advice for journalists, advice for immigrants, and the psychology of COVID numbness

A Washington Post editor recently solicited advice for young journalists on Twitter.

The responses were, you know, what you’d expect: Be nice to people! Spell stuff on your resume right! Don’t make stuff up!

Which is good! But also, I feel, a little obvious? Forget the New York Times, you have to do that just to get a job at Home Depot.

The prompt did get me thinking, though, about what I actually wish I knew when I got into the industry—especially stuff I didn’t do, but sometimes kind of wish I had.

So here are a few pieces of advice for journalists (and possibly others) that are probably less common, or possibly even so uncommon as to be trolly. But they are my current feelings on this topic that has been summoned forth by, and thus must be weighed in on by law:

  • I don’t put a lot of stock in networking. People “reach out” to me a lot to have coffees (at least in the Before Times) and not-so-clandestinely try to get me to get them published in The Atlantic magazine. But I can’t get you published in The Atlantic magazine! I have virtually no power, and even if I did, the ultimate call is made by a handful of people who are too busy for networking! Honestly, the hour you spent on an awkward coffee with me would be better spent researching a story pitch or something. I also hate the idea that the only people who should have access to magazine journalism are smooth networkers who can afford to be in D.C. for coffee meetings. Tell me what weird phenomenon is happening in your tiny Mississippi town instead, please. (Note: I did network early on, and it kind of worked, but not as much as you might think.)

  • If you have the grades and can at all afford it, try to go to an Ivy League school, (or a near-Ivy for journalism like Northwestern) because our industry weirdly prefers them even though most of them don’t have journalism programs? (Note: I did not do this.)

  • For women who want kids, I might recommend having kids before you try to become a journalist? I know a lot of successful journalists who are moms, but the problem with trying to become a journalist first is that you will spend your entire 20s and most of your 30s establishing your career. Only then will you be ready to ramp down from the 80-hour work weeks and try having sex with your husband for a change.

    But for me at least, it’s easier to ramp up from 0 than to ramp down from 100. It’s never gonna feel like the right time to not try to become Moscow bureau chief, so you might end up waiting too long to have kids, if you want them.

    Meanwhile, if you have some easy job right out of college and have your kids right away, then they’ll be in school by the time you’re 30 and you can work your entry-level $30,000 a year blogger job then. By the time you’re established, your kids will be grown, and you will … you know … have them :)

    Plus, kids will give you a lot to write about, and you’ll be accustomed to sleep deprivation. And a lot of your readers will be moms, so you’ll have a natural commonality with them. This will help you not sound like the typical young blogger trying to stiltedly write about imaginary parenthood: “Reader, does your … toddler … suffer from … not liking the noodles you prepare? This is a problem common to many.”

    (Note: I also did not do this)

  • You can’t always control the bull. In my more hopeful moments, I think about the rodeos we used to go to when I was a little Texas teen. When you’re watching the rodeo, it’s clear that the bull rider knows how to ride, but that the bull has its own ideas. The rider can be very good at riding, but the bull can still kick him off. Similarly, you can get very good at journalism and be very skilled at it, but the job market can kick you off at any time because of its own capricious, bull-like ways.

    You might have trained your whole life to be a climate-change reporter, but they’re only hiring housing reporters at the only paper in your town. This does not mean you are a bad bull rider/journalist! It means simply that you are participating in a rough and dangerous sport, and that you can’t control all the outcomes in your rodeo, no matter how good you get. So in journalism—hell, in anything—try to remember that though you may be the world’s best bull rider, there is also a bull. And you can’t always control the bull.

    (Note: I am still working on doing this.)

I was on my friend and former colleague Juleyka’s wonderful show, How to Talk to Mami and Papi About Anything. If you’re an immigrant or just have had a strained relationship with your parents, it’s the perfect thing. In each episode, she talks to an immigrant about some tough issue they had to work out with their parent(s), complete with advice from an expert. In my case, it was the fact that I really, really wanted to be a journalist and my parents really, really thought that would mean I would end up broke and poisoned. Here’s an excerpt from my episode:

I absolutely think that they were projecting their own fears onto me. I mean, that’s one reason why we do have a relationship now, is that I think as I got older, I realized the incredible fear that they had, and that they brought to all of those conversations. They immigrated. It was very scary and traumatic for them. The way they describe it, it was like the biggest stressor of their lives. I think they do get it now. I work at a publication that’s well established. I think they don’t understand what I do still, or why I want to do it, but they are… They at least don’t try to stand in my way.

Anyway, we covered a lot of territory that was a springboard for WEIRD, in a way.


This crazy graphic is from a study I recently wrote about called the Moral Machine Experiment:

People who play the Moral Machine game are shown two images, each of which depicts an out-of-control car driving into a different group of people (or, in some of the images, a cat or a dog.) For example, the game might tell the player that if you let the car plow ahead, the car will kill three little girls and two adult men. But if you swerve to the right, the car will instead kill two elderly men, two elderly women, and another, non-elderly woman. Would you swerve, or stay straight? Who would you kill?

It turns out that older people were some of the least likely to be spared, just above dogs, HUMAN CRIMINALS, and then cats. No wonder the deaths of so many elderly Americans—and the huge number of coronavirus cases in prisons—has been met with a collective yawn.