There is more than one school of thought about whether journalists should be specialists or generalists. Some argue that specializing is really important–for marketability of the journalist as well as their ability to cover a particular subject. For example, a lawyer would have special insight into the Supreme Court; someone with a science background would have more aptitude for reporting on global warming.
Obviously, if you’re someone like Ezra Klein, you need to be an expert in politics. Or, if you’re Dylan Byers, you need to know the media. Those guys are beat reporters (in addition to being semi-celebrities), though, and if their brains weren’t about to explode from all the knowledge they have in one area, they wouldn’t be good at their jobs. If their heads weren’t about to explode, someone else would have their jobs.
There are also well-known freelance writers who are pretty specialized. Karen Asp’s health-centered articles can be found monthly in one or more women’s magazine, for example.
Others argue, though, that generalizing is the way to go. At least, you need to know a lot about a lot in order to be a good journalist. Think about the small-town reporter who must cover City Hall, public schools, crime and education. If they’re good at what they do, they’ll develop a pretty solid understanding of everything their readers need to know. Think about Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. He can talk engagingly about pretty much anything.
As a person who does not have semi-celebrity status in any particular field, I have always thought of myself as a generalist (by necessity as much as anything else). Until recently, if I had to explain what kind writing I do, I might say I write about health-mental health-psychology-human rights…at least most of the time.
About a year ago, I learned a good lesson in the importance of thinking of myself very, very generally when an editor asked me to write a business article about company culture. At first, I was hesitant because I didn’t think of myself as a business writer. He pointed out that an article I’d written for Psychology Today about overachievers was very much a business story, though I hadn’t thought of it in that context.
Since then, I’ve written six “Biz Idea” articles for Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, most recently about managing time wisely and mentorship. I also contribute to a blog about collaboration in the workplace.
I guess the point is that I wasn’t thinking of myself in general enough terms. As a freelancer, it was an eye-opening reminder that you can tap into new markets if you just think about how to apply your ideas to different outlets and audiences. Now, if someone asks what I write about, I say health-mental health-psychology-human rights-business…at least most of the time.