Kelsey Piper

Path
JournalismAdvocacy
University major
Symbolic Systems
Cause area
Global HealthAnimal welfareReducing Existential Risk
Job title
Staff Writer

image

Majored in

Symbolic systems, Stanford University

Current role

Kelsey is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect, a grant-funded effective-altruism-inspired vertical focused on high impact writing on some of the world's most important problems.

Some of the stories she’s proudest of over the last few years have covered the case for catastrophic AI risk, the rise of plant-based meat, progress towards malaria vaccines, and the case for better biosafety and pandemic preparedness.

How she has an impact

How she got there:

  • Improving her writing skills through blogging.
  • And working for Triplebyte after university.
  • She also ran Stanford’s Effective Altruism group.

Listen to a podcast to find out more about how Kelsey got into journalism, what her day-to-day is like, and who she thinks is a good fit for a career as a journalist in the podcast (or edited-down transcript) below:

Table of contents:

Day-to-day life at Vox

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So, what is kind of the day to day life of a journalist like? I imagine it’s kind of hectic. The demands to put out content a pretty serious, I’ve heard.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, Vox has a very fast pace which was definitely something I was a little apprehensive about going in, like can I write that much? But it’s been very good for me because I think the push to think about something you want to tell people every day just keeps you moving. On most days I will try and send my editor about three story ideas. Things that I’ve thought of that I want to write about, things that I have a lead on, things that I saw in the news that I felt like we needed a Future Perfect take on. My editor will get back to me with the one or two that he’s most excited about and say, Yeah, go ahead and write this story.

Kelsey Piper: So, then I’ll email people who I want to talk to. I’ll try and get introductions. I’ll research for the piece. I’ll have those conversations and phone calls. I’ll try and write the piece. I’ll try and file it before I go home. Then often, at the same, time my editor and I will be going back and forth with edits on yesterday’s story to get it to a state where we’re both proud of it and confident of it and ready to put it on the site.

Robert Wiblin: OK, so now on a typical day you have like two things on the boil. One that you are starting today and one that are finishing from yesterday. And the goal is to hopefully publish something basically every workday?

Kelsey Piper: Yes. Now, in practice, some pieces take longer to come together. Or they come partway together and then we realize there’s not a good story here. Or the situation is confusing enough that our initial take on it didn’t work. A fair number of stories get scrapped. In practice, I think I end up publishing four things a week. But yeah, the goal is certainly to have a week where every day we put out a new story.

Robert Wiblin: Okay, so you arrive in the office on Monday morning. The first thing you have to do is figure out what you’re going to write about that day? How do you go about that?

Kelsey Piper: So, I do a couple different things. One is I keep an eye out on the EA forums, on the EA discord, in the Facebook groups, just for things people seem to be confused about. Those often make for great stories. Or things that I’m a little confused about and would love to just spend four hours digging into until I have a clearer picture of what’s going on.

Kelsey Piper: And then I also look at the news. We are covering a fair bit of philanthropy, is another thing that EA is not necessarily focused on, that Future Perfect is pretty interested in. It’s like coverage of the big philanthropists. What is Bill Gates doing? What is Jeff Bezos doing? So I’ll check the news and look for stories that seem like there’s a lot of takes out there but it would be valuable to have a sort of Future Perfect take out there. Then I’ll look at research that just came out especially research in development economics or in health interventions that give well supports or on other topics that are of interest.

Kelsey Piper: A write up a study is always a great piece because it’s pretty straightforward. The authors are usually happy to talk with you and make sure you understand their research. Then you just explain the study, explain how confident we should be in it. Stuff like that.

Robert Wiblin: Okay, so, at the start of the day you come up with, was it five or ten ideas for articles to write?

Kelsey Piper: I aim for three.

Robert Wiblin: Three. Okay. And then, how do you choose among those?

