How Journalism Has Become More Elite, the Difference Between Editors and Writers, the Importance of Networks

From an article, Expertise in Journalism: Factors Shaping a Cognitive and Culturally Elite Profession, by Kaja Perina, editor of Psychology Today, and Jonathan Wai, of the University of Arkansas:

In terms of education, elite journalists tend to go to more highly selective institutions and have higher educational attainment. For typical journalists overall, a summary of core characteristics follows: knowledge of English and communications and media; core skills include reading, writing, listening, critical thinking, social perceptiveness, complex problem solving, learning, judgment and decision making, persuasion and negotiation; core abilities include oral and written comprehension and expression, reasoning, originality, problem sensitivity, information ordering, and fluency of ideas; core interests are artistic and enterprising; and core work values are achievement, recognition, independence, and good working conditions.

Editors versus writers. [Michael] Kinsley (2008) noted that “two very different groups of people are responsible for the words that fill the world’s magazines and newspapers. There are the writers, who produce prose, and the editors, who do their best to wreck it.” Though their incentives may be somewhat different, they ultimately must work together to produce the information that we read. The finding that staff writers tend to be more highly educated and cognitively able than staff editors among two of the most selective and influential newspapers is intriguing but ambiguous. The difference likely reflects in part lifestyle factors and skill acquisition that militate for different roles at different points in life. Nonetheless, it is tempting to invoke Isaiah Berlin’s (1953) fox vs. hedgehog distinction in terms of editorial vs. writerly thought style: Editors are foxes who know many things and writers are hedgehogs who focus on one important thing, their domain, or beat. The best journalists must in a real sense be both, as they are generalists who absorb a range of information in domains in which they often lack formal schooling, and specialists who go deep to execute a story….

Writing can be characterized as “high road transfer,” as it involves a broader search for disparate, generative connections. Finally, it can be argued that editing is in fact a subdomain of journalistic writing: All high-caliber writers do editorial diligence on their own work, but not all editors can generate high-caliber writing.

One reason writers may be more cognitively select than editors may have to do with the typical career progression in journalism: Journalists are generally writers before moving up the newspaper food chain to become editors. Such a career progression roughly parallels the levels of fluid and crystallized intelligence across the lifespan (Tucker-Drob, 2009). Writers may be of a more “generative” mindset which may require the high cognitive demand of learning a domain quickly and figuring out what to put on paper. Over time, writers may invest their fluid intelligence into more crystallized skillsets or expertise that can be readily deployed. In contrast, editors may be of a more “curatorial” mindset which may also require high cognitive demand but also may rely more on using developed skill sets to reconfigure the working pieces of writing. The way the journalism profession is structured, people typically tend to become editors at some point because of pragmatics and lifestyle….

Outsize influence of the cognitive 1% among top journalists. In addition to many other elite occupations, this study provides evidence that journalism practiced at the highest level is not just a cultural elite but a cognitive elite. Journalism, like academia, is one of the professions that people enter in part due to non-monetary rewards such as prestige, influence, and autonomy to create and pursue ideas and questions. Journalists at the NYT and WSJ are disproportionately influential because stories that originate there often are not just national news but international news. Many broad discussions are started by so-called “thought leaders” who write opinion or other pieces in these papers. This provides more evidence that smart people are overrepresented in occupations that influence society.


Almost half of the people who end up at the pinnacle of the journalism profession attended an elite school and were likely in the top 1% of cognitive ability. This means top 1% people are overrepresented among the NYT and WSJ mastheads by a factor of about 50. Roughly 20% attended an Ivy League school. Writers are more cognitively able than editors, as measured by elite school attendance. Almost every elite journalist surveyed graduated from college and the majority did not actually major in journalism. Roughly 80% of typical journalists overall graduated from college. Only a handful of select schools feed the mastheads of the NYT and the WSJ, suggesting the importance of networks gained at these schools. These findings replicated across two newspapers with very different political viewpoints, indicating the robust role of cognitive abilities, education, and networks in the development of journalism expertise.

Jack comment: In 1960, when I went into journalism, it was not an elite profession. Most of us were just looking for work that wasn’t boring. We reported the news with very little point of view and we never expected to make a lot of money.

Then came Vietnam and the Civil Rights revolution and more people went into journalism because they saw the stupidity of U.S. Vietnam policy and the unfairness of how African-Americans were treated and they wanted to change that. And then came women’s liberation and gay rights to add to the making-the-world-better agenda.

So it seemed that more people went into journalism not to just report the news but to make the world better.

As the Expertise in Journalism study shows, journalists in the big cities that now dominate journalism are more elite—and arguably more liberal. As an editor, I think one difference between 1960 and today is back then we did the reporting and then figured out what the headline and lead would be, while today more stories seem to be done with the writer deciding first on the the story’s point of view and headline, and then doing enough reporting to make the case.

Another change: Since 1950 the country has become much wealthier and more young people from relatively affluent families—and from elite colleges—can afford to go into journalism. Bright kids once went to business schools to get rich, then more of them decided a career in law would be more interesting and you’d still make good money, and now more bright kids go into journalism because there’s enough family money that changing the world, not making lots of money, is the main career motivation.

Those of us in Washington tend to think Charlie Peters started it: In 1968 he created the Washington Monthly on a shoestring and developed a pipeline of Harvard graduates who came to Washington not for the money but to become influential journalists and make the world better. There’s still no escaping them. As for Charlie, he’ll be 92 later this year and is still one of the best editors of them all.


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