Journalism Advice for a 9-Year-Old (and the Rest of Us)

Last week my daughter announced she wants to be a journalist. My work is focused on rebuilding a vibrant and equitable journalism landscape in America so she hears a fair bit about media and news in our house. But this was the first time she had said she wants to be a reporter herself.

The next day I sent a tweet asking what advice people in my network would give to a 9-year-old aspiring journalist.

More than 800 people responded, giving advice that ranged from sanguine to snarky. I also noticed a lot of people sharing the advice with others and I realized that much of what was being shared in response to my tweet was great advice for journalists of all ages, and even those outside journalism.

Below I’ve summarized 26 of the most common pieces of advice I got for my 9-year-old.

1. “Just be 9 and love learning.” First and foremost there were a lot of responses that encouraged my daughter to embrace being 9, and lean into all the wonder, curiosity and joy of learning about the world at that age. A number of people responded that they could trace their careers in journalism back to a spark around this same age.

2. “Cultivate your curiosity.” Those qualities of curiosity, of exploration, of wonder and awe were mentioned over and over again and how important it is for journalists to hold on to those feelings and cultivate them in how they see and move through the world.

3. “Write every day.” People recommended journaling, letter writing, interviewing and transcribing, copying down and memorizing poems and emphasized over and over again the value of developing a writing habit throughout life.

4. “Read widely and endlessly.” Some people said find authors and journalists you love and read them voraciously, others said push your boundaries and read many different genres, viewpoints, and mediums. Across the board people said the best writers are avid readers.

5. “Learn about online safety.” Respondents talked about online harassment and discrimination in the newsroom, especially targeted at women, people of color, and LGBTQIA journalists. They talked about starting now being careful about the digital footprint you leave, and prioritizing wellness and safety.

6. “Do something else.” Some responses were snarky, bemoaning the state of the industry. But others were more sincere in arguing that the best journalists are those who actually specialize in other topics and areas of focus. They suggested cultivating a passion and expertise in other areas and bringing that into journalism.

7. “Start now.” Lots of comments encouraged my daughter to jump right in and start a family blog, a school newspaper, a neighborhood newsletter. They argued that there is no better way to see what it takes than to build something from scratch.

8. “Interview family and friends.” Great stories are all around you and people said a great place to start is with your own family. Practice interviewing techniques, taking notes, and finding stories by asking your family and friends for interviews.

9. “Shadow a reporter.” People shared stories of sitting in on an interview at an early age or shadowing a reporter for a career day. Finding these sorts of mentors and models early on is a great way to find your path.

10. “Learn different kinds of storytelling.” Try your hand at videos or podcasts, put together visual stories with photographs and slideshows, lean into creative formats and go beyond the written word. You can even try a story in text messages to a friend.

11. “Learn to ask good questions.” There was a lot of advice about asking good questions, hard questions, follow-up questions, questioning authority, questioning everything and on and on. Embracing curiosity is one thing, but learning how to turn curiosity into knowledge, and using it to reveal something new, is the art of asking good questions.

12. “Listening is your superpower.” The flip side of asking good questions is knowing how to listen. This includes understanding how to really listen to people deeply, how to listen to the buzz of a town, and how to listen for stories that are sometimes buried.

13. “Know your rights.” The First Amendment doesn’t disappear just because you are 9-years-old. People argued it was important to know the law, to use it to your advantage, and to not back down. People suggested practicing filing FOIA requests on things you are curious about.

14. “Invest in community.” A lot of people responded that a key part of journalism is building relationships in your community. This is important to cultivate sources, but also because you are there to serve that community and need to know them and be invested in their lives and stories. One person wrote, “co-create curiosity with your community.”

15. “Learn how to use silence strategically.” People are uncomfortable with silence and you’ll be tempted to fill it, one person tweeted. Don’t do it. People talked about how silence, especially during interviews, can be key to unlocking details you might never get otherwise.

16. “Unionize.” Somewhat jokingly a number of people encouraged my daughter to unionize, but I took the comments as a real suggestion to talk to her about how workplaces work, and why collective power is important especially for an industry in transition. This is about workplace rights, but also about what it will take to organize for more equitable journalism moving forward.

17. “Study everything.” Over the course of 800+ tweets people suggested taking classes in statistics, history, anthropology, sociology, economics, math, computer science and much more.

18. “Get comfortable talking to strangers.” While you might be able to start by interviewing family, a lot of people said you also need to practice talking to strangers. Most responses said this was best done face to face or over the phone and that you’ll be amazed how willing people are to answer your questions.

19. “Engage with empathy.” When you are part of sharing someone’s story, you have to do so with care. When you are reaching out to strangers, it helps to connect and see where they are coming from. Empathy is a vital tool for journalists who care about telling powerful stories, building trust and serving their community.

20. “Ask the questions you and your friends want answered.” Trust your gut but also listen to the curiosity of others. Take seriously the responsibility of working with and for others and try to help turn questions into answers. Chances are if a few of you are wondering about something, a whole lot of others are interested too.

21. “Look to pop-culture.” People highlighted a ton of books, TV shows, podcasts and other stories about kids journalists and investigators who can serve as inspiration. A few of the most recommended include: Enola Holmes (Netflix), Home Before Dark (Apple TV+), Harriet the Spy (books), Eleanor Amplified (podcast) and generally seeking out books for kids and teens about Ida B. Wells and other journalists of color.

22. “Check your facts.” There were a lot of jokes about moms and dads saying “I love you” and the need to check it out. But in this moment of misinformation folks reinforced the need for fact checking, and the skills of debunking and media and digital literacy. On a related note, one person tweeted, “Grownups lie more than kids do.”

23. “Always carry a pencil.” Batteries will die, pen ink can freeze, but a trusty pencil will always be there for you.

24. “Wear good shoes.” While “shoe leather reporting” may not be as in fashion as a newsroom phrase these days, there were a lot of reminders to get away from the computer screen and get out in community. There is no replacement for hitting the streets, and being ready to walk the town to chase down a story.

25. “Get used to being edited.” A lot of early writers hate getting edited. Get used to it early. Invite others to read your writing, ask friends, parents and teachers for feedback. Don’t let the comments hurt, and consider the edits openly.

26. “Look for what’s missing.” Great stories are often found, not in what is around you but rather in what is missing. Look for the conversations that aren’t happening, the people not represented in the room, the viewpoints who are being left out. Then start asking why and who benefits.

Josh Stearns is the Director of the Public Square Program at Democracy Fund. Follow him on Twitter.

Director, Public Square Program at the Democracy Fund. Journalism and democracy of, by and for the people. Formerly: @grdodge @freepress