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Letter to a young journalist

Occasionally I get contacted by young journalists. Sometimes it feels parasitic* (see comments below – I’m specifically talking about a type of contact  I get when somebody just wants to interview me for a school project they were assigned. They personally could care less) and sometimes, like the email below, it feels very genuine.  In either case I respond. For those that just want Q/A type answers for their report, I’ll often respond via video. But for those that reach out and are just looking to chat. I’ll hop on the phone, respond with a thoughtful email, whatever seems most appropriate. And in this case – I thought a blog post would be best because the issues this young journalist brought up felt palpable. Not to say I have all the answers – but I am happy to rant! (names in the email have been changed and noted with [BRACKETS].

Hey David,
We’ve never met, but [NAME REMOVED] speaks highly of you and I follow your work online. Congrats on the new gig. I’m rooting for you.

I’m emailing because I’m totally lost in this industry, and I think you’re one of the few people that might get it. (It’s a Hail Mary email.)

I spent last Friday in the newsroom of [METRO PAPER]. I’ve got some friends there, but I had never been there until last week. The visit absolutely terrified me.

I found it to be a bleak environment full of cubicles staffed by burnt-out folks and the publication’s digital strategy is as fragmented in the workplace as it appears online. [A PERSON] and the social media folks are pushed into a corner, like a leper colony. It felt like walking through a mausoleum.

What was absolutely terrifying is that the [PAPER] is considered “well-adjusted” for legacy media, and is one of the most highly sought-after landing spots for [MY SCHOOL] graduates. But I know, in my gut, I’d hate working there. I have no idea where I fit in anymore.

My technical skills are proficient, my grasp of the social web is above-average and my desire to do something beyond the ordinary runs deep. I harbor a deep-rooted fear that I cannot leverage my strengths in an industry unwilling to make the seismic shifts necessary to be healthy, competitive, but most importantly, more than words on a page.

Storytelling is great. But I want to be a part of storytelling that engages people, information that mobilizes people, platforms that change the paradigm–where are these opportunities, David?

It’s telling that from the [THIS PAPERS]’ reader representative, that the most common complaint from readers is not what the paper publishes, but what it doesn’t publish. I can’t find it a serviceable reason for its existence. To educate? To mobilize? To make money? It rarely accomplishes one out of three.

My peers at the [UNIVERSITY] seem to have this idea that I should hunker down, accept any opportunity upon graduation and just grind out copy until we are all made irrelevant by the boogeyman (“civic journalism”). Pardon my French, but holy shit, do I find this outcome absolutely terrifying.

TLDR: If you have any idea what path a journalism school student should walk separate from the well-trodden path, one that leads to something more forward-thinking (with the possibility of being an active participant in this paradigm shift), I’m all ears. Because the alternative is terrifying.

I figured if anyone has some sage (hopefully optimistic) words of advice, it might be you.

The next time you’re around, let me know and I’ll buy you a cup of coffee. Cheers.

First off – I love the real talk. Let’s get it out of the way. The newsroom you visited has some real issues. There was a recent hire (you probably saw in the news) that does speak volumes. But overall there is an aspect of “status quo” that any paper of that size/caliber is going to have. They can and will move forward – but it will be at a slower pace and it will be bogged down in bureaucracy, spreadsheets, and other annoying hinderances.  That doesn’t mean it’s a hell-hole, you just need to know what you are getting into.

But let’s say you ultimately reject the idea of working at a place like that. There are other opportunities out there.  Keep in mind: Just because you got a degree in journalism doesn’t mean you need to be a big J “Journalist” to do the kind of storytelling you want to do. Journalism is a gateway degree into almost anything.

There are a growing number of startup news organizations that don’t suffer from the same feel/vibe of what you just described. They include  AJ+ and Circa (yes, I’m bias in listing those first) as well as Buzzfeed, Vice, BreakingNews, Vox, and those are just off the top of my head. I’d also include nonprofits like those that belong to INN. Although these are less “sexy” I find they often don’t suffer a lot of the problems you identified with the major metro paper because – they are so mission driven that you only get people who care. There is a willingness to try new things because they are always on the brink of defeat. For every boring metro paper there is an “ist” taking its place (Gothamist, LAist, SFist, etc). That’s not a 1-for-1 replacement, but I hope the point still comes across.

The main thing I’d stress from the above is – Don’t get hung up on the idea that working at a traditional paper is the sign of “making it.” You can work for a startup. Even one that doesn’t have BIG J Journalism at its core – and be doing amazing work. Look at The Skimm. It’s hardly a newsroom. I can even imagine some muggles debating whether or not it’s journalism. Who cares. I bet the two girls running it are having a ball (and working a ton – but that comes with the territory). Check out GoPop. Now think about the possibilities of designing a platform for communication itself. That’s some next level shitright?

Here’s the rub: What you gain in creative freedom you lose in stability. If I were 30-40 years older, at this time in my career I’d be middle management. Trying to win awards and impress my editor. It might be “dull” aside from the occasional big win – but I’d have a pension, a stable job, enough to feel secure with my 2.5 kids, dog and…. well, I probably wouldn’t make enough for the picket fence because journalism pay rates are never that great – but you get the idea.

As it is – I’ve had several jobs in the last 10 years. I’ve been lucky to have TONS of creative freedom, but I’ve also never truly had BIG S “Security.” Combine that with the emotional highs/lows of working on a startup (or in a startup-esque culture) and while exciting – you should keep in mind there is a “grass is always greener” element here.

So when you write: “I cannot leverage my strengths in an industry unwilling to make the seismic shifts necessary to be healthy,” that might be true. But the hinge word there is “industry.” Maybe you don’t want to work in the “industry” – but you do want to work in the “community.” That’s an important distinction (see the second question here). Increasingly – projects that I think would once be called part of the “community” are being embraced as part of the “industry” – but still at the outer edges. But that does bode well for somebody like you – to find a space at the fringes and push the boundaries allowing more space for the wider industry to understand/adopt/etc. At least – that’s how I like to think about some of the work I’ve done.

I’ll end with this: I appreciate you reaching out and flattered that you think I’d have some sage advice. But I’ll also confess – I am not sure if I have anything solid. It sounds like you are still young. You got plenty of time to figure out what you want to do. Just think about all the possibilities. Don’t be tied to any one thing. And while I would encourage you to take anything/everything I’ve said here with a grain of salt – do consider me an ally. Happy to help out if I can – just let me know.