enough that our initial take on it didn’t work. A fair number of stories get scrapped. In practice, I think I end up publishing four things a week. But yeah, the goal is certainly to have a week where every day we put out a new story.
She also added:
It’s amazing to call people up and just ask about their research or ask about what they’re doing. I feel like I’ve learned a ton about lots of fields, just by having the luxury of spending a day talking to five experts. Then doing a lot of reading and trying to put together an accurate, if limited, picture of something I didn’t know much about before.
How to assess your fit for journalism
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, though some positions offer reasonable hours.
- 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?
- Don’t forget that most public communicators have honed their craft for years, often long before they were famous.
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.
APPLY TO SPEAK WITH OUR TEAM
Learn more about journalism careers
Want to consider more paths? See our list of the highest-impact career paths according to our research.
Plus, join our newsletter and we’ll mail you a free book
Join our newsletter and we’ll send you a free copy of The Precipice — a book by philosopher Toby Ord about how to tackle the greatest threats facing humanity.
Special thanks to Roman Duda and Arden Koehler for their contributions to this article.