The old career advice doesn’t always fit today. For most of my career, veterans would have counseled a young journalist to stick around a while, so your résumé showed some stability. You want to show some commitment, an ability to hold a job.
But the New York Times just hired my friend Daniel Victor to his fifth job in just a little over two years. I was one of those others who hired him (to his longest tenure of the past three jobs) and I enthusiastically recommended him to other employers.
Dan was a reporter for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., when 2010 started. I hired him to join TBD’s community engagement team. When TBD cut its staff, Dan moved to Philly.com to help build an online community. When Amanda Michel was looking for someone to help with social media at ProPublica, I recommended Dan and she hired him. Then she moved to the Guardian and Dan got her job leading ProPublica’s social media efforts. Now he’s moving to the New York Times.
I’m thrilled to tell you that I’m joining @nytimes as a social media producer.
— Daniel Victor (@bydanielvictor) June 4, 2012
News is a volatile industry right now with lots more journalists looking for work than finding jobs. A journalist who has been hired four times in 26 months is a journalist in high demand.
Since I know a little about Dan and his career moves, I thought I would (with his permission) share some career lessons from watching him, as I did after hiring Mandy Jenkins for the second time. The first four lessons are nothing new and their importance can’t be overstated:
Deliver quality. Any of the digital lessons that follow don’t matter if your work isn’t good. Dan is good at what he does, whether it’s newspaper reporting or exploring social media possibilities (and usually combining traditional journalism with new tools). A successful journalism career is built on a foundation of quality journalism and that’s where Dan starts.
Work hard. Hard work (just like quality) doesn’t ensure career success, but it makes it way more likely. When Dan worked for me at TBD, he seemed tireless and always willing to help. At one point, we needed a little help on the early shift, but we were a small crew and moving someone entirely to an early start would leave us light in the afternoon. Dan volunteered to do an hour or so of work from his apartment after he got up each morning, then come in a little later. Whatever we did, Dan was pitching in and working hard. People notice that, and they remember.
Practice ethical journalism. Dan’s experimentation and digital journalism are rooted in sound journalism ethics and principles. His blog posts about accuracy and verification illustrate a commitment to getting the facts right.
Be fun to work with. TBD was a fun workplace, and Dan was at the center of the fun, even when the company decided the fun was going to end. He has a great sense of humor and he has a candy jar on his desk (with a leader board that recorded and encouraged contributions). Everyone interacted with Dan and liked him. Dan is great at self-deprecating humor (perhaps because he has so much to self-deprecate: He made regular fun of his limited fashion sense and dating success). When he had an apartment without air conditioning, instead of whining, he recognized it as an opportunity for a fun blog about coping through the summer without AC. Fun doesn’t count for squat if you don’t work hard and deliver quality, but together they are an endearing combination.
Sadly, I know plenty of fun, ethical, hard-working journalists who deliver quality who can’t find jobs in the business or have stopped looking. Dan keeps finding jobs (or they find him) because he does lots more:
Master new tools. I can’t remember anything we tried or discussed at TBD that Dan didn’t know how to do, or want to learn. I’m sure he can’t do it all, but he left that impression with a former boss. When I was at News Foo, I heard some buzz about Quora as a potential rising star in social media. It didn’t take off the way I thought it might, but Dan was quick to check it out after I mentioned it to my staff. In a job market where we’re always seeing new tools, you want someone who’s going to learn them quickly (and possibly teach you).
Study techniques. Lots of news organizations are posting their content to Facebook. As social media editor at ProPublica, Dan was not just posting content, he was studying the results of different ways to post content. He noticed how posting an image, rather than just a link that pulls in a thumbnail image, increased sharing.
Don’t limit yourself. Dan is young and looks younger. Prospective editors of my generation (and probably some younger) might look at him and think initially, “I’ve got t-shirts older than this kid; am I really going to hire him as a professional journalist?” But Dan doesn’t think of himself that way (or pushes aside the doubts if he does). He shows confidence, talks about his experience (four years as a reporter before his recent string of community engagement and social media jobs) and quickly takes us old guys past that first impression. Besides, at 27 he’s older than many social media editors. Before long, we start thinking, “If I hire this guy, he’s got the smarts and experience to make me look good.”
Share your knowledge. In his blog and in speaking at journalism conferences and in conversations with colleagues, Dan generously shares the things he learns. In addition to the links above about Dan’s candy jar (he actually draws valid community engagement lessons from the jar), verification and posting images to Facebook, Dan’s blog includes Twitter tips and a description of his work as a community host at TBD. Sharing your knowledge helps people move past that youthful first impression.
Be a leader. Dan enjoyed local Online News Association meetups in Washington, so when he went to Philadelphia, he helped organize a local chapter there. People notice leaders.
Network. Dan keeps making and cultivating connections in the business, not just at ONA and other conferences, though events and organizations help. When people know you, you stand out more quickly from the stack of résumés or the crowd of prospects.
Experiment. When Dan was at the Patriot-News, he joined the BeatBlogging project, taking a new approach to beat coverage, including inviting the community to be his assignment editor. He was one of the first reporters making effective use of Twitter (a year before I met him, I was citing him in a webinar for editors as a reporter to follow).
Take responsibility. When you hire young people, you occasionally have to deal with immature decisions. Details are not important here, but Dan made an immature decision at TBD that prompted some discussions with the bosses. Further immaturity could have compounded the situation here: minimizing or defending his error, saying that we were overreacting (we probably were) or making excuses. Dan acknowledged responsibility immediately in my first conversation with him. In a subsequent conversation with me and another boss, he said he had been beating himself up since we talked and that he expected more of himself and this would never happen again. A potentially negative incident turned into an impressive incident. Even those of us with years of experience are going to make mistakes. Take responsibly and make amends and you can move beyond your small mistakes quickly and start repairing the damage of big mistakes.
I expect and hope that Dan will stick around a while at the Times. He has ascended quickly to the organization that’s still regarded as the pinnacle of journalism. I think he’ll continue ascending, but within the Times, and achieve that career stability prospective employers like to see. But he’s also shown another thing employers like to see: a rising star.
Other links with career advice
I’ve blogged frequently with advice for journalists on hunting for a job or career development: