The Johns Hopkins News-Letter hosted three Hopkins alumni to discuss their careers as journalists in a panel titled “Careers in Media” on Sunday, April 23 in Mason Hall.
The panel featured Aaron Back, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Jenna McLaughlin, an intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy Magazine and Bret McCabe, a senior humanities writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.
The Editors-In-Chief of The News-Letter, Will Anderson and Amanda Auble, moderated the panel. They asked the panelists to discuss their experiences in the career to open the discussion.
McLaughlin said that the recent heightened distrust in the media and the rising popularity of sites like Buzzfeed that blend reporting and entertainment challenged her idea of journalism.
“I think distrust in media is really hard [to combat],” McLaughlin said. “Something that you write is immediately questionable, and you can’t really fight with facts all the time anymore.”
Back discussed the problem of finding funding in the digital era, which he described as one of the greatest challenges to journalism.
According to Back, some publications specifically design content to attract higher internet traffic and raise advertisement revenue. He said that this often leads to misleading headlines.
He noted that premium publications like The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and The New York Times rely on revenue from digital subscriptions. Back also said that digital news subscriptions have increased since the 2016 presidential election.
“It goes hand in hand with the credibility issue,” Back said. “At some point people think, ‘I want real news, I want quality news and I’m willing to pay for it.’”
McCabe said that as an arts writer, he has found funding especially difficult to come by. In particular, he said that he often struggled to support sustained, comprehensive reporting or commentary about the arts.
He said that aspiring journalists should never work for free.
“If you’re interning, it should be for credit or getting paid for it,” McCabe said. “You should understand what it takes to get paid.”
McLaughlin agreed, saying that hard work is crucial. She stressed the importance of making connections not just with other journalists but with anyone who could potentially help with a story.
“Sending that email, constantly following up with things, talking to somebody that might have some sort of advice for me,” she said. “Just taking every single opportunity that’s available to you.”
To that end, Back said that it was important for journalists to have a speciality or secondary ability besides strong writing.
Back majored in economics and East Asian Studies while an undergraduate at Hopkins. He then studied at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Now, Back markets himself on his bilingualism and his understanding of global finance.
“It helps to think of your skill set as journalism plus something else,” Back said. “If you’re just a general journalist who is covering city hall, it’s an important job, but there’s a lot of competition for jobs like that.”
He said that although he takes advantage of his specialized skill set, he enjoys reporting on a wide range of subjects as a journalist. Back said that even banking is a large field that he understands more broadly because of his career.
“What I like most about being a journalist is that it provides an opportunity to be constantly learning and to be always doing new things,” Back said. “I think in this day and age, peoples’ jobs are very specialized. Being a journalist allows you to be generalist in some sense.”
McCabe said that he valued the connections he made with interesting people. He believes that his career is rewarding because he spends time with people who are talented at what they do.
McLaughlin’s favorite part of her job is the impact she has on her readers and the joy of writing.
“I just love being a journalist for the people that you reach, just the reader emails that I get in my inbox,” McLaughlin said. “In addition to that, writing is exciting, reporting is exciting. It’s fun. It would be a lie to say that it isn’t.”
Students in the audience, like senior Brandon Block, enjoyed listening to the panelists’ advice for aspiring journalists.
“They were all really insightful,” Block said. “I think the way they talked about just being tenacious at wherever you are working, proposing stuff and not waiting to get an assignment, that was helpful to me.”
After the event, Anderson explained that The News-Letter hosted the panel to connect current students with alumni.
“It’s really important to make connections with people who can give you a leg-up in the future, and I think this is one of our first steps to creating a real alumni network for The News-Letter,” he said.
Auble added that it is difficult for student journalists to engage with alumni because Hopkins doesn’t offer a journalism program.
“It’s not as easy for us to contact these alumni and have a stable network, so bringing them to us was a really important goal,” Auble said.
She elaborated on why journalism is important, especially with current backlash against reporters and news organizations.
“If people back down, then the facts will continue to be not only questioned but just taken out of context,” she said. “It’s important to keep this career and this field thriving because we’re the only people who can keep big sources of power in check.”
Editor’s Note: This event was hosted by The News-Letter. It was covered like any other News & Features event.