The manner in which information flows throughout a society is fundamentally tied to its own fate. Many-a dictator have successfully controlled the people by controlling the information they have access to. Information informs people, and from that information the people will act in one way or another. They may debate and disagree on whether or not the information provided is actually a problem, or how to resolve said issues — either way, the first step is the dissemination of information.
This can’t be provided by the government, as the information might often be critical of those in charge. This is why the United States doesn’t have a state-sanctioned media outlet. Before you say this is debatable — sure, maybe it is. Go to a place like Russia or Myanmar and you’ll know what I’m talking about — you’ll also know why The First Amendment is so important.
And so the responsibility falls into the hands of private citizens. Here’s where it gets complicated, since citizens also have agendas; they have narratives to push as their fates are directly tied to the country’s. Still, an ethical journalist will remain neutral — their job is not to make people happy, it’s not to entertain, and it’s not to fix the problems of the world. Their job is to accurately inform.
Marty Skovlund, Jr. is one such journalist, who strives to inform the public in certain areas of expertise. He currently runs Black Rifle Coffee Company’s new online lifestyle publication, Coffee, or Die Magazine; he’s a veteran of 1st Ranger Battalion and also spent time as an Army recruiter.
I spoke to Marty recently on the subject of journalism in today’s world, as well as being a storyteller.
Why did you become a journalist?
“I don’t think I ever consciously made the decision, it was just a natural evolution. I’d refer to myself as a storyteller first, and journalism just happens to be one of the mediums in which to express a story. That all being said, I love that this path allows me to travel to new and interesting places and talk to fascinating people. I love that no assignment is the same, and that although I spend a significant amount of time behind a desk, I’m by no means living a sedentary lifestyle. I’m naturally curious, and I believe this line of work matches up with that curiosity quite nicely. Many wise people have stressed the importance of lifelong learning, and journalism allows me a way to not only continue learning, but get paid to do it. Not a bad gig!”
Why is good journalism so important these days?
“Because information gives power to the people. Because those in power need to be held accountable. Because there are good stories — important stories — that often go untold, but have the power to change how we see the world. Finally, we’re all more alike than any of us like to admit, and stories are a vehicle to show us that.”
What separates a legitimate journalist from a blogger or someone who is writing opinion pieces?
“Well, opinion is just that: an opinion. There are very thoughtful, well written op-eds out there of course, but at the end of the day it’s still just an opinion. Anyone can write an op-ed, you don’t have to be a journalist to do that.
“A blog (and therefore, the blogger) generally doesn’t have the resources of the typical journalistic publication. Some journalists blog on the side, some bloggers go on to be journalists (I’m one of them). There are some blogs that have incredible resources at their disposal.
“I think, for me, I look at whether they have a staff of writers, do they have editors, fact checkers, copy editors? What is the quality of the work they put out? Do they publish exclusive, original stories, or are they just regurgitating news? Do they write under their real names?
“One mistake I think a lot of readers make is thinking that anything that is published online is a blog, and only publications that are in print are ‘real’ publications. That’s just not true in this day and age. We have digital-only publications reporting breaking news, in the White House press corps, and sending journalists around the world to cover or break important stories. That’s not something your typical blog is doing or even capable of. And guess what? All the biggest brands in journalism that are traditionally print publications? They’re all switching over to a digital-first model.”
How hard is it to keep opinion out of things in this day and age? How important is it?
“It’s not that hard, but people have an ego and constantly feel the need to make their stance heard. If that’s what you want to do, write an op-ed. That being said, I feel that op-eds just get shared more than straight news stories (because people love to either have their own opinion reinforced or get into online pissing matches), and there are actually a lot of great no-nonsense news stories to read if you just look.
“Shameless plug: that’s why I started a weekly newsletter, to give people straight news stories who can’t find them on their own, or just don’t have time.”
How does your military experience relate to your journalism?
“My Ranger days certainly give me a lot of confidence when it comes to going into a war zone, like Afghanistan. But my time as a recruiter was invaluable when it comes to going into someone’s home, making them comfortable enough to talk to you, and then conducting an effective interview. Both have been important in different ways, and I wouldn’t trade either of those experiences for anything.”
What story (or stories) have you written that you feel mean the most to you? (Can you also provide a link to hyperlink in the article)
“Here are a few articles I’ve written that I would recommend. My work in Afghanistan and at Standing Rock are all worthy of your time, in my (not so) humble opinion.”
What advice would you have for young veterans trying to get into journalism?
“You don’t need permission to be a journalist, that right is guaranteed to you by the First Amendment. So go out and start reporting. Bring a camera if you have one, but if not then your phone will likely do just fine. Ask hard questions, do your research, and write, rewrite, and then rewrite again. Don’t be precious about your work, even the top journalists in the world get their stuff torn apart by editors — it’s all part of the process. If these high schoolers can break important stories, than what’s your excuse?
“Oh, and always read your work out loud before you turn it in!”
Images provided by Mr. Skovlund.