After a few unpaid internships and small, windowless offices, I decided that if I ever wanted a real journalism job, I needed to do something distinct and web-focused rather than try to be like the old-school reporters and nonfiction writers I'd admired as a student. That sounds trite and obvious today, but at the time everyone in media - even unpaid kids who'd just graduated - considered the web beneath them. In early 2009, The Atlantic started up an internal unit dedicated to experimenting with web-based forms of journalism. I was able to convince them I was ready to embrace the much-derided world of internet writing. I helped launch a few mostly-failed experiments: a short-lived food section; a site that aggregated opinion columns, which somehow seemed like a good idea at the time. Eventually, they started paying me a salary.
I spent most of 2010 trying to convince The Atlantic that they should launch a subsection on their website dedicated to foreign news, which I love but is widely considered the least popular form of news among readers. It's treated as sort of the broccoli on the news plate. They were understandably skeptical; at that point, web-based news mostly appealed to specific subcultures, like video gamers or politics junkies. I offered to take a pay cut and give up health benefits - technically becoming a contract employee - and we launched the section on January 24, 2011. The Egyptian revolution started the next day. Ever since, I've been trying to find ways to make foreign news interesting to readers who are smart but might not otherwise read it, or who might read it but, because it's complicated, not engage deeply with it. I went to The Washington Post in 2012 to start a foreign news blog; in 2014, helped found the explanatory news site Vox.com as foreign editor; and now write a foreign news column at the The New York Times. Along the way, I earned a master's degree at Johns Hopkins in international relations.
I will admit that, for a time after graduation, I wondered whether I should've majored in political science or international relations, since those classes would've provided me with knowledge more directly applicable to the topics I cover. After all, Faulkner doesn't have a lot to say about US strategic objectives in Afghanistan. I don't think that anymore. The skill I learned as an English major that has served me best - even better than learning how to write, which is just hugely important in itself - is how to read critically. Another word for critical reading is "analysis," which is both an essential skill and highly valued asset in journalism these days. While Faulkner didn't teach me much about Afghanistan, learning how to read Faulkner enabled me to go out and read, understand, synthesize, and evaluate the literature on Afghanistan. That's enabled me to self-educate on a variety of topics and it makes me a more critical, thoughtful journalist. I suppose I'm always working on that, in that I'm always trying to improve my ability to synthesize, retain, and apply the things I read.
There is value in studying anything that seems hard or confusing or does not come naturally to you, including studying certain authors who are just famous for being difficult: Faulkner, Melville, Pynchon, etc. But it could just as easily include authors, genres, or time periods that are outside of your usual range of experiences. If you're a white guy like me, that might mean classes on Toni Morrison or Edith Wharton or Edward P. Jones. Learning to consider totally different sets of experiences or worldviews is a really essential skill for reporting.