"Pay your dues" or demand more?

Q&A with Daniel Levitt of Inside the Newsroom

Hiya writer friends,

Today we’re talking with Daniel Levitt, a freelance graphics journalist and founder of Inside the Newsroom, an invaluable resource for writers who are looking for jobs. The job board he maintains is the most comprehensive and frequently updated one I’ve seen. And since walking away from an ugly situation at The Wall Street Journal, Daniel has committed himself to making this his full-time work, lifting up fellow journalists so that hopefully, they don’t have to deal with the kind of work environment he got out of.

It’s not easy to land a job in journalism. But it’s so incredibly helpful when the people with experience—the ones who have held those illustrious staff positions—are willing to pull back the curtain and show other writers the way. It’s even more helpful when they’re transparent about the not-so-glamorous side of those experiences.

Daniel is one of those people.

(You should definitely check out this piece Daniel wrote about why he left the Wall Street Journal.)

And he has graciously allowed me to ask him a bunch of questions about his career, job searching, and side hustles.

Writers, meet Daniel!

“The journalism industry does a tremendous job of shedding light on injustices in every other sector, but we have so much work to do to clean our own house.” — Daniel Levitt

Britany: You've held some staff positions with publications that many writers dream of working for. Can you tell us about your first job in journalism and what it was like to find and finally land one of those? 

Daniel: Oh man, I can’t accurately describe what I felt when I landed the job at The Guardian. I was living in Austin for a 20-hour-a-week internship with the Texas Tribune, having just finished internships with Bloomberg and FiveThirtyEight in New York. I absolutely loved Austin and wanted to take advantage of everything it offered, but as a UK citizen, I knew I had to put in extra time if I was to stay in the country. I’d exhausted all avenues to try to land a job in journalism in the U.S., but kept running into the visa issue. When the job offer from The Guardian came through, I was actually sitting on a bench eating $1 tacos with my cousin and we kind of just looked at each other, jaws on the ground, and started squealing. I’ll remember the overwhelming relief and excitement that I was going home forever. I just apologize to the owner of the taco truck for causing such a fracas.

I think a lot of us writer-journalists are unfamiliar with what it looks like to be a graphics journalist. How did you end up choosing that journalism path? And how much does the work you do in graphics overlap with writing? 

I actually enrolled in a traditional journalism master’s track at the University of Missouri, and it was only after starting an Intro to Infographics class that I fell in love with numbers and graphics. Being an international student who wanted to remain in the U.S. post-degree, I knew I had to position myself as best as possible, and everything I’d heard about data visualization in journalism suggested that it was the most secure and well-paid sub-sector. I also found that, like me, it was relatively new to journalism, which appealed to me. Not having a blueprint to follow meant I could forge my own path instead of being told what and how to pursue my career. 

After a couple of internships on graphics desks, I noticed a distinct lack of writing and other multimedia skills. Because of that, I interviewed my own sources, wrote my own copy and introduced audio and photo elements wherever I could. I always saw the graphics as just one element of a story, no more or less important than writing, imagery or any other story component. If you can combine just two of these elements, I think you’re set up for a long career in journalism.

You've written about your time at the Wall Street Journal and the unreasonable expectations you faced there, ultimately leading to your resignation. Looking back, was it worth it to have worked there?

It’s probably still too early to wholeheartedly say yes or no, but right now I would say yes. I had many reservations about joining WSJ over a completely different culture than what I was used to, as well as who owns WSJ. Fortunately I knew multiple people that worked there through previous employment and general connections, and everyone assured me that it was a positive environment. But I think that’s where I failed to relay my expectations and what I wanted to get out of the job and thus was incredibly naive about what was to come.

That said, I’m fortunate to know far more than I did before I joined, and can now pass on my knowledge and experience and draw back the curtain to tell those coming up behind me what goes on behind closed doors. The journalism industry does a tremendous job of shedding light on injustices in every other sector, but we have so much work to do to clean our own house. So from that standpoint, I’m glad I went through what I did at WSJ.

