‘There’s no tangible outcome’: The problems with Twitter career advice

Have you ever seen a veteran journalist on Twitter advise young journalists to network more? To find a mentor? To be kind to their coworkers and courteous to their sources?

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As a freelancer, one of the most common pieces of advice that journalist Sakshi Udavant encounters online is simply “pitch more.” But she finds this often-rehashed pointer more frustrating and vague than helpful.

“Every established journalist will have this one thread where they tell you to pitch more,” Udavant said. “Pitch where? What? How? What am I supposed to do with that?” 

She’s not the only early-career journalist who’s getting tired of being on the receiving end of a near-constant stream of Twitter advice. A thread posted on the social media platform in September asking journalists to share their best advice for “up-and-coming journalists about networking & professionalism” yielded hundreds of replies and over a thousand quote retweets.

But it also yielded criticism. Some users joked that there are more pieces of advice for journalists available on Twitter than there are jobs available in the industry; another noted that the supply of advice on Twitter seems to “vastly outpace the demand for it.”

To actual early-career journalists, the problem is not the overwhelming quantity of advice, but rather the oftentimes unhelpful contents of those tweets. Ally Rzesa, a recent graduate from Emerson College’s journalism program and a page designer for Lee Enterprises, noted that journalism advice on Twitter often fails to acknowledge that “aspiring journalists” are not a monolith and won’t all benefit from the same advice.

This is problematic, Rzesa said, because most journalism advice tweets do not have a specific demographic in mind. 

“Is what you’re saying helping a photojournalist? Is it helping a visual journalist? Is it a data journalist?” she asked. 

Journalism, she said, is too big a field for the one-size-fits-all advice that she usually sees online. Despite this, she sometimes encounters advice that is so broad it can even be applied outside of the media industry, such as a tweet she saw recently that encouraged students to reapply to internships they had previously been rejected from.

“I feel like it shows how genuine someone is when [their advice] is really specific,” she said.

Rzesa often also sees advice that is clearly intended for reporters — tips on how to cope with the daily grind of interviews and municipal meetings, for example — but she rarely sees resources on journalism Twitter that are relevant to her own career as a visual journalist. In fact, Rzesa said she gets the majority of her career advice from the illustrators and designers she follows. 

Rote journalism advice also fails to recognize that journalists in marginalized communities may not always be able to benefit from advice given by journalists who aren’t a part of those communities. Journalists of color, for example, face many challenges in the workplace that white journalists do not, as exemplified by the upheaval that occurred this past summer when journalists of color around the world spoke out about discrimination they had faced in their newsrooms and the trauma that can come with covering topics like police brutality. 

Journalists brought attention to a system where a joking tweet can bar a qualified Black reporter from being allowed to do her job; where people of color are routinely denied fair wages; where one of the country’s top news outlets can publish an op-ed that violently opposes justice for Black Americans.

This means that, since they have never experienced this discrimination, white journalists’ advice will likely be largely irrelevant to the people of color who follow them.

Manan Bhavnani, a senior journalism student at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar, has not yet had the opportunity to take a journalism course with any of the campus’s Asian professors, so he’s acutely aware of how difficult it can be to learn from someone who has had very different experiences from his own.

“You can’t really expect a white journalist who doesn’t know what it’s like to be a Black journalist [to] advise a Black student about the difficulties of reporting,” he said. “I think that you’re better off, in some contexts, getting advice from someone who has similar shared experiences.”

Udavant has also noticed that many journalists recommend classes and other resources that can come with a hefty price tag. She has seen coaching and consulting sessions with senior writers that cost up to $250 per hour. Individual journalism classes at a university can cost thousands of dollars. Some conferences are “on the cheaper side,” she said, but they can still be cost prohibitive for journalists living paycheck-to-paycheck. 

Major industry conferences can cost hundreds of dollars to attend, though most offer discounts to students. The Online News Association’s 2020 virtual conference costs up to $425 for nonmembers, though it costs only $50 for students. Investigative Reporters and Editors’ September conference also cost $50 for students and up to $250 for non-students, and required a membership to register. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s upcoming fall conference will cost up to $250 and also offers a hefty student discount.

To Udavant, these recommendations indicate a disconnect between veteran journalists and the early-career journalists they are addressing. “They don’t even realize that there are people in their communities who can’t just walk out their door, shell out money and get those resources,” she said.

