Jonathan Alter is an author, reporter, and columnist who has written for publications including the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times. Jonathan has also served as an analyst and correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, and, for over 28 years, worked as a columnist and senior editor at Newsweek, where and wrote over 20 cover stories.
Below, Jonathan reveals how he gained access to incredible sources, outlines the elements of a good political writer, offers career advice, points out major legal issues faced by journalists, and shares his insights on finding work within the modern (and rapidly-changing) news industry.
What did you do to beat out the competition and earn the privilege of interviewing presidents and other major political figures?
I have interviewed two recent presidents: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. In both cases, the reason why I was able to beat out the competition is that I had long-standing relationships with both politicians before they became president. It always helps to have known presidents before they get to office.
In Bill Clinton’s case, we first met in 1984. I spent time with him in 1991 when he was first running for president. I first met Barack Obama in 2002 and spent time with him in 2004, 2006, and 2007 before he was running for president.
What above-and-beyond skills does a journalist need to become a particularly good political writer?
To be a particularly good political writer, a journalist needs a sense of history, which provides a sense of context that cannot be obtained except from reading and understanding historical events, and a sense of perspective that is hard to teach, but can be obtained through experience.
Should someone wish to work with a major publication or news outlet but have no experience, what starting points would you recommend?
A starting point for people with no experience is to work with smaller publications. In my case, I worked at the Washington Monthly, a small political magazine, and contributed freelance articles to various small publications.
It’s hard to get a job with a major publication unless you have clips. The only way to get clips is to write. It’s not a resume business so much as it’s a clips business. They can be online articles, but they have to be clips that you have written. A lot of places need freelance material.
Are there any serious legal issues that fledgling journalists commonly overlook and should be more aware of?
There are no serious issues that beginning journalists overlook, except that libel suits happen when there is actual malice, meaning that you are intending to print something that you know is inaccurate. If you do that, you are in serious legal jeopardy; that’s one of many reasons why accuracy is so important. Everybody makes mistakes, but if you know something is wrong, and you go ahead and publish it anyway, then you’re exposing yourself to legal jeopardy, and young journalists should know that.
Journalists should also strive for accuracy. A lot of times, people (for whatever reason) don’t check for facts- they don’t think it’s the most important thing. But accuracy is extraordinarily important.
Where do you see the most opportunities for new journalists these days? Are most sustainable job prospects with digital publications, private organizations, or some other niche of the journalism world?
The most opportunities for journalists these days are with digital publications. Private organizations, I’d say... less so. But I think there are also a lot of opportunities in the new world of online television, which is something I’ve been active in lately and has been coming on strong.
The last thing that I would say is that journalism is a business that still relies on the old-fashioned values of reporting, writing, and truth telling. The most common mistake that young journalists make is that they forget to use a very old technology called the telephone. They think that everything they need can be found online.
In fact, the best way to learn new information for new stories, and to break through and make a difference through your reporting, is to pick up the phone or go and see somebody in person and interview them the old-fashioned way to learn something truly new. You’re providing real-life value after you use this new information in a way that makes the most sense for whatever story you’re trying to write.