I could blame the snow. A week ago, barely shoveled out with another storm on the way, I had coffee with a young friend who said she was thinking about starting a career in journalism, and I got a little gloomy.

I grumbled to her about the loss of ad revenue and declining circulation. I talked about the Web and the ways it had fractured the mass audience into thousands of little audiences. I talked about a generation that doesn’t believe in paying for content. And I talked about how all this had come together to make journalism a hard way to make a living.

And, worst of all, I sent her off with a link to an especially sour column by financial writer Felix Salmon, in which he advises young reporters to stay away.

“I’m sure that many people have told you this already, but take it from me as well: journalism is a dumb career move,” he writes on the website Fusion. “If there’s something else you also love, something else you’re good at, something else which makes the world a better place – then maybe you should think about doing that instead. Even successful journalists rarely do much of the kind of high-minded stuff you probably aspire to. And enormous numbers of incredibly talented journalists find it almost impossible to make a decent living at this game.”

I passed all this on, and I could tell from her eyes that I wasn’t answering the question she’d asked.

I’d like to blame the weather, but this is the kind of gloomy thinking I’ve been doing for a long time. It’s also the kind of gloomy talk that I’ve been hearing since I first started looking for a newspaper job, before there was an Internet or a Craigslist or even a Fusion, whatever that is.

Remembering that has made me a little more cheerful about the future, at least for those still young and nimble.

Journalism has never been an easy way to make a living. It has always attracted people with much more talent than what the paycheck would justify. Journalists have always complained – about money, about everything.

Knowing that – and everybody has known that for a long time – the real question for a young person is how much of this complaining should I believe. Forget about me: Does journalism itself have a future?

I am convinced that it does. I just don’t know what it is.

I’m sure because of two contradictory ideas:

The first is that the world is constantly changing. Every time we step outside or look in the mirror, we see something new. We need people whose job it is to find out what’s changing and why.

 The second is that nothing important ever really changes. We have all the same problems that Shakespeare wrote about. The context might be different but love, jealousy, revenge and guilt still drive us and will never go away.

Neither will our need to make sense of reality by turning it into a story. That’s been true since the days of cave paintings. And – this is just a guess – I think we will always need to pay people to do it.

Amateurs work for free and provide a deeper understanding to issues on which they are expert. But we still need outsiders to view events in ways that the actors in the story cannot.

Most volunteers won’t sit through the boring parts of a trial, read all the documents or make the uncomfortable telephone call the way a professional reporter would. And most volunteers won’t have the professional storyteller’s skill to bring all the pieces together into a story that a total stranger could pick up and understand.

Who’s going to pay this writer? I don’t know.

We are in the middle of a revolution, and not even the revolutionaries know where it’s headed. “That is what real revolutions are like,” says author Clay Shirky. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place,”

So, what I should have told my friend is that we are still in the breaking-the-old-stuff phase. Is this a good time to get into the field? It might be the best time ever. Or the worst. We won’t know for a while.

Don’t have any illusions, but don’t let gloomy journalists discourage you. We’ve been talking like this forever.

It’s safe to predict that some of the news media institutions we know today will disappear and others will have to change dramatically to survive. New institutions will be born, and they may not even be what we would think of today as news media. But some things will never change.

We need people who are going to find stuff out. We need people to tell us stories.


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