Alexis Gravely, a Capitol Hill reporter for Tax Notes and a University of Virginia graduate, believes that there’s a reason most Twitter advice isn’t practically useful: It’s being posted to earn likes, retweets and attention, rather than to actually help early-career journalists.

“I am a journalist, and I know what journalists use Twitter for, and I know that we’re all trying to compete for a limited number of jobs, we’re all trying to build our brand,” she said. “If you tweet a piece of advice that is broad, but that you know other seasoned journalists are going to agree with, then you end up with hundreds of retweets and comments and replies, and those people are then scrolling on your page.”

While many young journalists’ Twitter feeds are clogged with vague pointers posted by established journalists at national outlets, Jasmine Snow’s timeline is mostly devoid of those tweets. Snow, a biracial student studying journalism at the University of Minnesota and reporting for the Minnesota Daily, curated her timeline so that she mostly follows other Minnesota-based journalists — especially fellow young people and people of color.

This has created a Twitter feed where she can relate to most of what is posted. She also noted that, as a first-generation college student, she benefits from advice that other students might find obvious.

“[Some] of the kids in the j-school that I go to … have parents that were journalists and parents that were authors and they’re like, ‘I have all these internships, I do all these things,’” she said. “But you sometimes feel like you’re five steps behind. It’s like, ‘I just got here. I didn’t even know that journalism was a career I could do.’”

Snow, who focuses on community-centric and social justice-based journalism, said the most useful pieces of advice that pop up on her Twitter feed aren’t necessarily ones that offer new information, but rather ones that reaffirm and remind her of important perspectives. For example, she appreciates tweets she’s seen that remind reporters that they don’t have to interview experts or scholars for stories related to communities of color. Snow said she already knows that and applies it to her writing, but seeing others reiterate it validates and reinforces her belief that journalists need not lean on academic voices to tell those stories.

Many journalists agreed that advice posted to Twitter has only a marginal effect on student and early-career journalists’ actual success in the industry compared to the advice they get from mentors, who know them well enough to offer personal and relevant tips. However, there is plenty that can be done for those who want to help the next generation of journalists beyond mentorship and unsolicited tweeting.

Rzesa, for example, appreciates Mandy Hofmockel’s newsletter, Journalism Jobs and a Photo of my Dog, which helps journalists by seeking out job postings each week. Similarly, she notes Sonia Weiser’s Opportunities of the Week newsletter, which lists freelance pitching opportunities.

“If you’re going to try to help early-career journalists, then do something that helps them,” she said. “Don’t do something that I read and go, ‘huh,’ and then go about my day. That doesn’t help. There’s no tangible outcome.”

There are also programs that introduce student journalists to mentors in the industry. Digital Women Leaders and Journalism Mentors allow users to make appointments to chat with journalism professionals about a variety of topics — much less intimidating than sliding into the DMs of a journalist you admire.

“That’s certainly a great service,” Bhavnani said about Journalism Mentors. “I’ve found connections through my work … and through my interactions at Northwestern, but I understand that not everyone has access to connections or feels comfortable establishing connections.”

The concept for Journalism Mentors came from founder Adriana Lacy’s own experiences with mentors who had played a significant role in helping her find success as a journalist. Inspired by Digital Women Leaders, which predates Journalism Mentors, Lacy, senior associate for audience and growth at Axios, decided to create a program that would allow journalists to be a resource for each other.

“I always go on Twitter and I see journalists being like, ‘I want to help, but I don’t know how to help,’” she said. “I think for me, we’ve been really successful because we’ve gotten a lot of people starting to volunteer [to be] journalism mentors.” Almost 100 mentors are currently listed on the site, organized into categories such as audio journalism and audience engagement.

The site lists what each mentor can offer specialized guidance on, including everything from how to cope with burnout to how to advocate for yourself as the only Black person in your newsroom. Journalism Mentors is also reaching out to community colleges and historically Black colleges and universities, in an effort to reach students who may not have as many opportunities to find mentors.

Gravely, similarly, feels that the best way for journalists to make connections with those entering the industry is by reaching out to students at their alma mater. “It seems more genuine if you’re making an effort to meet students where they are, versus assuming that maybe they follow you on Twitter,” she said.

“I think it’s better to just not say anything and to uplift the people … that are very generously and kindly donating their time, rather than pretend like you’re doing something.”

Johanna Alonso is a contributor to The Objective. This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Deanna Schwartz.

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