Journalism: A Guide to High-Impact Careers

Journalism is a career path that carries the potential to make a large positive difference by shaping public discourse and shedding light on important topics. However, it’s also a competitive path that’s difficult to succeed in, and many journalistic roles might not offer good opportunities for positive impact.

For someone willing to think critically and optimize for doing good, and who is particularly likely to be successful, journalism could be a promising option.

It addresses some of the most important considerations about this career, though we might not have looked into all of its relevant aspects, and we likely have some key uncertainties. It’s the result of our internal research.

Path overview

What do we mean by journalism?

At its core, journalism is reporting on the news or other topics of interest. It encompasses a wide range of topics and types of media, including writing, TV, radio, and social media. Journalism can range from breaking news, which is reporting as immediately as possible on topics of local, national, or international note; to long-form pieces on topics that are less timely but might remain important for years. Journalism can entail performing research, finding sources and conducting interviews, as well as traveling to different locations to investigate and report.

A quick note: this profile disproportionately focuses on journalism in the US, due to the author’s background in US journalism. However, we expect many (though not all) of the points to generalize across other regions and contexts.

How promising is journalism?

At its best, journalism can bring about significant positive change. By influencing public attitudes, driving policy change, and drawing attention to previously neglected problems, journalism can have an impact on a large scale.

For instance, reporting by journalists like Ida B. Wells on violence against Black Americans and racial inequality in the USA in the early 20th Century was an important driver of civil rights reform; and reporting by the so-called “muckrakers” plausibly led to new policy and litigation in areas ranging from labor rights, corporate monopolies, to food safety. More recently, journalists have worked to expose other problems such as violence in factory farming and corruption in government and the private sector. 

However, the positive impact you’ll be able to have as a journalist will depend highly on the topics you’re able to cover in your role. Our impression is that many, perhaps most, journalistic roles won’t allow for the kind of positive impact we just discussed – if you’re limited to covering the conventional news cycle, or stuck covering celebrity gossip, you won’t have the ability to shed light on important, neglected topics or undertake cutting-edge investigations. This means that people in this path will need to seek out roles where they can cover topics that might lead to positive change, rather than roles focused on other goals. 

It’s also worth considering that some journalism can have a harmful influence. For instance, some journalism can contribute to the spread of misleading information, or damaging ideas. Avoiding outlets that consistently produce such content, as well as thinking carefully about the potential negative ramifications of your work, are therefore important in this path.

Furthermore, though we’d expect some journalism to have a big positive impact, it’s very difficult to measure the difference made by journalism. Because people make decisions and form their attitudes using information from many sources, we often can’t trace important changes back to individual stories, articles, or specific authors. So, though there are some fairly clear historical cases of positive change, it can be very hard to be confident that you’re making a difference with journalism.

Resource spotlight

Though it’s difficult to measure the impact of journalism, some have tried! This white paper from the nonprofit outlet ProPublica discusses how they try to track the impact of their work, and gives some examples of pieces they claim led to concrete positive change.

Advantages

  • Potential for broad impact – Journalism offers potential impact by amplifying critical global problems that aren’t covered elsewhere. This can lead to impactful advocacy work, policy change, and direct action by the public. Stories can be amplified on digital platforms and help raise support for causes among the general public, and reach decision-makers across fields.
  • Relevant across a wide range of cause areas and moral views – Though journalists can be subject-matter experts, they are also often generalists. You might develop specific topics of coverage (“beats”) early in your career and add more beats later on, allowing you to interact with a variety of views on different topics. As a result, this path can be potentially relevant to an extremely wide range of cause areas, and we expect this path to be relevant to an exceptionally wide range of views on what is important.
  • Useful flexible skills and career capital – Knowing how to write, critically think, and obtain information is important for a wide variety of careers; there’s also a lot of opportunity to build career capital inside journalism, particularly if you’re talking to subject-matter experts in a field you’re interested in working in.

Disadvantages

  • Competitive industry – The probabilities of success in journalism are very low. Journalism jobs are highly competitive (in 2018, the New York Times’ internship program accepted only 0.5 percent of applicants) and are often filled through personal networks, which are often – at least in the US and UK – formed through elite institutions. This means that even if you are a good writer you may not be considered for positions over those with more contacts in the industry. Another implication of the competitive nature of journalism is that if you’re set on journalism, you might not have much choice in which role you take.
  • Many paths don’t allow for positive impact – Related to the previous point, it’s important to consider that most journalism jobs, particularly early-career, don’t facilitate many opportunities for positive impact, in large part because you lack autonomy over the subjects you choose to cover. Some roles can carry the risk of having a negative influence, too. So, though the right career in journalism could have an exceptionally high impact, we think it is less likely to be able to find and get impactful jobs than in other career paths we’ve explored.
  • Low pay and work/life balance – Journalism can be an intense career path. Many positions start with very low pay or are part-time roles, and freelancing requires constant effort as you’ll need to pitch each of your ideas or articles to publications. Breaking news positions often require a demanding output of more than a story a day. It’s also really difficult (though not impossible) to begin a career as a journalist without an external source of financial support such as family or a spouse. Because of this, there are well-documented diversity problems within journalism.
  • Potentially dangerous – Depending on where you’re working and what you’re reporting on, you may be subject to censorship, intimidation, imprisonment, or physical harm from people or organizations threatened by your journalism. This may be more likely for certain types of reporting that are truly impactful. If you are working on certain types of content, such as work that’s critical of a government in a country where it’s illegal or frowned upon, you may need to calibrate the risk involved with pushing back on censorship or exposing yourself to harm.