Kelsey Piper: My editor will usually take a look. M editor has better instincts than me for what will our Vox audience like and which of these are going to turn into a solid story.

Robert Wiblin: And then how do you go about writing it? I mean most people I think would find it quite hard to write an article within a day or two. Most people find it very hard to put pen to page to begin with.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, I think Vox has a big focus on explaining things, on answering questions. So you want to put yourself in the mind of an audience and ask, “What questions are they going to have here?” And often, you have to start by explaining to them, why do they care about this. Why are you telling them about this? Then they’re going to wonder, why aren’t people doing this obvious solution I thought. I heard something about this, why doesn’t that work?

Kelsey Piper: So I think often articles are sort of shaped around figuring out where the readers at and then telling them, this is interesting. Here’s some things you’re wondering about it. Here’s the answer. Then here’s a takeaway, our understanding of what’s going on. I like that style of writing because it’s very audience focused. It seems very suited to a lot of the topics I’m interested in. Where you both want to engage people and explain why they care. And give them a somewhat complicated picture of what’s going on with some takeaways that hopefully they can use to make better decisions and focus on the stuff that’s important.

Robert Wiblin: So I mentioned, if I had to write something every day that I would often get to the mid-afternoon be like, I don’t know what I think about this issue. I haven’t really figured out what the answer is yet. Or am I get there and be like, Oh, wow, my whole like take on this was just…I misunderstood the whole issue. And now it’s like 3pm and I’ve got to file something I guess, within the next few hours. But I don’t know what to say at this point.

Kelsey Piper: I get a pretty good reaction when I say, sorry, the story is going to take another day because it turned it into a different story. Sometimes that means we scrap the story. Sometimes, it means I write one that has a different, more complicated take. I think there’s not much pressure. Aside from, your desire to file the story and get to stop to write something that you’re starting to feel like is more complicated than that. Because complicated is okay and the journey you had in the process of figuring it out is probably a journey you want to take the readers through. It’s in some ways more interesting than whatever your original take was.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, okay. So if you decide that actually, things are quite different than what you originally thought then you can just explain the process by which he got there. And that’s like an interesting story in its own right. You didn’t have to stick with the original vision, just to like get something out there.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, sometimes that’s a compelling story in its own right. And sometimes it’s not, and the story ends up getting scrapped. But both of those are fine outcomes. You don’t want to put something out there that you’re feeling, even as you post it like I don’t know how much I stand behind that. That’s just not gonna to be reporting you can really stand by in the long run.

Downsides and upsides of the job?

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, all right yeah. Returning to the personal level, what are the main stresses of the job? What are downsides that people should be aware of?

Kelsey Piper: Hmm. So I used to hate phone calls. I’ve mostly gotten over that. But-

Robert Wiblin: I was terrified of phone calls when I first got an actual job and had to call people. I was like, Yes, I was like, sweating. But I went away after a few days.

Kelsey Piper: I think it would have been good for me to have a class in college or something that made me make 10 phone calls a day. Just get it over with. Learn that actually, you can do that. I think I frequently find it hard to when I’m reading a bunch of research and I have an overall impression of what’s going on. But I’m not that confident in it, figure out like okay what are the next hour of work on this that will like make me more confident that I’m getting the right impression here. Or pointed out to me if I’ve got the wrong impression here. That’s just always very scary because you don’t have a ton of time.

Kelsey Piper: You definitely want to make sure that you have the right impression of a field. Talking to people is very helpful but often, a lot of them have sort of their take on the field. Especially with all the recent understanding that we’re all coming to of how unreliable research can be and how often published studies just aren’t that good. You know, it can be very tricky to try and do a lit review and say, all right, this is my takeaway. How do I accurately represent to people how sure I am of this? I think that’s something I find hard.

Robert Wiblin: I find it quite depressing when people criticize 80,000 Hours’ work online. I guess, especially when it feels like they’ve misunderstood or they’re misrepresenting it. Have you had any experiences of that with people criticizing the articles? You know, this isn’t fair. That’s not what I was saying.

