Michael Hastings, a contributor to Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed, died on Tuesday morning in a car crash in Los Angeles at the unforgivably young age of 33.
He is best known, rightly, for his 2010 Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who as commander of the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan was the face of the war that Hastings saw as misguided and poorly managed. His profile, "The Runaway General," portrayed McChrystal as a loose cannon so sure of himself and his strategy for the war that he and his staff openly derided their civilian overseers, including Vice President Joe Biden.
President Obama dismissed McChrystal over his comments in the story, which also won several awards, as if Hastings needed a plaque to know that a piece of journalism that led a president to fire his top general was something special.
Hastings is today, and will likely continue to be, remembered as the journalist who brought down a four-star general and the face of the war in Afghanistan. But that story was just one piece of a remarkable but too-short career of speaking the truths that no one else was willing to, keeping his notepad open when others might have closed it, a refusal to play by the unspoken rules and a delightful disobedience to which we were all beneficiaries. He was never afraid to burn a bridge if he thought doing so might help him tell his readers something they needed to know.
But, for all his take-no-prisoners bravado, in my all-too-brief encounters with Hastings he was more thoughtful than he let on in public. After I wrote critically about his McChrystal profile, he reached out to offer a kind word and invite me to drinks, a small gesture but one that few writers – perhaps myself included – would have been generous and unguarded enough to make to a critic.
Last year, he offered ten tips on Reddit for aspiring journalists. He was in a better position to offer them than I was, but I can reproduce them for you here. If you're just entering journalism or considering it, follow his advice, and not just because it's good, although it is. We could use more like him.
Okay, here's my advice to you (and young journalists in general):
1.) You basically have to be willing to devote your life to journalism if you want to break in. Treat it like it's medical school or law school.
2.) When interviewing for a job, tell the editor how you love to report. How your passion is gathering information. Do not mention how you want to be a writer, use the word "prose," or that deep down you have a sinking suspicion you are the next Norman Mailer.
3.) Be prepared to do a lot of things for free. This sucks, and it's unfair, and it gives rich kids an edge. But it's also the reality.
4.) When writing for a mass audience, put a fact in every sentence.
5.) Also, keep the stories simple and to the point, at least at first.
6.) You should have a blog and be following journalists you like on Twitter.
7.) If there's a publication you want to work for or write for, cold call the editors and/or email them. This can work.
8) By the second sentence of a pitch, the entirety of the story should be explained. (In other words, if you can't come up with a rough headline for your story idea, it's going to be a challenge to get it published.)
9) Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting. Like it's more important to you than anything else in your life--family, friends, social life, whatever.
10) Learn to embrace rejection as part of the gig. Keep writing/pitching/reading.