The New Jour­nal­ist

The Insider - - CONTENT - by Si­mon Owen

When I launched my first blog, a Livejour­nal in early 2003, I had no idea I’d one day be­come a jour­nal­ist. I was a col­lege fresh­man at the time, and most of those early blog posts were lit­tle more than jour­nal en­tries, a col­lec­tion of my per­sonal ru­mi­na­tions that were read by only a hand­ful of col­lege friends.

But as my col­lege ca­reer pro­gressed, I grew more fas­ci­nated with what I vaguely re­al­ized at the time was a golden age of blog­ging, an era when a truly in­de­pen­dent me­dia arose from the “peo­ple

for­merly known as the au­di­ence” and acted as a coun­ter­point to the tra­di­tional main­stream press. I be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with var­i­ous blog­ging for­mats, pro­duc­ing orig­i­nal con­tent in the form of QandAs. I would email that orig­i­nal con­tent to pop­u­lar blog­gers and, ev­ery now and then, score a link from web ti­tans like An­drew Sullivan and In­stapun­dit, which would re­sult in a brief del­uge of web traf­fic.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, I had no real con­cept of what I wanted to do for a liv­ing, so I be­gan ran­domly mail­ing out my re­sume to news­pa­pers within driv­ing dis­tance of where I lived. By a stroke of luck, a pub­lisher from one of those news­pa­pers wrote back and said she had an en­try level re­port­ing po­si­tion open. Re­al­iz­ing I had no real re­port­ing “clips,” to speak of, I printed up a few of the QandA in­ter­views from my blog and brought them to the in­ter­view. Due mostly to the fact that there wasn’t much com­pe­ti­tion (the $10 an hour salary likely had some­thing to do with that), I got the job.

It wasn’t un­til a few years later when I re­al­ized that, un­be­knownst to me at the time, I had spent sev­eral years build­ing a skillset that would prove in­cred­i­bly valu­able to me as a jour­nal­ist. In 2006, the year I grad­u­ated from col­lege,

news pub­lish­ers were still only be­gin­ning to grap­ple with the web, and as the Great Re­ces­sion hit and the in­dus­try be­gan hem­or­rhag­ing jobs, jour­nal­ists who un­der­stood web cul­ture and the rapidly chang­ing dy­nam­ics of in­ter­net plat­forms sud­denly had tremen­dous lever­age com­pared to their more vet­eran peers.

To­day’s jour­nal­ists are be­com­ing less reliant on tra­di­tional pub­lish­ers to forge their ca­reers. As I wrote last

year, jour­nal­ists are gain­ing in­creas­ing lever­age over their em­ploy­ers and us­ing that lever­age to change jobs, in­crease their salaries, and, in some cases, by­pass the

pub­lish­ers com­pletely by mon­e­tiz­ing their own jour­nal­ism. This has launched a se­ries of ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions among pub­lish­ers as to what role they play in the me­dia ecosys­tem. Should they pro­mote the per­sonal brands of their own jour­nal­ists? Are they func­tion­ing as anachro­nis­tic, su­per­flu­ous mid­dle­men be­tween the re­porter and reader? And if they do go away, who will fund the im­por­tant in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing that has made jour­nal­ism an es­sen­tial facet of our democ­racy?

As we head into the sec­ond half of the decade, the tra­di­tional J School route -- where one as­sem­bles clips at a col­lege news­pa­per or var­i­ous in­tern­ships and then works their way up within the in­dus­try -- is no longer suf­fi­cient for as­pir­ing jour­nal­ists. At no other point in his­tory have we had so many freely avail­able tools at our dis­posal that we can be­gin lever­ag­ing long be­fore we mail out that first re­sume and cover let­ter.