Kelsey Piper: When I wrote about the particle reactor, I basically said this costs a lot. We might have a complete standard model here. We might not find anything aside from measuring some parameters more accurately. The case that CERN is making for it is saying a lot about there’s so many undiscovered mysteries. Which is true, but it’s not clear that we’re going to solve those undiscovered mysteries with the bigger particle collider. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. It just means the cost-benefit conversation needs to be a little clearer about what the benefits are. There was an angry response in Slate a couple days later, that said Vox arguing shouldn’t build a bigger particle collider. Because particle colliders never discover anything. I was kind of like, Hey! I think that’s just kind of how it goes, you know?

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s the way of the world. It’s hard to grasp subtlety or it takes a lot of effort, potentially, and it makes it harder to write the response article, if you like, Well, actually, they had a very nuanced position Then it’s harder to be angry about it.

Kelsey Piper: Exactly.

Robert Wiblin: Yes. So, what have been any particular highlights? Are there things that are especially enjoyable? I guess you’re saying being having access to these experts who are willing to talk to you all the time is pretty great.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, it’s amazing to call people up and just ask about their research or ask about what they’re doing. I feel like I’ve learned a ton about lots of fields, just by having the luxury of spending a day talking to five experts. Then doing a lot of reading and trying to put together an accurate, if limited, picture of something I didn’t know much about before. So that’s amazing.

Kelsey Piper: I think one thing that’s really great about having a platform is that when I see people sharing an inaccurate view or an oversimplified view, I can respond to that and try and get the idea I think is accurate out there. This happened a bunch with people accusing bed nets of being used for fishing. This is something I run into a lot when I mention that several of GiveWell’s top charities handle malaria and that AMF distributes bed nets. As people will say, “Oh, those are used for fishing.”

Kelsey Piper: Nothing about the cost-benefit analysis for AMF is affected in any way by the fact that some people use bed nets for fishing. They check how many of their bed nets are used for sleeping under and preventing malaria. They go off the reduction in malaria mortality in the area or where the nets are distributed. It’s just, it’s not relevant. So it was nice to be able to sort of write up an explanation of that. Now when I encounter that I can have somewhere to point people.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, that’s incredibly successful meme. I don’t know why the idea the bed nets says fishing. It’s counterintuitive. I think it’s also people love to find reasons why charities are not effective. And I think in part, it’s because it gets them off the hook for donating to it. Maybe also just people like a story about how they think the world’s not as you expect. There’s also this kind of intuitive contrarian thing.

Kelsey Piper: I think it’s both of those. It’s satisfying to, go oh charity doesn’t work as well as you think, Bill Gates. And it’s sort of satisfying to learn something more complicated. I share both of those intuitions but you got to actually view, right? You can’t just be contrarian.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. Very true. Do you ever have people just refuse to talk to you? Because like, oh I don’t trust you or I don’t trust Vox or I don’t trust journalists. I don’t want to talk to the media. And then you can’t get information out of them?

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, that happens. And then I go ahead with what I can. Sometimes that means, this can’t be a story because we don’t know enough. Sometimes it just means that the stories like slightly less informed by their perspective. I would like people to know more about the tools they have available to make a conversation with the journalists less scary and more productive. You can say at all only talk off the record and I’m usually completely willing to do that. And then at least you can give me some background and correct my misconceptions.

Kelsey Piper: Maybe I can say okay that one thing you’ve just said, I would love to be able to quote you on that. Is that something you’d be willing to be quoted on? And maybe that is something you’d be willing to be quoted on even if you’re nervous about an unstructured 20-minute conversation? But also I know a lot of people have just had bad experiences with talking to someone who seemed sympathetic and then an article went up that they felt really misrepresented them and their perspective. So that’s just how it goes.

