Swimming Lessons for Journalists

    by Amy Gahran
    July 4, 2008

    Yesterday on the Poynter Institute’s E-Media Tidbits blog (which I edit), contributor Alan Abbey posted an item about the latest spate of newsroom layoffs. He noted:

    “For media workers, these aren’t necessarily bad times. For every job shutting down at LA Times, there is probably one (albeit less well paid, less prestigious, and more nose-to-the-grindstone) opening up in new media. However, for media veterans, this downturn does feel similar to the widespread closures of coal mines and steel mills 25-30 years ago. What can we do with our outdated skills?”

    That’s pretty blunt talk, and I’m glad that Abbey had the courage to speak so frankly about the fear that established traditional journalists face. Not surprisingly, his strong words pushed buttons in thr journalism community. The very first comment left on that post was predictably cynical and reactionary:

    “What do you mean by ‘job’ in ‘new media?’ I’m really interested to hear, as there are about as many interpretations as to the meaning of those words as there are colors in the rainbow. Personally, I take it as ‘blogging’ without ‘salary/pay.’ But I’m sure I’m missing something.”

    So where will today’s journos find tomorrow’s jobs? Here’s my take: Not in news organizations. At least, not in news orgs as we’ve grown accustomed to them over the last century. That ship is quite obviously sinking. While traditional news orgs probably won’t disappear entirely as a species, they’re getting rarer and smaller by the minute. They’re a lousy career bet — especially for established professionals with higher salary requirements and increasingly commoditized skills.


    In my opinion, journalists need to start leaping en masse from the sinking ship of the newsroom and start working for search engines, nonprofits, think tanks, collaboratives, and other kinds of businesses and organizations. In fact, it might even be a good idea to trade in the label “journalist” for the more inclusive “person with journalism skills” — a group that includes many talented, passionate amateurs as well as professionals from other fields. That kind of humility offers considerable flexibility and room to grow.

    Also, today’s journalists can — and probably should — consciously shift away from jobs that revolve around content creation (producing packaged “stories”) and toward providing layers of journalistic insight and context on top of content created by others (including public information). Finding ways to help people sort through info overload is far more valuable than providing more information. Journos also should learn to cultivate and openly participate in public discourse — something that provokes an inordinate and irrational amount of fear in the hearts of many traditional journalists. God forbid they acknowledge that they are, in fact, human beings with perspectives, opinions, and blind spots!

    **Content creation has become a commodity. That won’t change **— so journos need to stop expecting to get paid mainly to write stories. Period. Several other commenters to Abbey’s post protested that the quality writing produced by professional journalists will always be in demand, and there will always be jobs for that skill. That’s a nice romantic idea, but honestly I don’t think it’s a realistic basis for a media career strategy. Ongoing journalism job cuts prove that point.


    Quality writing/storytelling is only a facet of how journos have worked. Ultimately, producing stories or prose is not the core of what we do. Rather, our mission is to help people learn what’s happening (or might happen) in their world and how it’s relevant, so people can make better (or at least more informed) decisions individually and collectively. This can happen in lots of ways.

    So if your personal mission has morphed over time to mainly be about telling stories, impressing colleagues, being famous, or winning awards (and be honest that’s where a lot of established journalists’ heads are really at), journalism might no longer be the best field for you.

    Yes, a few journos will still find ways to do big investigative stories, and maybe get paid for that — but probably not very often through news organizations. That’s why I’m so intrigued by ventures like spot.us, and Many Eyes, and showusabetterway.com.

    So where are those fabled “new media jobs” right now?

    Look for editorial or community management positions (not writing or reporting) for Web sites — and especially sites NOT run by traditional news orgs. Dive into a different kind of culture and start getting used to adapting. Also, check out venues like Paid Content, Media Bistro and Social Media Jobs. And if you’re really hooked on in-depth research and reporting, consider becoming an analyst for a think tank or consulting firm related to your beat, where you’ll get to publish reports and blog for an influential audience.

    Accept that many of these jobs will involve an advocacy mission or specialized audience. This means you’ll probably have to learn to practice the realistic, demonstrable ethic of transparency ahead of the ultimately unachievable and (dare I say) patently inauthentic ethic of “objectivity.” Remember that journalism has deep roots in advocacy, and that writing for a general audience is not the only “real” journalism.

    Even better: Learn how to be an entrepreneur and work collaboratively with teams of people representing all kinds of backgrounds and skills. Have the guts to develop your own ventures wherever you see a need. (People have LOTS of needs for news and information, many of which haven’t ever been well served by traditional news organizations.) Learn how to be transparent, especially in public discourse. Be willing step outside your comfort zone, to be a beginner, to find and follow passion, to try and fail.

    Sound too risky for you? Then pick a skill area that’s in demand (like mobile media, or social media, or online video, or locative media) and make it your business to learn how to do that. Don’t expect someone to pay for your training — but do try to wrangle a job in your news org’s online or mobile operations, if you’re not ready to jump ship yet and don’t have lots of time for (or aren’t good at) independent learning.

    The direct financial costs to learning online media skills independently are minimal; the biggest investment is your time and energy. You don’t have to do it all, but if you need to maintain financial stability (to support a family, retirement, gambling habit, etc.) it helps to have more concretely in-demand production skills to offer than reporting and writing.

    The big picture: Ultimately, if you’re REALLY concerned with keeping yourself afloat in the media/news field (rather than just hunkering down in a comfortable silo and avoiding change) your smartest strategy is prepare your escape from traditional news organizations as soon as possible. It’s pretty obvious that most news orgs are shedding traditional journalists as fast as they can get away with. It’s not realistic to hope that your news org (or the traditional news business in general) will shelter you indefinitely.