Resource spotlight

Though it’s difficult to measure the impact of journalism, some have tried! This white paper from the nonprofit outlet ProPublica discusses how they try to track the impact of their work, and gives some examples of pieces they claim led to concrete positive change.

Is it a good fit for you?

Journalism isn’t for everyone. In this section, we discuss what you need to succeed as a journalist, what types of people would be satisfied in this role, and what are some cost-effective ways to practically test whether you’d be a good fit.

What is needed to be successful

There are many attributes and strengths that could help someone be successful in the field, including:

  • You have the ability to write well and quickly.
  • You are able to synthesize and critically evaluate large amounts of information.
  • You are particularly proactive. 
  • You have strong interpersonal skills, especially for the purposes of interviewing. 
  • To ensure meaningful positive impact, it’s additionally important that you’re willing and able to identify and push topics that might not be reported on otherwise, and be willing to investigate topics that may have positive impact even if unpopular.

Who would be satisfied in this role

There’s a wide range of backgrounds and personality types that can be a good fit for journalism, but the role does carry some pretty strong constraints on people’s interests and circumstances. The following are good indications that you might be satisfied being a journalist:

  • You enjoy writing or working with other media such as audio or video.
  • You enjoy talking to people about a wide range of topics and are comfortable with asking questions to get to the core of a story.
  • You’re open to frequent and sometimes harsh feedback on your work from editors, colleagues, and the general public – this can be very challenging to deal with, so you might need to be particularly resilient. 
  • You enjoy learning about many different things over doing deep focused work in a single professional domain.
  • You are ambitious and want to take a shot at having a large impact, even if there’s a relatively high chance of failure.
  • You enjoy your work as a major source of fulfilment and joy in your life, even at the expense of other aspects (e.g. moving to a new city, less time for other things, etc.).

If you feel that many of these don’t apply to you, then this might mean there are other career paths that are a better fit for you.

How to test personal fit

Start your own blog. You’ll be able to test whether you enjoy writing, if you’re motivated to stick to it, and whether you enjoy producing content regularly. If you enjoy it, blogging regularly will also help you hone your writing skills. A blog doesn’t need to be on the exact topics you’re interested in writing about professionally, though it can be helpful to have writing samples (“clips”) around important topics of interest to you when you’re applying to journalism jobs. 

Try freelancing. Freelancing – writing for publications on a one-off or ad-hoc basis without a permanent contract – can be a great way to start building writing samples in your areas of interest. It requires less commitment and risk than full-time journalism – you can freelance while having a steady job/source of income elsewhere – and also allows you to write about only the topics that are most important to you. Freelancing can be a good side gig as well; on the high end (in the US), you can be paid $1 a word or more. 

The Society of Professional Journalists has a guide to freelancing, and there are also blogs with freelancing guidance.

Work at a student publication. If you’re in university or graduate school, writing and/or editing for a student publication is a great way to build experience in journalism. Often becoming a better editor is a great way to improve your own writing, and editing for a student publication is a great way to build these skills. It will also give you experience in editorial work in the future. Similarly, your university might have a podcast, video, or other media club you can join to gain multimedia skills.

Join an internship or fellowship. There are a number of journalism internships and fellowships with lengths ranging from a couple of months to a year. You can do some of these at the same time as school or as a summer internship, while others are effectively full-time jobs. As with any journalism job, these are often highly competitive but will allow you to get a sense of part of the field and start to make connections, which are often vital to getting a full-time job. 

Priorities within journalism

As mentioned above, journalism can be relevant to an incredibly wide range of problems, fields, and cause areas. It’s good to think about what your priority areas might be and look to build expertise and freelance experience in these areas, as well as look for jobs that would allow you to report on these topics. At the beginning of your career, though, particularly if you are working on breaking news, you may not have much choice in what you write about.   

Your impact in journalism will be largely decided by what you choose to cover, so it’s vital to consider which problems or topics you want to bring attention to. One way to think about this is the ITN framework, which is a method for prioritizing global problems. Given that shedding light on neglected societal issues is a major part of how journalists can make a difference, understanding the neglectedness of different problems can be especially important. 

In general, if you can draw attention to important issues that others in your position wouldn’t have, then there’s a better chance that you can have a positive counterfactual impact. In terms of the types of journalism that may best allow you to do this, our sense is that explanatory journalism and investigative journalism may be particularly good options – if you’re able to land a relevant role.

If you end up in explanatory journalism, you may be able to focus on specific cause areas. For example, if you’re interested in climate change and are based in the US, you can apply for jobs specifically in explanatory climate journalism at national outlets such as the Washington Post or Grist, or regional climate-focused outlets such as StateImpact Pennsylvania or High Country News

Finally, it’s worth taking into account your own personal expertise and fit. If you’re transitioning into journalism from another field, such as health, you might be able to provide unique insights and contacts for your work, which may let you produce better and more informed content.

Additional resources