Robert Wiblin: So have you ever had anyone say, “I’m willing to talk to you, but only if I can record this whole conversation. So have a record of exactly what I said. And so like if you ever misrepresent me then I can call that out.”

Kelsey Piper: I haven’t heard that one. If people want to do that, that’s fine. If they want access to my recording, that’s also fine. I think an important part of good reporting is that everyone you talk to, even the ones who you end up concluding are not at all right about their perspective, feels like their perspective was articulated correctly.

Kelsey Piper: Vox does not try to do balance or neutrality in particular. Vox tries to avoid both sides-ism, where you interview two people who disagree instead of trying to take a stance on who’s right. But one thing that Ezra emphasized in our initial trainings on this was actually Steelmanning, which is a rationalist community sort of framing for it. Make sure that your opponent’s perspective is represented. And that you understand your opponent’s perspective and like can represent in a strong way, represent a version of it that readers will find compelling. And then you can argue that it’s wrong. But make sure that you found the most compelling and most accurate. One that’s not weak and easy to poke holes in before you poke holes.

Robert Wiblin: I mean, yeah, so I would talk to you, Kelsey. But I think in general, I’m very reluctant to talk to journalists. I just found that by and large most, like many, many, journalists are trying to find the most provocative take, or the most provocative presentation of what you said, in a way that isn’t super faithful.

Robert Wiblin: I’ve tried to kind of try to do the exact opposite with this podcast. I allow guests to like look over the transcript of the interview and remove anything that they think wasn’t like the absolute best portrayal of their views. If they think that they’ve got something wrong or it wasn’t put the right way. So I want to give people the optimal opportunity to present their views in as much length and as much sophistication as they like. It’s very hard to do that in a nod if you’re really trying to turn a profit as an online media outlet.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah. And I also try for some conversations, particularly ones that are difficult or complicated, to make sure at least that I run quotes by people and that they can say, “Nope, that’s not representing what I meant, even if it’s what I said.” I don’t do that for every conversation more if it’s a big or complicated topic where it feels important. I can see why that’s not something that everybody can do. Nor is it necessarily something everybody should aspire to. If you’re talking to a prominent politician, and they say something about their views, then even if they didn’t endorse it, it may still be newsworthy and worth reporting. I do think if your reporting strategy, it’s mostly trying to get those gotchas instead of trying to talk about the views people endorse, then ultimately, that’s gonna hold back a lot of really important conversations.

How did Kelsey build the skills necessary to work at Vox?

Robert Wiblin: Let’s wind back a little bit and find out about what prepared you to be able to do this job, because I think it’s something that relatively few people would actually be capable of doing, producing so much writing every week and managing to make it largely insightful and accurate. How did you build the skills necessary to work at Vox?

Kelsey Piper: I’ve been blogging for a long time, which Dylan tells me it’s a pretty common background for people who end up in things like this, and I mostly write on Tumblr. That’s very different in topic. A lot of it is about personal topics, about disability, about feminism, and LGBT politics. It’s Tumblr. That’s …

Robert Wiblin: That’s its thing.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, but I think it did teach me how to identify in an argument when there was a perspective that wasn’t being aired, that it would be valuable to get out there, and how to quickly formulate your ideas in a way that people wanted to share and wanted to read. It’s good practice very much so for that.

Robert Wiblin: How long have you been doing that?

Kelsey Piper: I think five years.

Robert Wiblin: Was this is kind of compulsion that you had to share your thoughts?

Kelsey Piper: It was actually a project of Stanford Effective Altruism, which I ran in college. We were sort of talking about outreach and talking about ways of expressing EA ideas. Some of us came up with the idea of starting EA Tumblrs to sort of talk about that. I think I found it a much more exciting platform than everybody else did so I stuck with it longer, but I definitely am indebted to them for getting started in the first place. It has actually been a great outreach tool for EA. I think I talked about what draws me to EA and sort of what I think it’s taught me. For a lot of people, that’s compelling and gets them to look up more and learn.

