Last week, I visited Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, to give a couple of speeches to journalism students and to be the “professional-in-residence” at the College of Communication, Information and Media. It was an interesting experience, and I have some thoughts on how it unfolded and how I think journalism education needs to evolve. But I thought it would be a good idea to share the notes from one of my speeches here on MediaShift. Much of it is a synthesis of my own experience as a freelance writer, how things have changed due to technology, and the great opportunity I see for journalism graduates.
My Own Experience
First things first: The most important thing for you to do is find work that you love, that you have a passion for. Don’t take a job because it’s what your parents want or for the money. My dad and uncles are all lawyers, and they assumed that when I was in journalism school that I would just eventually become a lawyer later. Uh, no.
I’ve been a freelance writer since 1993 — with one job at a dot-com start-up in 2000 — supporting myself in expensive San Francisco. How did I pull that off? Versatility: I’ve done marketing writing, technical writing, technical editing — those helped pay the bills while I could do criticism and reviews on the side.
Did I have to pitch feature stories to magazines all the time? No. I always tried to get a regular column somewhere, whether at the Los Angeles Times or Online Journalism Review. Even if it didn’t pay much I knew I would have that money each month, and then I could build on that with marketing writing or features.
My journalism career has not been by the book. Most people cover one topic and cover it for years and years, building up sources and contacts. I haven’t done that until more recently. Before, I would get bored with a subject after about a year. When I was writing the Cybertainment column for the L.A. Times, the same stories would come around each year — the fall TV preview online, the Christmas stocking-stuffer computer game reviews, etc. I didn’t want to have to cover the same ground again and again.
When I got the chance to start writing the Media Grok newsletter for the Industry Standard magazine in 1998, I was doing media criticism for the first time. Media criticism is nirvana for a journalist, because other journalists will pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re writing about them.
I started my own daily email newsletter called 360 News, looking in-depth at the top world news story and linking to news outlets that had the best coverage of that story. When I couldn’t make that work out as a business, I tried to shop it around, and OJR hired me on as a columnist.
Eventually, I grew tired of just writing about blogs and wanted to actually start a blog myself. Most people told me just to write one, but I refused to write a blog unless I was paid for my work. As a freelance writer, I couldn’t afford to pour my time and energy into something without being compensated. My friends thought I was nuts. But I wrote out a proposal of what I wanted to do with MediaShift. I pitched it to many media companies, and had interest from the L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post but they weren’t quite ready to launch it. PBS came through as the most interested one and was ready to go with it.
The amazing thing is that I wrote out exactly what I wanted to do, and I made that vision into a reality. It took some time to make it happen, but I had patience and now I can’t complain about my work. What am I going to do? Complain to myself for writing out my job description the way I did?
So again, I strongly encourage you to do work you love, to do something you’re passionate about, something that really resonates for you. Very very VERY few of my friends are in jobs they like or created. You might not get that out of the gate, but you need to think of your dream job, picture it and aim for it every day of your life.
Old Way vs. New Way as Freelance Writer
Old way: Write pitch letters to editors, and snail mail them or fax them. Call to follow up.
New way: Email editors first, and then call to follow up. In some cases, they are overloaded with email, so a call first and an email follow-up might work better.
Old way: Go visit each source for a story in person and record conversation.
New way: Call or email each source for the story and record phone conversations or save emails.
While writing for OJR and MediaShift, I covered international stories without traveling. I wrote about jailed Iranian blogger Sina Motallebi, and helped bring attention to his case before he was freed. I wrote about the situation in Nepal when the king took over the government and clamped down on the press, leaving bloggers to tell the uncensored stories of what was really going on there.
All my communication in doing those stories was by long distance telephone calls, email and instant messaging. I still believe that you get a much better story by traveling to the location, but it is possible to do effective reporting by long distance.
There are downsides, however. When I was reporting a story about Bombay clamping down on cyber cafes, I was doing an interview with a cafe owner via instant messaging at about 1 am Pacific Time. The gentleman on the other end of the line kept writing long, rambling responses that went on tangents. It was impossible to break through the line to tell him to keep it brief and on topic — very frustrating!
Old Way: Did our work and went home.
New Way: Work is always on — smartphone, crackberry, home computer.
It’s so easy to work all the time, to wake up and work in the middle of the night.
Oldthink vs. Newthink
Oldthink: We as journalist know it all; we know the truth; we have the answers.
Newthink: Dan Gillmor, Jay Rosen: “The people formerly known as the audience…” — they know more than I do.
How do you harness that? Email feedback, online forums, comments after blog posts or stories online. Ask for tips.
A recent example: TPMmuckraker asked its audience to help go through 3,000 pages of documents released by the White House related to the U.S. attorney firings. The comments on that blog post were filled with the work of average people helping to sift through the documents.
