I was on an NYU panel on Saturday where, among other things, college students were asking for career advice so I figure I may as well dispense my advice to all the Internet.
The observation I would make is that I think the arc of history is swinging back toward greater opportunities for young people on the web. Clearly the wide open days of the early blogosphere in which I was fortunate to get my start are gone and aren’t coming back. But at this point it’s now the case that lots of new media organizations exist that hire people for entry-level writing jobs, and the labor market for people who are good at working on a web pace is pretty shockingly robust compared to the overall economic doom.
The thing that you have to do if you’re in college is start doing the work. Follow writers you like on Twitter and use it to interact with them. Write your own blog, and even though it probably won’t have many readers take it seriously and write it like it’s intended to be read by total strangers. If you do internships, try to do them at places that hire young people for writing jobs (i.e., not the New Yorker). Think about what would be a good place for a first job, not a place where you’d dream of ending your career. If you do a post critiquing something someone you respect wrote (me, for example) then send an email and explain yourself — you might get noticed. If you get ignored, don’t get discouraged — you might suck, but the guy you wrote to just might have been busy that afternoon. If there’s a meritocracy somewhere out there in the American economy, journalism isn’t it, but the dichotomy between knowing how to do good work and knowing the right people is a largely false one. In the new media realm one of the best ways to get to know the right people is by doing the work and involving yourself in the conversation. Note that if you want to go to law school, getting good grades in college is probably important. If you want to be a writer, then writing stuff that’s interesting and getting professional writers to read it is important. I got the worst grade of my whole college career in Theda Skocpol’s class on American social policy, and that’s never stopped me from writing about American social policy — nobody’s ever asked or cared whether professors liked my essays.