Robert Wiblin: It sounds like the topics changed a bit from effective altruism to other things that were more the classic topics on Tumblr.

Kelsey Piper: I think, yeah. Maybe pretty early on, it just became obvious that there wasn’t a lot of value in preaching to people on a topic that they weren’t necessarily there for, and that I had a lot of thoughts on the conversations people were already having. Then I think one thing you can do to share any reasoning system, but it works particularly well for effective altruism is just to apply it consistently, in a principled way, to problems that people care about. Then, they’ll see whether your tools look like useful tools. If they do, then they’ll be interested in learning more about that. I think my ideal effective altruist movement, and obviously this trade off against lots of other things and I don’t know that we can be doing more of it on the margin. My ideal effective altruist movement had insightful nuanced, productive, takes on lots and lots of other things so that people could be like, “Oh, I see how effective altruists have tools for answering questions. “I want the people who have tools for answering questions to teach me about those tools. I want to know what they think the most important questions are. I want to sort of learn about their approach.

Robert Wiblin: Do you think you started blogging because you’re already a good writer? Or is it more you became a great writer because you’re blogging for many years?

Kelsey Piper: I think I was already an unusually good writer. I think I was probably an unusually good writer when I was 10. I feel very brag-y saying this. If people are trying to get a sense of should I be a journalist, I don’t know that putting in tons and tons of time writing will necessarily get you there if it’s not something that you already think of as a strength. Although, I do think you have to put in that time to get rid of good at it. There’s a lot of returns to additional practice even for people who are already strong writers.

Robert Wiblin: Interesting, So some people do get better through practice. But if they’re not already decent to start with then, probably they shouldn’t design or they shouldn’t aim for job, where that the core skill.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, think it is not like programming, and that I know lots of people who had no background in programming and we’re like, “Oh, I think I should do programming.” and taught themselves it at a professional level. I think most people who are writing professionally to had the innate aptitude for writing.

Robert Wiblin: I’m pretty enthusiastic about blogging as a way of putting career capital and perhaps on bias because it’s kind of what I did. I wrote quite a lot of articles when I was an undergraduate, and I think it made me a better communicator. Also, made it possible for you to see that I of knew what I was talking about and like and could think through issues, complicated issues. It’s a way proving yourself and building an audience.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, I think blogging is a great tool for all of that. I think it’s somewhat meritocratic, in that you can really start up on Tumblr with nobody following you because of who you are, and then develop a following by making good arguments and saying things that people find compelling and having interesting thoughts. I think that sharing your thoughts in public is very good for improving them. I think people will point out nuances, people will point out when you’re wrong. It makes you a lot more thoughtful. I do think there’s lots of reasons to write, regardless of whether you’re pursuing a career as a writer.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, putting ideas out there was a great way to realize that even when you’re really confident about your idea, the probability that someone is gonna be able come back with a really strong rebuttal is actually surprisingly high.

Kelsey Piper: Yep, that’s definitely something I get out of hearing things publicly.

Robert Wiblin: You said you didn’t find about how to build up an audience, even though I guess most people hadn’t heard of you. How does that happen?

Kelsey Piper: On Tumblr, people reblog. On Twitter, they retweet and you just steadily accumulate followers.

Robert Wiblin: Is it hard to stick with it to begin with, when you’ve got an audience of four friends?

Kelsey Piper: I didn’t find it particularly hard. I think some people like, “I can do that,” but I think especially now, if you start blogging in the EA community, there’s lots of places where you can cross post. There’s lots of places to get reactions to your ideas. Don’t maybe expect tons of reactions right away, but I think if you’re coming up with interesting ideas, you’ve probably be able to get reactions early before you give up on, because it seems like you’re yelling into the void.

Robert Wiblin: Are there any upsides and downsides that people should be aware of about blogging, if they’re considering this might be like something I really wanna invest time in?