Though there’s no one-size-fits all ap­proach, here are four strate­gies you can adopt im­me­di­ately if you’d like to pur­sue a ca­reer in jour­nal­ism:

BUILD A PER­SONAL FOL­LOW­ING

It used to be that the core value you brought to a new jour­nal­ism job re­volved around your beat knowl­edge and re­port­ing skills. But now, with the abil­ity for in­di­vid­u­als to amass so­cial me­dia and email sub­scribers, one can trans­port a read­er­ship from one re­port­ing job to another. Though the plat­form of choice for many jour­nal­ists is Twit­ter, an as­pir­ing jour­nal­ist would do well to di­ver­sify his dis­tri­bu­tion strat­egy so they’re not overly reliant on a sin­gle net­work.

UN­DER­STAND HOW CON­TENT IS DIS­TRIB­UTED

Gone are the days when jour­nal­ists could sim­ply file copy and rely on their em­ployer for dis­tri­bu­tion. Re­porters to­day should have a work­ing knowl­edge of a va­ri­ety of dis­tri­bu­tion prac­tices, in­clud­ing head­line writ­ing, SEO, so­cial me­dia mar­ket­ing, and traf­fic an­a­lyt­ics. You should know the dif­fer­ence be­tween a unique vis­i­tor and a page view and have a con­sis­tent un­der­stand­ing of who your

read­er­ship is. Pub­lish­ers ex­pect you to ad­vo­cate for your own jour­nal­ism, and few em­ploy­ers will have much pa­tience for re­porters who think they’re above such prac­tices.

LEARN THE BUSI­NESS OF JOUR­NAL­ISM

As NYU jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor Jay Rosen put it in 2014:

If you work in any kind of ed­i­to­rial or­ga­ni­za­tion, it is your job to un­der­stand the busi­ness model ... By “un­der­stand the busi­ness model,” I mean you can (con­fi­dently) an­swer this ques­tion: What is the plan to bring in enough money to sus­tain the en­ter­prise and per­mit it to grow?

While the “church and state” bound­aries that ex­ist at many me­dia com­pa­nies are noble and nec­es­sary, it’s no longer ac­cept­able for jour­nal­ists to com­pletely dis­as­so­ci­ate them­selves from the busi­ness side of the equa­tion. You should fa­mil­iar­ize your­self with the goals and met­rics a news or­ga­ni­za­tion is judged by in or­der to align your own work with those goals. Is your com­pany gen­er­at­ing rev­enue merely from page views or are there long-term ben­e­fits for cre­at­ing deeper en­gage­ment? Is a Face­book like as valu­able as an email sub­scriber? Know­ing the an­swers to these ques­tions will only make you more in­dis­pens­able to a news or­ga­ni­za­tion.

EX­PAND YOUR DEF­I­NI­TION OF “JOUR­NAL­ISM”

Many of the best sto­ry­telling jobs emerg­ing to­day would hardly have been rec­og­nized as jour­nal­ism just a few decades ago. As I docu

mented ear­lier this year, free­lance jour­nal­ists are di­ver­si­fy­ing their rev­enue streams by tak­ing on jobs in con­tent mar­ket­ing. While there are cer­tainly eth­i­cal pit­falls to avoid within this field, branded jour­nal­ism has con­trib­uted sig­nif­i­cant value to our in­for­ma­tion ecosys­tem, and I don’t think jour­nal­ists should con­sider the creation of such con­tent to be be­neath them or some­how “im­pure”.

NO MORE EX­CUSES

There’s an on­go­ing de­bate as to whether we’re in the midst of a new golden age of jour­nal­ism or if the in­dus­try is in a tu­mul­tuous de­cline. I tend to side with the former, but re­gard­less of your views on the sub­ject, the tra­di­tional bot­tom-up tra­jec­tory we saw with the jour­nal­ism jobs of yes­ter­year no longer ap­plies. The amaz­ing thing about the in­ter­net is that all bar­ri­ers to en­try have been dis­man­tled, which means the cost of ac­tu­ally prac­tic­ing jour­nal­ism is near zero. In other words, if ever you’ve dreamt of launch­ing a ca­reer in jour­nal­ism, you have no more ex­cuses; fire up a Medium ac­count, be­gin com­pil­ing a list of story ideas, and get started.

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