Felix Salmon’s report on the death of journalism as a career is greatly exaggerated

At Perugia this year Felix Salmon gave a talk: “The end of journalism as a career?”

In typical fashion, anytime a headline ends in a question mark the answer is almost always “no.”

Throughout the video you can tell how excited Salmon is to play the contrarian. He wants to “bring you down and make you depressed” (his words, not mine). This is the role Felix is increasingly happy to play. The “Golden Age” person who is still a naysayer. ‘This is the best of times for journalism – but you shouldn’t try to participate if you have any hope at survival.’

Throughout the video Felix makes references to ‘startups’ and ‘platforms’ as if the two are interchangeable. Most journalism startups are not platforms. Or more precisely – they are closed platforms. Even the NYT is a platform … for NYT writers! And Fusion is a startup – but it’s not a platform for anybody other than Fusion writers. Same for Vox, 538, Circa, Buzzfeed (which is slightly more open with their “community posts,” but not really).

Whenever Felix begins to talk about “platforms” and how the entrepreneurs behind them don’t care about good labor because they only want scale – he is talking about pure-play technology companies like Uber (a platform for drivers) or Twitter (a platform for open communication). But he’s implying that a critique about those platforms (one Uber driver is as good as the next) applies to journalism – one writer is as good as the next. But I don’t think that follows. It’s a fair critique of open platforms – but not of closed platforms. Most journalism startups are closed platforms where there is an investment in people.

It is with this misconstrued backdrop that Felix goes on to say that while startups and platforms are great – they are not amenable to careers. His theory: There is so much change happening that the only thing that’s constant is change and only young people are ready to succeed. Once you are old, you are being disrupted and can’t change. Therefore – you can’t have a career. Give up now!

To that I say “meh” or more precisely “bullshit.”

Salmon defines career as something where you become more experienced/skilled over time and therefore become more valuable. While it might be true that the users in a platform (let’s take Facebook) aren’t more valuable over time, the people who build platforms have honed skills that are developed over time. A seasoned programmer is better than a brand new one out of college. Entrepreneurs that screw up eventually go on and learn from those mistakes. They become more valuable in future endeavors as a result. That’s the whole “embrace failure” thing. It’s not that failure is good – it’s that you learn from them. And “learn” implies improvement.

Richard Gingras (who helped launch Salon and is now at Google) once told me – “it’s not that I’m a super genius, it’s that I’ve had the opportunity to screw up more.” (rough quote)

So yea, you won’t have a career as a professional Facebooker or Twitterati.

But you can have a career building platforms like Facebook or Twitter and your experience building those will add to your value as an employee at tech platforms.

Look at Medium, created by the founder of Twitter, created by the founder of Blogger. Is it a three time coincidence? Or could it be that a person gains valuable skills along the way and continues to become more valuable?

We don’t even need to focus on any of these examples because these are OPEN platforms – not journalistic enterprises which are often closed platforms. I only bring these examples up to point out that even in the most disruptive of spaces experience, wisdom and knowledge are valuable, just as much as youth and vigor. I expect it to become increasingly valuable as Web 2.0 continues without being a bubble that pops into nothing.

But let’s focus on journalistic “platforms” (again, I think Felix is being a little loose with terms here, but let’s ignore it for now). Felix thinks if you work in the digital journalistic startup space you won’t have a career. Why? Only young people can be good at digital. And digital is changing, so in a few years – you won’t be good at it. You can’t mature. You won’t become more valuable as you gain more experience. “In most areas of life the more experienced you are the more valuable you become” says Felix. But this is not the case for digital journalism.

Then this is said: “You can’t really hope that those skills which you develop over time are going to make you as a person more valuable over time.” This statement is absurd on its face.

Even if you leave journalism, the skills you gain will be valuable in your career. The journalist that won a Pulitzer Prize and has since left journalism can still point to their Pulitzer Prize winning work and in any job interview say “I am a valuable employee that can produce fantastic work, see my Pulitzer. I’ve honed skills and [insert plausible argument here about why employer needs these skills] makes me more valuable than somebody without said skills.”

Back to Felix: “Everyone wants to be a platform, remember that.” This still assumes that creating good platforms, user experience, user interface, etc. is not a skill you can develop over time. Your first crack at Javascript sucks. Your first time managing a project, things will get crazy. You get better, you develop skills and over time that makes you more valuable even in the technology space!

Fact: There is more competition. A good media company needs to be a “full stack” company (have good technology) but that doesn’t mean the journalists in a news organization are interchangeable with any 23-year-old that walks into the door.

Fact: I agree with Felix not everyone will be part of the top 1% of superstar journalists. There are only so many Nick Kristof’s that we need. I would also agree that being a journalist isn’t going to make you rich – but that’s nothing new. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a multi-decade career path. You can become more valuable over time.

Where does Felix end? Sure enough by contradicting everything he just said. Salmon says it’s a good idea to be a digital journalist that is good at the fundamentals: Focus on a beat. Understand it deeply. Learn how to tell a good story (I presume he would also advise you to be good at specific mediums like video or photojournalism or the written word, or audio, etc). Those are skills you can develop with experience and time – he says. And if you do that, Felix agrees that everything he said earlier doesn’t apply – you can have a career.

I’m glad we could agree.

6 thoughts on “Felix Salmon’s report on the death of journalism as a career is greatly exaggerated”

  1. Also not mentioned at all in the essay to which you’re reacting … the prospect of entrepreneurial journalism. For many of us in the community-news space right now, for example, it’s a path that followed time in the corporate-owned-journalism-org world. But I can imagine somebody getting out of school now and launching their own path – where s/he sees a need/void – from the start. Totally unimaginable half my life ago … the only micro-news orgs were community “newspapers” in tiny towns, which required way too much infrastructure. Go get ’em, everyone – lots of information out there but still not enough people to find and interpret it.

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