Oldthink: I must work my way up the corporate ladder at media companies.
Newthink: I can launch my own site and cover the topic that appeals to me.
Oldthink: Learn the basics of reporting and you’re OK: who, when, where, why, what, and how; triple-check sources; hit your deadlines.
Newthink: Be tech-savvy. Learn how to work the web as well as phones and sources. Learn how to do mash-ups. Search Google and other online sources to ferret out plagiarism.
Adrian Holovaty: Did ChicagoCrime.org mash-up as a side project in his spare time, which went on to win an award. The mash-up takes public data on Chicago crimes and puts it into a searchable online database as well as on Google Maps. So you can see what crimes have been committed in a specific time frame on a particular street or in a particular ZIP code. Holovaty was eventually hired by washingtonpost.com has a programmer/journalist.
What is it? Using the audience to help report a story in more direct ways.
Flickr has changed photography, especially stock photography. You can find photos of major events quickly without going to news sources. Most photos for my speech came from Flickr Creative Commons — but you have to use them with attribution. Also, most photos on MediaShift come from Flickr, as there are more than 25 million photos with Creative Commons licensing there.
Who is LonelyGirl15? Various people tried to figure it out, the L.A. Times wrote about it extensively online, helped push the mystery forward. The Times made the link to Creative Artists Agency, but then Matt Foremski and others worked together online in an ad hoc manner to find photos of Jessica Rose. These people had not met each other but shared an interest in figuring out who she was. Foremski used Google cache to find an old MySpace page of Rose, along with her photos.
NewAssignment.net uses a combination of professional editors and amateur sleuthers to do crowdsourcing work on the subject of crowdsourcing.
MediaShift has done Open Source Reporting projects, where I’ve asked readers to pitch in on research. At one point, people helped create a black list of video services which required Internet Explorer and Windows, and a white list of which services were more open.
D.I.Y.: The Brand of You
When you graduate, you can take an entry level 9-to-5 job as a general assignment reporter. Or, why not consider starting up your own site, your own blog, your own podcast, and creating your own brand? There is an amazing opportunity for you to either go into an existing media company and be an agent of change, bring a fresh perspective — or to start your own media outlet and make a difference.
How can you do that? One example of someone who did it on their own is Chris Allbritton and his Back to Iraq blog. He wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and wanted to visit Iraq during the first phase of the war. He asked his readers to contribute money to make it happen, and he raised $15,000 and went to Iraq. The readers helped decide where he should go and whom he should interview. It was direct journalism to the people without the infrastructure of an actual news organization. He then became a freelance foreign correspondent for various publications.
You can start your own blog with free blogging software, or start your own podcast with inexpensive audio equipment patched into your computer. Or you can start your own video show, with a digital videocamera. That might take a bit more money and time to put together, but you can get worldwide distribution by posting it online. You could start your own community hyper-local website, if you feel that no one else is covering that community very well.
How do you do it on your own? Pick a niche that no one has. Be a self-starter. Be a good networker: Find cheap help in design, technology, writing, video, photography or do it yourself. The resources are out there…Convince friends to help out or join in.
Build the brand of YOU: Over time, people will trust in your credibility, not necessarily just the brand of the news organization or marketing organization you might work for.
The Bad Side of Technology
It’s always on: You can’t get away from smart phones, crackberries, or your home computer. Especially if you work from home.
Technology can make you lazy, and you end up living in a bubble. You might not get out enough to meet people in person. Every time I go to a conference, I meet lots of people and end up with many story ideas. It’s stimulating to meet people and get out into the world.
When you spend so much time online, you start to believe that there are no original stories left to tell. It’s daunting to see so much being written that you wonder how you can set yourself apart and do something innovative or new.
Danger: You might say, “it’s just a blog,” so you don’t take it seriously when you make a mistake online. That’s wrong! Credibility is just as important online on a blog as it is offline at a newspaper on a radio program or anywhere else.
Don’t confuse the tool with the craft — just because you have great tools (camera, software programs, etc.) doesn’t mean you know how to use them. Remember to learn how to use the tools well before assuming you can create something of value for your audience.
Corrections: It’s very difficult to take back a mistake online, when so many people are linking to the original erroneous story or blog post.
Closing Inspirational Quote
The American Dream by Mark Cuban on Forbes.com:
“The American Dream is knowing that you can create the life you want on your own terms. The American Dream is not about how much money you acquire — it’s about reaching the pinnacle of success, waking up every morning with a smile on your face and looking forward to the day. The American Dream is trying the wrong things any number of times knowing it doesn’t matter, because finding the one thing you love to do makes it all worthwhile. It makes every day fun, so that you feel like you will never work a day in your life.”