The crowd can save your journalism career.
I encourage any journalist to read Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton’s message to last week’s WAN/IFRA International Newsroom Summit: How The Crowd Saved Our Company. (I also encourage media executives to read John’s message, but I’m writing here about individual journalists seeking career success in a time of great upheaval.)
I want to suggest how individual journalists can learn from the JRC experience that John shared. I won’t belabor what John said about how the newspaper model is broken and can’t be fixed. I’ve said that plenty of times myself, and if you’re still in denial about that, you’re not ready for the rest of his message or mine. John concluded that discussion with this important point:
You don’t transform from broken.
You don’t tinker or tweak.
You start again anew and build from the ground up.
John was providing advice for his fellow executives for building their organizations from the ground up. I’ll focus on advice for the journalist hoping to make yourself a valuable asset for such a starting-anew organization.
If you’ve been a newspaper person as long as I have (I started my newspaper career in 1971), this advice from John will scare you:
If you listen to nothing else I have to say this morning then please listen to this:
Stop listening to Newspaper people.
John exhorted his fellow executives to follow the approach our company is pursuing: “Be Digital First and Print Last.” So how do you become a digital journalist (someone to listen to) after years (decades, in my case) as a newspaper person?
I hope I can provide an example. Because John listens to this longtime newspaper person. In fact, he just hired me to lead engagement with this crowd that’s saving us.
I transformed from a newspaper person to a digital person (and you can, too) by taking these steps:
- Embrace training opportunities.
- Teach yourself.
- Connect with mentors, including those younger than you.
- Think digital.
- Read digital.
- Just do it.
- Make digital excellence your priority.
- Engage the crowd.
Training. I think I attended my first digital journalism training program in 1995, a National Institute of Computer Assisted Reporting program before an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Miami. I started learning there about Internet research and about data analysis. My learning has continued through dozens of conferences, seminars, workshops, webinars, News University online courses and a university class. I persuaded employers to pay for some programs, paid for others myself and sought fellowships for others. When I attend conferences as a speaker, I seek out the sessions where I can learn more about digital journalism. I still have a lot to learn about digital journalism and I have not mastered all the digital skills I would like to master. But what I have learned has helped make me a digital journalist.
Teach yourself. In 2007, recognizing the growth of social media and its potential impact on journalism, I began exploring social media myself — LinkedIn and Facebook initially and then Twitter. These are not hard to learn. You can take classes and workshops in social media (I’ve taught dozens), but you can also teach yourself. These tools are not that hard to learn, and resources to help you are abundant. (Blogs by Mandy Jenkins and Mindy McAdams are a couple that are excellent on digital skills.)
Connect with mentors. Digital journalists are some of the most generous people I know. Ask for their help and busy journalists patiently walk you through the steps or guide the way. Since that 1995 workshop, I have learned (and often relearned, because I don’t get everything on the first try) countless digital journalism tips from dozens of journalists, including colleagues at the Omaha World-Herald and American Press Institute and others I connected with at conferences or online (some I still haven’t met in person). At the Gazette and TBD, I learned digital skills from staff members who worked for me and were a generation younger. Don’t let ego get in the way of relationships that will help you learn.
Think digital. You need to get to the point where you think digital naturally. You get there by intentionally thinking digital. Every story you work, every meeting you sit in on, remind yourself to ask questions about digital coverage and digital plans. The thinking will follow.
Read digital. Make the time to read the bloggers who explore, explain and debate the issues of digital journalism: Jeff Jarvis, Michele McLellan and Amy Gahran, 10000 Words, Jeff Sonderman, Nieman Lab, Robert Niles, Mashable to name a few. (What are some of your favorites?)
Just do it. I didn’t see the attraction or importance of Twitter when I first checked it out. Prodded at an API seminar by Howard Owens, I just started tweeting and I figured it out. If you want to become one of the digital people, choose something to just do until you master it. In his Zurich address, John mentioned the great Twitter coverage of the Joplin tornado by Brian Stelter of the New York Times. His editor, Bill Keller, was ridiculing Twitter as something that makes you stupid, but Stelter just did it anyway.
Make digital excellence your priority. I don’t think I hear any excuse from newspaper people as often as I hear the not-enough-time excuse. We make time for what’s important. If digital excellence is more important to you, you will make more time for it. You will decide to work differently. You will stop doing some things that were important when print excellence was your priority.
The Crowd knows more than we do. The Crowd can do what we do. …
If you have a competitor so much bigger than you are such as the Crowd then you better make peace with it and partner.
Understand the Crowd’s value and add your value to theirs and turn the Crowd from a competitor into a colleague. …
Shared Content Equals Influence.
And Influence in the new eco system equals Engagement.
And Engagement equals Value to those advertisers and others trying to reach that Engaged Audience. …
Key to all of our efforts is to open up our newsrooms and our newsgathering processes to increase audience engagement and to enhance the value of our content.
Journalists who learn to engage the crowd won’t be regarded as outdated “newspaper people,” even if you’re still working to update your digital skills. No matter how long you’ve worked in print, the crowd can save your career if you’ll engage it.
Admission #1: I know this looks like shameful sucking up to write a whole blog post agreeing with something my boss said. But I should note that I was praising John Paton long before I came to work for him.
Admission #2. This feels more boastful than I feel or than I want to be. I am not as complete a digital journalist as I want to be. I don’t share this story to boast, but because I feel like if an old ink-stained wretch like me can become a digital journalist anyone can. I share these lessons in hopes that some of the newspaper people I have respected and admired through my career will follow this path and give new life to their careers as digital journalists.