Conversation with James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent at The Atlantic and came to speak to Cronkite students today in a small round table discussion. He talked to us about the future of journalism, the challenges the industry is facing as well as various personal anecdotes. Interestingly, he is a 25-year veteran of the magazine and former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, an instrument-rated pilot and a onetime program designer at Microsoft.

On The Atlantic:

  • The Atlantic is the oldest magazine in the United States with the 2nd richest readership and most educated readership
  • It was one of the first mainstream magazine to appear online
  • As a general interest magazine, it faced challenges over the years to hold its divided audience

On why choosing journalism is a good career choice:

  • TIME magazine was started by guys in their 20’s, so student can and are starting new online hybrid institutions
  • Now is a very good time for those in early 20’s to start up; feel good about this career path
  • It may be economically chancy, but people want more info and will pay for it

On the future of journalism:

  • There are two trajectories for the journalism industry-one that says it is going straight down to the center of the earth; the other that says it is a curved hump and we are at the bottom of it, transition to a new model
  • Internet has changed information flow so there is less disruption
  • Media forms don’t go away-radio didn’t eliminate books
  • Some things are ergonomically better in print, certain arguments are better on a page than on a screen
  • Every journalism area had to deal with matching revenue with the cost of reporting
  • There is still a place for depth reporting

On online comments:

  • An open forum that’s not moderated quickly goes to hell
  • Some journalists spend time nurturing comments to create a community
  • Comment threads create an informal network of informants around the world
  • Comments can be incorporated into stories

On advice for writers interested in long-form stories:

  • Work at a small monthly magazine or websites that have long articles
  • It’s no harder to break into the industry than nit was 30 years ago
  • Any article that seems like it’s getting to long is too long
  • It’s about the craft–the more you do it, you should get better. And if you get worse, you should do something else
  • Question your temperament. Each time you write, you will be asked to do it again and again–you have to like that
  • Have increasing confidence to make it work

On speech writing for President Jimmy Carter:

  • There’s an enormous difference between writing to be heard and writing to be seen
  • Writing for broadcast can and should be easier
  • Carter’s speech on the crisis of American confidence caused his favorability rating to go up 11% within days

On first person writing:

  • It is more effective for telling complicated stories
  • It shows the work done in the story, “I found this” or “I saw this”
  • Don’t put yourself at the story, take the readers along the writing
  • Be reportorial rather than narcissistic
  • It makes you avoid pretending to be more certain than you are

On niche marketing:

  • Ad sellers know The Atlantic audience is the most educated and highest on influentials list
  • He believes in “information arbitrage”-meaning passing on information in articles from those with expertise to those who know
  • Most people are broadly informed and don’t know about everything

On writing and living abroad:

  • Every person should be made to live outside the US for several years
  • There’s no way to appreciate and recognize the flaws and strengths of a country without being overseas
  • There’s a great advantage to writing and living abroad because journalism is a transportable craft
  • A disproportionate part of the journalism market is in English
  • Foreign correspondence will be divided between local journalists writing for international audiences and foreign journalists traveling to write about other countries

On essential journalist character traits:

  • Be willing to stand up for your personal convictions against criticism
  • Don’t just always say nice things to make everyone happy
  • Have continuity in your character
  • As writers, it’s important to have integrity and be the same in person to person interaction as you are in your work
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