Kelsey Piper: I think lots of people are really interested when they get into the EA movement and which bullets they can bite in, which like clever arguments they can come up with. I think if you’re doing outreach, that’s a pretty bad approach because I don’t think that the EA communities like comparative advantages, our ability to bite bullets. I think it’s our ability to answer important questions. I think if you’re doing anything outreach-oriented, if you’re doing it for the sake of like enhancing your own ability to explore ideas, I don’t wanna get in the boat in the way of people enhancing their ability to explore ideas that’s important to just be able to do without PR, thoughts. If you’re doing outreach, I think it’s important to do outreach by demonstrating that you’re good at thinking about important questions, and that your answers to those questions are like valuable and carefully thought through and give people a toolbox to think about those questions themselves. That’s my big outreach advice.

Robert Wiblin: Even faced incentive to be a bit more contrarian or a bit more like, “I have a really striking message early on in order to boot an audience from nothing,” I think I found that when I started writing online because no one has any idea who you are. There’s a certain temptation to be more sensationalist than that’s later on when you already have a have an audience that’s interested to read your articles.

Kelsey Piper: I think I was more contrarian when I got started. Now, I’m thinking was that on some level incentivized by trying to get more readers. What it felt like from the inside was that, when I started everybody on Tumblr was very frustrating in wrong. I had to like explain why with all my clever arguments. Then, over time, I got a more nuanced perspective and a better understanding of what people’s belief systems were doing for them, I guess. Now I don’t find it nearly as tempting to be edgy in those ways, but it’s totally possible that part of the driver of that is wanting to make more of a splash when that’s your way to get readers, and then wanting to alienate fewer people. That’s your way to get readers.

Robert Wiblin: How did it fit in with the rest of your life? It seemed like you would blog a lot on Tumblr. You were writing 1000 words or something on a typical day. Did that like take time away from everything else?

Kelsey Piper: I am a pretty fast writer, so less than you might think. Also, I was practically failing out of college at that time. I was having a very bad time in college. I think, to some extent, I was definitely leaning on the place where I had interesting ideas that people value instead of the place where I was really struggling to keep up.

Robert Wiblin: It’s interesting. Maybe you’re actually building more useful skills through the blogging rather than studying for courses.

Kelsey Piper: I think I definitely recommend to people that they, if they are unhappy in college, and have others stuff they like doing, that they stop the college and do things they actually like. But on the other hand, I’m very lucky in a lot of ways that made that work out for me, and yeah, it’s trickier for people who really do need a degree to make any progress in the area they care about.

Other skills

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, are there any other things that you’ve learned in the past other than blogging that you think prepared you for the role that you’re in now?

Kelsey Piper: I think running Stanford EA was also pretty valuable for that, because it involved lots digging into EA ideas with a group of people. We would have three hour meetings where we would sort of pick a topic and just try to have a much better understanding at the end than we had at the start. I think that was a very valuable experience. I try and get other student groups to do this. They’re like, “Three hours? Nobody’s willing to put in that time.” We got lucky that we started freshman year when we all had a lot of free time, and it sort of was obvious that it was valuable by the time it was more established, but I think the ability to have a question and then just toss around a lot of ideas on it and make some progress pretty quickly is also something that’s pretty valuable in journalism, and just valuable in general. I think everybody in Stanford EA is doing cool stuff now. It seems like in general the experience of tossing around ideas and coming to a better understanding, and just believing that you can do that.

Kelsey Piper: I’m a big believer that if people have the correct expectation that if they think about a hard problem for a couple hours, they will walk away with a better understanding than when they started. That’s just very empowering, and it makes you better at thinking about lots of things, and if you just have the expectation that if you look at something for a couple hours, you’re going to be as lost and confused as before, then that’s really discouraging, and you don’t end up looking into very much, and when you encounter an intriguing or counterintuitive argument, you’re much more likely to be like, “I don’t know how to evaluate this. It doesn’t matter if this is right, because I wouldn’t be able to tell.”

