Your journalism career as art and albums

It’s journalism school 101 talk: “Journalism is a craft.” We are storytellers and we must “learn the craft of storytelling.”

Craftsmanship. 

It’s something to aspire to. Brian Boyer does a great talk about craft. A great craftsman creates something that is useful. Functional. It’s the chair that is both beautiful, but molds to your butt perfectly. If it doesn’t do the lat­ter, then its beauty is pointless.

In journalism we spent 100+ years working on our craft. During that time, there was no need to think about the art of journalism.

Journalists need to work on more than our craft. We should focus on art too.

I’m contrasting art here with craft —  in that it is not about making something functional. It’s about saying something. Art is about making a statement. Sometimes, it’s even about making a statement to the artistic community itself on what art can or can’t be. Is that toilet art? Yes, and here’s why. Art is an ongoing conversation about institutions and processes and our relationships to them.

For most of the 20th century, that conversation didn’t need to happen in journalism. For the last 20–25 years in the journalism community, it has been the most important muscle to flex. In its infancy we asked “are bloggers journalists.” Today, organizations like the Washington Post and NYT or startups like Hearken and the now shuttered ‘This‘ create products that ask much deeper questions about what it is that we do and the processes we should undertake to report, create and share content.

This art vs. craft concept is one of the metaphoric backdrops by which I think about my own career and how I navigate our ecosystem. Every project I work on has a bit of craft, but I also want it to have some art. I want the projects I work on to make a statement. The product shouldn’t just be enabling the creation of content. Even if it’s well-crafted content, that isn’t enough. The product should also make a statement. Perhaps even be a manifesto. Even if an endeavor I work on ultimately fails, the statements live on.

Startups that don’t succeed as businesses might succeed within the larger community. Sometimes they are acquired, but sometimes their practices and principles get adopted and absorbed.

I put the original Circa in this category. Even though it failed as a business, the ideas it pushed forth have inspired action at places like the NYT and the BBC. Little fish get eaten by bigger fish. That’s just what happens.

The Journalist as Musician

Another metaphor I use to think about my career (and I think it applies to most people – see this fun post from 2009) is that of a musician. A musician can put out a cohesive piece of work, like an album, or they can work on somebody else’s album. They can put out a work that is pure pop (a well crafted song) or more “artsy” music. I should also note: There’s no “right” amount of craft/art. It’s all about what the musician wants to accomplish and work on.

Most people in the journalism community first learned about me because of Spot.Us. That was my first solo album. “Spot.Us was about making a kind of artistic statement to the journalism community as much as it was about funding journalism for the world.” In some respects, Spot.Us was more art than craft. The journalism we funded directly was decent. Some of it award winning  even— but nothing boundary pushing. What stopped and got people’s attention was the mechanism by which the journalism was funded. It was a statement.

HOW DID I EVEN GET TO DO A SOLO ALBUM? 

Before Spot.Us, I had worked with Jay Rosen on NewAssignment.net/Assignment Zero, a limited edition vinyl! Critically acclaimed in the citizen journalism underground (very punk). It too was more art than craft. We did one of the first crowdsourced journalism projects and the topic we were reporting on…. was the spread of crowdsourcing itself (how Talking Heads meta of us). In retrospect, I think we all agree, this was too artsy for its own good! Still — a seminal moment in my early career and one of the first times I got to really jam on a national stage with musical heroes.

Before that, I was a freelance writer, most notably for Wired. In other words — I was a studio musician. I would jam with whoever paid me. Hell, I’d play on the street for money. Throughout my career I’ve done a few solo or side gigs that weren’t full album releases. Playing with other musicians gets your creative juices going.

But back to the evolution of my career. After Spot.Us I needed a follow up album. I felt a sense of pressure around this too. Spot.Us was well received, but not a “pop” hit. The next thing I did was Circa. I got to work across musical genres — since this was deeper into the tech world and I got to work with other fantastic musicians like Matt Galligan, Arsenio Santos, Anthony DeRosa and I helped put together an amazing editorial team.

Circa was, in my mind, a great mix of art and craft. The artistic element of Circa: It was a loud and powerful statement about the limitations of the article as a unit of information and a full throated rock scream for structured journalism. The critique that Circa offered the journalism community was well received. But Circa as a product also had great craft. It was crafted specifically to the “breaking news” space — akin to Jazz, where you have to improvise a bit and never really get to put your guard down. It’s an acquired kind of music that doesn’t have the same mass appeal that snark or listicles have — but there is definitely craft in it.

After Circa, I joined AJ+. It too was a statement: About platform intelligence and how that can be applied to a broadcast organization. AJ+ was early into the space that is now filled with almost every publisher that asks “but how can we re-make this content for x-platform.” I think this space has elements of art, but is a bit more craft heavy.  I was with AJ+ for one year. And while I like to think I played a part in its success — I’m willing to admit I was like a featured musician and in many respects it was the great amassing of studio talent that let AJ+’s craft shine through strong.

Now with Advance Digital I’m in more of a producer role. We are working on different projects. The biggest right now is The Tylt. Each project will have a mix of art and craft. Some will be more artsy. Others, perhaps more craft. And each will strike a chord in some kind of genre, space. In the producer role, I am taking a bit more of a back seat. It means once the recording is done, I’m not necessarily the one to take the music out on tour, although I’ll still have a stake in how it’s received. So far, it’s a great ride and most importantly, allows me the space to think about what it is I’m working on and how it makes a statement.

What about you? 

I write this because I think everyone can think about their career in terms of art/craft and in terms of musical releases. To be fair, the musical metaphor can be switched. I can imagine somebody talking about their career being like that of a movie producer, working on some indie/art films and some blockbuster hits. Think over your career. How does it fit into these ideas?