    It’s far easier to learn to swim on your own — and to jump off and get away — before this sinking ship drags you under.

    Tagged: adaptation career evolution jobs journalism mobile skills video

    8 responses to “Swimming Lessons for Journalists”

    1. I’m glad you’re into being so open and honest about your biases, because phew, that’s one strong opinion!

      There are some good points in there for what traditional journalists should do to broaden their skills, and tailoring your skills to the changing information environment.

      As for the advice to get out of news organizations as fast as possible, I would argue that you can’t generalize across the entire news industry. It depends on the company and how open or averse to change it is, and its track record of responding to change when revenues don’t meet expectations.

      If you’re at a company — any company in any industry — that lays people off like clockwork and has nothing going on in the “new” department — I would agree with your advice. That’s what lead me out of one newspaper long ago, and over to a pure tech company.

      But don’t think that you’re not going to run into those same kinds of problems outside of a newspaper. Four years ago, I left a pure tech company that was going through a period not unlike newspapers are today (at AOL, which completely mismanaged the dialup-to-broadband transition), and despite all of my personal career predictions I went back to a newspaper (The Bakersfield Californian). And for the kind of work I’ve been doing, that was the best career decision I ever made.

      I think people should also realize that they can have a significant individual impact at companies where they work by making things more entreprenurial from the ground up. That all depends on the management and its openness to that kind of thinking, though. If you work somewhere that has management that is operating to business models from 10 or 20 years ago, yeah, get out FAST because there is nothing you will ever be able to do to change them. You may want to have a conversation with them about your concernes first though, because perhaps they will finally listen and change course.

      I have much more faith in smart, independently owned media companies than I do public chains. Why? The chains are all managing to shareholder expectations and quarterly earnings reports, while the smart independents are managing for the next generation of leaders. Shareholders do not take the long view and that can quickly lead to sudden death (just look at what happened to Knight Ridder). And on that note, what caused the dot-com bust in 2001? Shareholders, at tech companies. So again, none of this can be generalized to one industry.

    2. Robbo says:

      If you want to keep working, keep learning new skills. I imagine that when moveable type appeared, the copyists, scribes and illuminators all felt that there would be a need for hand copied, illuminated manuscripts. There is a demand for them today, I’m sure. I’m darned if I know where it is. There is and will continue to be a demand for printed media (until electronic media is as convenent in the bath) but there is more to journalism than writing stories. Try to surf the change as much as you can.

    3. Kim says:

      This is a pretty refreshing look at where j-jobs are going.

      I’m one of the journalists that has lost their job as of late and I’m finding that newspapers, sadly, are not looking for people with web skills. I’ve built and maintained blogs in my spare time, doing so well that I now spend a majority of my time working for one of the largest blogging networks. (more so now that I don’t have a full-time job breathing down my neck)

      It doesn’t pay the bills. But even my previous newspaper did not even ask or want me to blog.

      Now, it’s the loss of the industry as young talented people such as myself, with the skills that newspapers need, are leaving to work for tech start-ups and social media.

      Journalism is going to be different, but it’s going to push everyone to learn and grow, where we’ve been stagnant before.

    4. Grace says:

      Thanks for your honest thoughts.

      I frankly don’t think that what you describe as journalism, or new media, is really journalism. It sounds to me more like public relations, just of a different sort. Being an advocate and writing for Greenpeace (for example) is still a form of public relations writing, whether or not you believe in the cause.

      So yes, the death knell is sounding for journalism in the old sense, but I do strongly believe that there is no new form taking its place. So kids, go and do some other job where you can make some real money. Forget about journalism.

    5. …and in the midst of all these layoffs, I *still* have a staff writer/editor position open — and can possibly hire two people if the right candidates appear — for someone who is not only a deadline reporter but is also familiar with GNU/Linux, FOSS, and the various companies and people who inhabit this particular software subculture.

      There is a huge and growing need for journalists who can cover science, technology, and other narrow niches that require specialized knowledge and/or vocabularies to write about competently.

      My situation is similar to a TV sports producer’s: do I hire a reporter and try to teach him or her the finer points of soccer, or do I hire someone who knows soccer inside and out, and teach that person to write?

      Ideally, I want to hire someone who has both reporting ability and knowledge of my little niche. But it seems that just about everyone who fills those two requirements is already working — and getting paid rather well, too.

    6. Henry Walker says:

      You make it sound as if content exists independently of journalism. It doesn’t, except as a press release. Gathering content requires watching, listening, and–most importantly–asxking questions. After reading your post, I’m not clear who, exactly, is still going to be doing that.

    7. Amanda LaVelle says:

      Today everyone can be a journalist. Anyone can write about absolutely anything possible on by using a blog or wiki. Websites like angelfire.com among others lets an average individual make their own website without paying for the domain name. If an individual made an informational website about cats, no matter if the information is correct or not, the site will be viewed by people searching for true information about cats. This poses a great deal of stress and frustration for the people who are merely searching for accurate info. I find it simply unfair and depressing those journalists are becoming less needed because less people plainly read a newspaper. Instead that audience has evolved as technology has and would rather log onto a website to pick and choose what news they are most interested in. Yes, it is trouble-free and straight forward, but I don’t think it should take place of what newspapers have to offer.

    8. Just wanted to share another resource for your audience that reads this post.. There is a list of up to date social media job on http://www.jobsinsocialmedia.com/ as well. Hope this helps more people find a job they are passionate about.

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