Robert Wiblin: Yes, so you think people underestimate their ability to evaluate arguments?

Kelsey Piper: I think people underestimate it, and I think they don’t learn it, so they correctly estimate that it’s not a strength of theirs, but they don’t see how to improve on that. And I think that there’s a lot of cultural difficulty in … we don’t have a lot of explanations of how to tell whether you can trust your own arguments. We don’t have a lot of tools for people. We have calibration for the specific skill of estimating your own confidence in things, but I can’t think of a good tool that I point someone to if they are like, “I just want to get better at the practice of reading about something for two hours, and then understanding it.” And I wish we had those.

Career advice

Robert Wiblin: Let’s turn now to some more concrete advice for listeners who are thinking, “Maybe I want to be a journalist,” or “Maybe I want to work at Vox,” or some other organization trying to do good by promoting important ideas, and doing investigative journalism as well in the future. Who would you recommend go into journalism, if anyone?

Kelsey Piper: I think that going to journalism, you need very strong writing skills and you need to be a fast writer. I’m not a spectacularly organized person, but a big part of your job will be organizing phone calls and following up on leads, and having phone conversations and transcribing those conversations. That needs to be something you’re at least pretty good at.

Kelsey Piper: Ideally you would also have a pretty deep understanding of the area you want to cover. I think that’s something that can maybe set you apart from lots of journalism candidates, if you’re coming to journalism with a very strong background in something else that’s what you want to cover. But obviously that can be hard for people just out of school who are thinking about what to do.

Kelsey Piper: And then I think journalism is a more social job than I realized. A lot of what you’re doing is you’re trying to get people to tell you about what they’re doing in a way that helps you identify which the most interesting stories are, and which stories people are going to want to read. And you’re working very closely with your editor and with your team to allocate all the stories that need telling and make sure that your stories are in line with your missions and goals. I don’t want to say you should be an extrovert because I’m not and I’m doing okay. But being able to think about people stuff a lot and having pretty strong skills for interpersonal stuff, and having good conversations with people is another thing that’s really valuable.

Salaries in journalism

Robert Wiblin: So obviously journalism’s very competitive as we’ve been saying. Has that driven down salaries a lot such that it might be hard to make ends meet as a journalist?

Kelsey Piper: I think journalism certainly pays less well than the tech industry, surprising no one. But it’s actually significantly better, at least at Vox, than I would necessarily have expected if you’d asked me to make a prediction in advance. So I make $65,000 a year and that’s with no previous experience. And obviously in the Bay area, that’s not as much as it sounds. But I work remotely. I could work from anywhere if I didn’t have friends out here I bet I would be living quite comfortably somewhere with a little bit of a lower cost of living.

Kelsey Piper: So I think, while obviously it’s not a good career if earning a lot of money is a priority for you, that’s not prohibitive and you don’t have to live in poverty all the time.

How to know if you’re a bad fit for journalism

Robert Wiblin: You mentioned some of the strengths that people need to go into journalism. What are some of the red flags that people might notice about themselves that are just a really bad fit for that kind of industry?

Kelsey Piper: I think if a fast pace at work is something that’s going to burn you out, you probably shouldn’t do journalism. It can be pretty long hours. It can be pretty unpredictable hours as you’re trying to get in a last phone call or something. My editor’s pretty good about telling me, “Don’t work on this on the weekend,” but I still end up working on the weekends a fair bit just to make everything happen. If you get burned out in jobs that have that sort of long, unpredictable hours, then I think it’s probably not a great fit.

How typical is Vox?

