The New Journalist

Insider magazine coverThis article was originally published in The Insider, PressReader’s leading edge magazine covering the latest industry trends and top insights about navigating through publishing in a digital world.


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 documented 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.

 

About Simon Owens

simon headshotSimon Owens is a long-time journalist, marketer, and PR professional. He began his career as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Virginia. In 2008, he moved to Washington, DC to work at a marketing agency while simultaneously serving as an associate editor at PBS’ MediaShift. He has conducted PR, content marketing, and social media strategy for dozens of companies, organizations, and individuals, including Google, Comcast, Forbes, ESPN, C-SPAN, and Nike. For two years he was an assistant managing editor at US News & World Report where he built out the company’s then-nascent social media presence. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Scientific American, Forbes, Harvard’s Nieman Lab, The Next Web, Daily Dot, PBS.org, and US News & World Report.

Simon is currently a content and social media marketing consultant. He works with brands and individuals to create engaging content for the web and markets that content to target consumers and influencers. Contact him at simonowens@gmail.com