Do you think journalists have to "pay their dues" with long, stressful hours at some point? Or should we be able to demand healthier work environments? 

I don’t think any journalist should have to do anything they don’t want to do, and the notion of “that’s just journalism” to justify working 12-hour shifts and weekends is among the newsroom’s biggest problems. This isn’t the military. Sure, if there’s breaking news or an election then I’m 200% willing to pitch in and work whatever hours are needed for me. I love the political rollercoaster as much as anyone, but I’m not a political beat reporter because I don’t want to be on call 24/7. We must do a better job of creating and protecting roles within journalism for people like me who have storytelling and helping people in their blood, but don’t necessarily want to make it their lives. Fortunately, the focus on mental health has never been more prevalent, and while some newsrooms are yet to change their culture, I could not fault The Guardian for how they protect the wellbeing of their employees — they consistently went above and beyond.

In the time you've had to reflect on that position, have you come to any lessons or insights on how you were treated and what transpired? 

I think I’ll be learning from my WSJ experience for years to come, to be honest. Right now I think there’s a great need for some of the larger newsrooms to be more flexible when it comes to policies on employees running paid publications on the side. I totally understand the potential conflict of interest it raises and how it might be perceived by readers, but I think newsrooms need to trust their journalists to do the right thing and take their side more than they’re currently doing. The train has left the station as it pertains to side and passion projects, and I just don’t think anyone displaying entrepreneurship and a desire to help people should be punished like I was. I also learned that newsrooms are no different to any other workplace in the sense that everyone has their own agenda and personal goals to achieve. That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t trust anyone, but you certainly need to be aware that everyone is answering to a boss or editor, and some may even have a duty to report everything they hear. It’s never a bad idea to keep your cards super close to your chest.

I'm curious what motivated you to start the newsletter when you had a full-time job. Didn't that feel like a lot? 

I actually started Inside The Newsroom when I was working for the Texas Tribune in Austin. Being a part-time internship, I decided to start a podcast I’d been kicking around for a while. So I just started interviewing some of my favorite journalists and before long, I landed the Guardian job and carried on podcasting early in the morning and evening. Then newsletters suddenly became popular again, so I started researching and writing about the topics my guests and I discussed in more detail, and then I started dissecting every major election around the world. 

In hindsight, I took on way too much and am probably paying for it at the moment. I can’t and won’t tell anyone that they must put in an extra 30 hours a week on their side project. But without putting in all that time on the newsletter on top of my full-time job, we probably wouldn’t be doing this Q&A. 

What are your thoughts on the pressure for everyone to have a "side hustle"? 

I don’t see it as a pressure, per se. For me, pressure comes when you don’t have a choice with something. I decided to remove the option of not starting and developing Inside The Newsroom, because I’d seen and heard of so many horror stories similar to mine, so I knew it was something I just had to do. For most people, they have a choice, so I don’t think pressure should be associated with starting something on the side. Instead, I encourage people to start a passion project — or maybe even more than one — something they would do regardless of whether they make money from it. That way, most if not all of the pressure is removed and your mind is able to think clearer and your productivity is utilized as best as possible. So instead of thinking about a side hustle as something you have to do, reframe it as something you can do.

What advice would you offer to someone who wants to work on a side hustle or passion project alongside a full time job? (For example, a writer who is maybe working a writing-adjacent job and wants to start pitching stories and doing some freelance on the side?)

Start small. It’s okay to have big plans — I literally have dozens of documents and spreadsheets for ideas and other stuff for the future — but you are only one person with a limited amount of time. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Like I mentioned before, make sure you pick something you genuinely care about and will enjoy. There’s nothing worse than pouring hundreds of hours into something and promising subscribers a product that you have to mentally drag yourself to do. And be patient. Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, nothing is built overnight. I ran Inside The Newsroom for two-and-a-half years for free before I felt it justified charging for. If making a quick buck is your main aim, that will naturally translate into your content for the worse. Building value for your subscribers one day, one week, one month and one year at a time is proven as the best strategy to build long-term growth and subscriber loyalty.

How has life changed since leaving WSJ? What does your work life look like now? 

I for sure underestimated how much my life would change post-WSJ. Me being me, I thought I could hit the ground running and transition to my new life seamlessly. Although I’d agonized and planned meticulously for when the day I had to leave might come, I was still so mentally unprepared for the change. I left at the end of March, and I couldn’t face doing more than a morning’s worth of work each day until around July. I’m still working through some of the stuff that went down and what some of my editors said to me — including with a therapist — but in the past four to six weeks I’ve begun to get the juice back and the motivation to build ITN into something for everyone and drag as many people up as I can in the process is slowly returning.

In terms of work/life balance, I’m a morning person so I typically wake up at 6:30am and clear out my emails by 9. I rent a desk at a co-sharing office near my apartment in London, so I try to stay there until it closes at 5pm. Other than that, I’ve really focused on my physical and mental health that I neglected for the past decade. That means hot yoga every day to sweat out all the negative crap I’m holding, and frequent breaks in my day to walk or chat to various friends. I still haven’t found the perfect balance, though, so I’ll let you all know when (if) I do!

As a creator of a newsletter that's all about journalism jobs, I assume you get lots of questions about how to get a job in journalism. What is the most common question you receive and how do you answer? 

The most common I receive is the generic “Do you have any advice on getting a job in journalism?”. Now, I should preface by saying I’ve asked that question to other journalists far too often, so we’ve all been there and asked it. Now that I’m on the receiving end, it’s pretty frustrating as it’s such a broad question meaning my advice can only be generic as well. So to receive acute and tailored advice, be sure to ask pointed and specific questions, perhaps about a specific type of job or sector within journalism, or how to navigate negotiating a higher salary. The more specific your question, the more specific the advice you’ll receive. 

What is a question you're surprised more job-seeking writers don't ask you? 

Questions about the mental side of being a journalist. When I was a student, that seemed to be all I could ask people about and, looking back, those conversations were probably the foundations of my podcast without even knowing. That’s why I’m so high on sharing my experiences. Even though we know it’s so important, questioning how much work and dedication it takes to hone our craft is something that definitely gets left behind. 

What question about working in journalism are you still trying to answer for yourself? 

How do we reset the decades-old, if not centuries-old, culture that expecting journalists to “pay their dues” and working them to the bone is an okay thing to do? I don’t subscribe to the notion that just because those before us were forced to work that way, that the new generation of journalists coming through also have to. Like I said, if someone wants to work 24/7 to get to where they want to, I wouldn’t encourage it but more power to them. Instead, we must make journalism as accessible as possible to people from all backgrounds with all types of goals and objectives. Making journalism an industry that’s the survival of the mentally fittest is only going to drive people away.

What keeps you motivated to stay in this industry despite all the challenges? 

Storytelling and helping people. That’s why I wanted to be a journalist and it remains my primary aim. Now that I’m on the other side so to speak, the flaws in the industry are so evident and obvious. So now I’m motivated to achieve different goals, albeit to try and change entire newsrooms for the better. Lofty objectives, but shoot for the stars, right?

A lot of OMQ subscribers are freelancers, so do you have any advice for freelancers who are interested in transitioning to a full-time staff job? 

Money can be extremely tempting, but try your best to evaluate each position holistically, including workplace culture, amount of responsibility and who you'll be reporting to for example. Hiring managers will do as much background information on you as possible, so make sure you also do the research into your colleagues and managers. A safe, regular paycheck is a great thing, but not if it causes you more stress than as a freelancer. 

If OMQ readers have any other questions, I am more than happy to answer. Just give us a shout through email!

Thanks so much to Daniel for sharing all of that insight. You should definitely check out his newsletter, Inside the Newsroom, where you’ll have access to over 3,000 journalism job and internship listings.

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If you’re a paid subscriber, I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday for our usual round-up of writing opportunities, including pitch calls, classes, and deadlines for fellowships and grants.

Stay inspired,