Robert Wiblin: Just as a qualifier, do you have a sense of how typical Vox is, or how typical your experience at Vox is, of jobs in journalism in general? Should we just think, “Oh, this is Kelsey’s view,” or do you have a general visibility of …

Kelsey Piper: I don’t think I have that much visibility about the industry as a whole. I think there are probably some jobs that look very different than this. In particular if you’re working for think tanks or something like that you can get some of the benefits of doing journalism but have a much slower expected pace and a lot more time for articles, and maybe a bit more of a 9:00 to 5:00 schedule. So yes, definitely take all of this as what it’s like to work at Vox having transitioned from tech, more than as everything in the field. Although my sister is also working in journalism, so I have her perspective on that too.

Robert Wiblin: We see a lot of potential to do good through journalism but we’ve been a bit reluctant to recommend that people go into it, just for the obvious reason that it’s a shrinking industry it seems. I think the number of journalists has halved or something in the last 10 or 15 years. I was looking at some stats on the Federal Reserve that we could link to and it’s a pretty grim picture. I mean industry’s always changing but it seems like it’s one that’s had a greater share of upheaval and has a more uncertain future than some others. So people should go into it with their eyes open.

How competitive are these roles?

Robert Wiblin: How competitive are these roles? Are there tons of people applying for each of these jobs, and people really shouldn’t count on getting into journalism even if they really are quite a good fit for it?

Kelsey Piper: I think so. I think that, especially if you don’t have your own following from social media to bring to the table or expertise in a highly valued area, I think it can be really hard to get these jobs. There is pretty fiercely competitive application process. I could conceivably see more EA focused journalism roles opening up in the next 10 years that were some of those grant funded or foundation funded journalism with the intent to have an impact, that might change that.

Kelsey Piper: But yeah, it’s competitive. It’s a shrinking industry. Most people with the skills to do well in it would get paid twice as much anywhere else. I like what I’m doing but definitely make sure your listeners know that.

Nearby options

Robert Wiblin: What are nearby things that people can go into that are also good if they don’t manage to get into journalism or media or the press somehow?

Kelsey Piper: If you write articles as a freelancer you’re not going to make a living off of that, but you can do the same thing of getting your ideas on major platforms. And I know more EAs who have been successful with that approach than with being a journalist. There are lots of organizations that’ll pay you to produce content, and some of that might … If you approach it as a journalism role and approach it with the intent to write lots of articles and your organization is on board with that, then you can maybe get a lot of the same benefits with a smaller, but not vastly smaller, platform, and a little more flexibility to make sure you’re covering the things that you think are the most important.

Robert Wiblin: Do you have any opinions on other high impact roles for people whose strength’s in writing and writing quickly, other than maybe being a freelance writer or things that are kind of journalism adjacent?

Kelsey Piper: Seems like lots of direct EA work jobs would benefit from strong writing and analytical skills and the ability to have these conversations. I think a lot of this would translate to evaluating grants for an organization that makes grants, or to working directly at … somebody working on global development or just things like that.

Robert Wiblin: I guess it’s not completely dissimilar to the work that we do. 80,000 Hours, I think, has found it a little bit challenging to find people who both have a really good analytical ability and technical ability, which is something that we need, and also a good ability to write. Someone who can combine those two things can potentially be quite a scarce commodity. I don’t have a sense of, in the marketplace as a whole, how rare are good writing skills. It seems like there’s a lot of people who graduate from the kinds of degrees that give you good writing skills, who don’t seem to have amazing job outcomes relative to people doing technical work. So I’m a bit unsure on the picture here.

Kelsey Piper: I think there are a lot of really good writers out there. I think to do good EA writing you also need a pretty firm grounding in the EA community, so that’s a little more limited. But there are definitely more good writers than jobs for good writers.

Robert Wiblin: One thing is that maybe the people who are getting the most training in writing are doing … They’re writing about liberal arts topics, like literature or something like that. So the thing that ends up being lacking is people who can write about technical topics like economics or machine learning. The people who are learning about that aren’t learning writing, so there’s just not a lot of overlap.

Kelsey Piper: Yeah, that seems like it could be some of it.