Ali: Go deep, young man (or woman)

By David Bulla

OK, much to his credit, Rafat Ali does not look much Horace Greeley, but in some ways Ali has the same kind of vision that the legendary editor of the New York Tribune had.

Greeley saw where the newspaper business was headed in the middle of the 19th century: toward information and away from opinion, toward advertising and away from subscription, and toward universal coverage and away from being tied merely to the local. Greeley had an eight-page penny paper that an enormous amount of information. He held it together with advertising. And he covered the world (literally; Karl Marx was one of his reporters, covering Europe from London).

Ali, publisher and editor of Paid Content (a business news Web site), sees where the future of the news media is headed – and that, of course, is all digital all the time by consuming the news on smart phones,  iPads and laptops.

His advice to young journalists: specialize.

“You need to be an expert on something,” he told staff members of the Iowa State Daily on Friday (April 9). “It could be business, agriculture or the arts. But you need to go deep.

“Yes, newspapers still need people who have basic reporting skills and can cover city council meetings, the school board and the police. But if you are going to go far in this media environment, you better have one thing you know well.”

The New York journalist also said that today’s young journalist ought to learn some programming language, saying that Python is hot right now.

“Columbia has just decided to start a dual master’s degree in computer science and journalism,” he said. “This program may not work, but I think it’s headed in the right direction.”

And what big advantage do fledging journalists have over their soon-to-be (and older) competitors in the profession?

“You’re young,” he said, “and being young is a big advantage.”

Mainly because the young have less to unlearn.

More than a century ago, Greeley had similar thoughts when he told young folks to move West and settle the nation’s land. He saw a great society emerging from this migration. Ali sees a great migration for journalism.

“It’s a great time for journalism,” he said, “because there are so many opportunities.”

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