The second best piece of journalism advice I ever received was not so much a tip as a question: “You’re in your twenties. You want to write columns. Why should anyone care what you have to say?”
(The absolute best piece of advice I got went as follows: “Be nice to the junior PRs now, because they’ll be the senior PRs in ten years when you inevitably quit journalism and are interviewing for a job in PR.” But since this was given to me by an embittered journalist-turned-PR trying to pitch me stories, I don’t believe it was entirely altruistic. I later married him – but I digress.)
It was Ben Brogan, former deputy editor and chief political commentator of the Telegraph, who interrogated me on why anyone would want to read what I wrote. He had a point – the world is full of people with opinions but most don’t get paid money to write about them, so why should you?
The conventional answer is a mixture of hard work, determination and luck – the latter playing a far bigger role than anyone likes to admit. Go work on a local paper, join a trade magazine, get some editing experience at a startup that enables you to learn the rules of the game before you start trying to play in earnest. The aim is to carve out a niche for yourself in a specialist topic or subject area that gives you the kind of authority commissioning editors and producers are looking for when casting around for new voices. Show that there’s a reason they should come to you for a take, rather than the hundreds of other people who also have a view on whatever the topic of the day is.
There are a host of problems with this system, from the frightening rate of closures of local news outlets and the dominance of London, to the scandalously low starting salaries in journalism and continued importance (whether we like it or not) of contacts and networking when it comes to getting noticed. Journalism is neither meritocratic nor accessible, so it’s not surprising that aspirational young pundits are looking for other ways in. And indeed, an increasing number of them appear to have found a shortcut: cast yourself as a right-wing sensationalist.
This is the bit where I don’t name names, for three reasons. The first is that it will inevitably sound personal and petty to list individuals who have made what I argue are questionable career choices. The second is you can probably spot them anyway – recent graduates and (increasingly nowadays) current students who appear on your social media timelines, then on GB News, then in the online comment sections of tabloid papers to recite the opinions of those decades older than them in a bright and youthful voice.
Maybe said people are talking about how woke culture has infiltrated universities and trampled over the right to free speech (ignoring the fact that they came from those same universities and don’t exactly seem to have been silenced). Maybe they’re championing the government’s attempt to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and opining about international law, regardless of what actual lawyers are saying. Maybe they’re rehashing classic tropes about benefits scroungers, single mothers and how feminism is bad for women – the kind of comments editors know would look outdated and absurd coming from men in their fifties, but that are more commercially palatable when made by someone from Generation Z. Or maybe they’re just really passionate about how great Brexit is for young people.
All of these, I should stress, are legitimate opinions. And perhaps the young right-wingers invited into TV studios really believe them. But I’ve been on the end of too many phone calls during which a harassed, overworked producer has tried to convince me I’m in favour of deporting Remainers to the Falkland Islands or imposing the death penalty for kittens, just so they can get “balance” on their programme while crucially ticking the age-diversity box. Student sensationalists from the left are far more common (anyone who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart, and all that), but there is scarcity value in being a young right-wing contrarian. There is instant, intoxicating attention on offer if you can answer the question “Why should anyone care what you have to say?” with “Because people like me don’t normally say it”. And I can see why someone surveying the journalism landscape just out of university might weigh up a year’s traineeship at a local paper (if that even still exists) against a viral tweet on how great imperial measurements are, and think the choice is obvious.
The problem is that this is not a sustainable strategy. When the dopamine hit from the first thousand retweets fades you have to find something new to say. We know that outrage-inducing opinions get noticed, so the more outrageous you are, the more successful. Echo chamber algorithms and a news cycle geared around polarisation create a feedback loop, pushing those who want to get noticed to become ever more extreme, whether they genuinely feel that way or not.
Which brings me to the third reason for not naming specific individuals: it’s not fair to them. They’ve been sucked into a vortex that rewards them for saying things they don’t really mean and provides few escape routes. Outrage-mongering is a competitive business. If you don’t stay on the treadmill and increase the vitriol, there’ll soon be someone younger and fiercer than you who will, who will mock you for selling out and take your place as the counter-cultural voice of tomorrow.
And then what? The world might be full of firebrands from both ends of the political spectrum who mellowed and embraced centrism, but in today’s clickbait-driven, grievance-hungry world, forgiveness is in short supply. The internet is forever – there’s no longer a space for people to repent their youthful ire, to take back the insults they hurled because a public spat gets attention, or correct the glaring errors they made when given a megaphone on a nationwide platform. There should be, but there isn’t – and future employers might not look kindly on a social media CV full of bile and cut-rate polemicism.
Whenever I get asked for journalism advice, it’s always Brogan’s that I give, but now I wonder whether a caveat is required. If you want to write columns, you should think hard about why people should care what you have to say. But before you do say anything, it might be worth making sure you really, truly want to say it.