The Work and Influence of Journalism According to Barton Swaim
Last month, Regent welcomed Barton Swaim, an editorial page writer for the Wall Street Journal, to campus as a guest lecturer. During his presentation, Swaim spoke on the “work” of journalism as it relates to producing content that is valuable to consumers. He noted that, in many fields, people take for granted the value of their work, assuming that they are meaningfully contributing to society when that is not always the case. “Journalism,” he noted, “can be one such field.”
Journalists and newspaper companies can easily slip into believing that they are the educated elite who bring light to the blind. Anyone who disagrees with their content does so only because they are uneducated laymen who cannot hope to comprehend the brilliance they are reading. However, Swaim proposed that perhaps people dislike certain pieces not because they do not understand them but because the articles are insipid and poorly sourced. Swaim emphasized that, like any job, journalists need to put in the work if they want their pieces to be valuable.
What does the work entail?
For the aspiring writer, Swaim emphasized the importance of practice, research and attention to detail.
Practice: “When I was first starting out,” Swaim shared, “I would send out pieces of my work, having, in many cases, no clue what the magazine wanted and sometimes not even having read the publication.” These unresearched applications warranted rejection after rejection. “It was, in one sense, a useless effort, but it was also invaluable practice. The labor of trying to submit something and not giving up, of finding a way to persistently work at whatever kind of writing you’re pursuing” is necessary to a professional career.
Research: “When you’re submitting work to a newspaper or magazine, make sure you know the tone of the publication,” Swaim encouraged. “Tone is probably the hardest thing in writing of any kind. Too often, the argument is there, but the tone is wrong and doesn’t match the publication.” He advises writers to read and reread the published work of their desired employer until “you can hear the tone and rhythm ringing in your ears when you sit down to write.”
Detail: Finally, he noted that attention to detail goes a long way toward showing editors you’re an invested applicant. “If you’re going to send something to a publication, let’s say the Wall Street Journal, look at the Journal’s house style, and put your work in that style.” He remarked that “one oddity of the Journal is the names of books are not in italics; they’re in quotation marks. Note things like this, and put your writing in whatever style the publication is so when the editor reads it, the details aren’t getting in the way.”
Additionally, hopeful writers should “ensure their copy is absolutely flawless.” If an editor picks up what you sent and there’s subject/verb disagreement in the second sentence, it’s going to throw them off. The editor is probably only taking a few minutes to glance over your submission, so make them count.
How does a Christian engage this secular field?
As an established journalist, Swaim has worked for a variety of renowned secular publications during his career, including the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. He noted that in many lines of work, especially opinion journalism, there are two ways Christians can approach sharing their faith. The first is as an overt evangelist who “wears a rainbow wig and holds a sign reading John 3:16.” The second is in an understated way that leads people to suspect your faith without ever proclaiming it. Though there are times to take a stand and publicly announce your beliefs, “I’ve found it most efficient to do the second,” Swaim shared. “There are many situations where you can subtly indicate your Christian faith, and people pick up on it.” He remarked that readers will often be in conversation with him and, when he affirms his Christian faith, will react with an “I thought you were from how you write.”
What is the influence of journalism?
Why go through this work and strive to become an excellent, godly and informed writer? “To inform people about what’s actually happening—that’s the core of journalism,” Swaim shared. “Too often, both news and opinion journalism just become ‘I’m pushing an agenda that I perceive to benefit the people I like in public life.’ But that’s not what journalism is supposed to be, and that’s not what people actually want, even if they agree with the author’s point. The purpose of journalism is to present the truth about what’s happening with evidence.”
To accomplish this and any other pursuit, Swaim’s main encouragement to students is to work heartily with excellence unto the Lord. Don’t be afraid of the “dirty jobs” and “rejection letters because that’s where you learn,” he stated. “Don’t expect a good job at first but ones that are hard. If you do these diligently, honestly and with industry, you’ll find doors open to jobs that feel purposeful.”
On this point, Swaim discussed the “Joseph Pattern,” which is the idea of humiliation before exultation. “When you read the life of Joseph closely, you see that he had very big ideas about who he was that were God-given, but he thought his life trajectory was going to be all up.” Then he was sold into slavery. “However, at the bottom, he was obedient, industrious and honest, giving him the opportunity to rise to the top where he found his life had an amazing purpose in God’s economy.” This is the pattern for Christian life, so work diligently and don’t be dismayed when things are more challenging than you thought they would be.