Generalists and specialists can coexist

The University of Toronto began an interesting journalism school experiment this year: They recruited students already specialized in a field, and then began teaching them a few journalism skills. This and ascendance of New York Times statistician Nate Silver has caused renewed anguish for aspiring reporters who still attend J-school: to specialize or not?

Seven years ago when I graduated from college with a degree in “Newspapers,” — a specialized degree if there ever was one — the expected path for journalists went something like this: Get an entry-level, general-assignment reporting job at a good daily newspaper. Work hard. Climb the ranks, reach for the bigger stories and move on to jobs at bigger dailies. Soon, your blood, sweat and tears will be rewarded by an editor’s decision to give you ownership of a beat. Editors will assign fewer daily stories. Your sole existence as a newspaper reporter will be  to cover your beat. Establish deep connections in the community. And finally: Break stories related to your beat first. So while many journalists began as generalists, they had a good chance of becoming specialists.

The many reasons the above model is antiquated is beyond the scope of this post. But I relate that story to remind readers how quickly the generalist-to-specialist route in journalism has been upended. Nate Silver of the 2012 U.S. election fame has taken the upended model and thrown it clear out the window. And I’m glad he did, for some reasons. He pushed past the “he-said-she-said” reporting model and gave us nearly un-subjective information.

My hunch is that after all of this specialization talk has settled down, there will again be a demand for generalist writers–either at a paper publication or at an online site. Specialists will stay around, too.

What is sterling example of how professionals with broad knowledge in many areas and acute knowledge in one or two fields coexist? Doctors. Freshly minted medical students who pursue primary care medicine are brave, in extreme demand and draw lower salaries, on average, than their specialized counterparts. We of course appreciate the anesthesiologist who visits us before surgery. But in our day-to-day affairs, we are comforted by a family doctor who knows a little about a lot and can help steer us in the right direction.

Likewise, I admired Nate Silver’s brilliant way of using data to move past the surface talk. But I’ve frankly found little use for his further blog posts. They come across as a list of facts of information. Now I want to read political stories from a writer who casts a wide net to interview multiple sources, does rigorous research into not only statistics, but also history, previous news coverage and social sciences.

The writer who, specialized or not, tells me a story — as some online writers like Nate, in my opinion, do not — is the one who I will follow regularly, online or on paper. I will check in on Nate and others when I need specific information. But to keep the news media ecosystem thriving, we need generalists and specialists. Just like Nature.

Finally, to be clear, a journalist doesn’t need J-school to become a good storyteller. However, whether someone aspires to be an online writer on one subjects or many, it is still good to know a few simple rules about journalism.