Journalism Opportunities Aren't Drying Up, They Are Just Changing

from the best-of-times-worst-of-times dept

Philip Trippenbach, a journalist and game designer who now works in public relations, responded on his blog to a letter from a recent J-school graduate seeking his advice on finding full-time journalism work. This is something a lot of would-be reporters struggle with: the market is in such a state of flux, and legacy news outlets are doing so little hiring, that the “traditional” career paths for journalists have all but disappeared. But as Trippenbach explains in his response, that doesn’t mean there are no opportunities — they are just very different:

Make no mistake: traditional, platform-based journalism is being crushed, and its dust will blow away on the winds of the internet. I know this is a melodramatic way to put it, but it’s an important point to make. Newspaper, television and radio journalists now are all in the position of itinerant bards at the advent of the printing press.

The good news is that there’s never been a better time to be a journalist. The bards have disappeared, but we still sing, and we still spread news. Just so, the digital sphere is growing fast as the blast front of an explosion. Good skills in writing, producing video and audio are more important than ever. They just need to be couched in an understanding of sharing and search – the air and water of the internet. There’s no use writing if your content can’t be shared or found. A mediocre piece optimized for social sharing will beat a piece of beautiful content without links every time. So you need to intuitively understand the answers to two questions:

1. What makes people share stuff? Will they want to share this? How will they share it, when they find it?
2. How do people find stuff? How will people find this? What will they be looking for?

There are those who decry this trend, and fear that social- and SEO-based journalism will ruin the profession and its standards, but that’s taking a dim view of things. Though there will be publications that pursue sensationalist headlines over sober coverage, that’s no different than the situation in traditional media, where less-reputable outlets do the same thing. Journalism is inevitably a battle for attention, whether it’s on the newsstand or in your Twitter feed, and there will always be those who choose the quick-and-dirty route. The challenge for a new generation of journalists is to mesh their values and ethics with the reality of how news spreads in the modern world — it won’t always be easy, but good journalism never is.

In a similar open letter, this time directed at people who currently work in journalism but fear for their future, Terry Heaton takes things a step further by saying it’s all about the personal brand:

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to begin building and refining your personal brand. The good thing about this is that you’re in charge, so you get to pick and choose how and how much you are promoted in the world of personal media. It’s not necessarily the size of the fish in the pond that will succeed tomorrow, although that’s always a nice advantage. What will be important is your niche and how valuable you are within that niche. This will produce value to the people who will want exclusive or first crack at the content you’ll create, regardless of the financial structure available. If aggregation and curation are the filters for media consumption downstream (they are), your place in the queue matters much more than which corporate brand you represent. You control this through the quality of your work and attending to the marketing of yourself. You can’t blame anybody else for success or failure here.


This is incredibly important for you, because, like it or not, we’re moving to a scenario where you very likely won’t be employed directly by a media company. You’ll work as an independent contractor and sell your work in a variety of ways.

I’ve never been a huge fan of all the “personal branding” talk, because it seems like marketing lingo for something that should be obvious: a journalist’s reputation matters. That has always been the case, as has the fact that many of the most successful journalists are freelancers who trade on that reputation (especially in the world of magazines). The real change is that now journalists have far more tools at their disposal to help establish that reputation, and the barrier to begin doing so is much lower. They can start a blog, they can tweet, they can participate in comments and forums. Of course, so can everyone else, which is why finding a niche is so important.

It’s not unlike the situation in music, or books, or video games, or any of the other industries that have been so fundamentally disrupted by the internet: the gatekeepers don’t get to call the shots anymore. For both new and established journalists, this means they have to take their careers into their own hands, but it doesn’t invalidate every lesson learned in J-school or the newsroom. The media industry is in a state of flux, but many of the things that make a good journalist haven’t really changed — the power and the responsibility have just shifted to the journalists themselves.

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Comments on “Journalism Opportunities Aren't Drying Up, They Are Just Changing”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Reminds me of that Harper article.

You see, I don’t believe news outfits will simply die, oh no. They’ll just be way smaller and more efficient with much of the journalistic work coming from outside (freelancers) and the ones directly employed will actually chase for those works and check for credibility.

There’s this magazine here in Brazil called Piau?. I’m going to get the regular paper subscription because the magazine just does it right. I’m not sure if they have the digital version but it would be an added win. And they rely heavily on freelance journalists..

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Sadly a great many blogs offer insight, fact-checking and a real attempt to avoid bias, while many “reputable” news sources are horrendously biased, more interested in reposting AP feeds, scare stories and populist fluff than any kind of investigative journalism.

It’s down to you to work out which is which, but the label you happen to apply to them doesn’t change the facts of their content. Whatever you think about Techdirt, at least they don’t pretend to be a non-partisan primary news source while trying to promote their own views…

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, it ain’t pretty, but then, neither am I.

We need a “true that” button. I always like your poetry — much better than Azgoths of Kria.

If anything though, the internet should make the journalist’s life easier for fact-checking. However, they’ve become so lazy. But I thought journalism was always such a ruse ever since my high-school journalism class where the teacher and the editor of the paper sat down with my articles and rewrote them with “facts” even though they weren’t at the interview and didn’t research anything. At that point, I figured I didn’t want to be a journalist any more. Most journalists want to do the right thing, but then the editors and moneymen get involved and everything unravels.

Chuck Norris' Enemy (deceased) (profile) says:

Re: Decline started

I suspect the whole “starving journalist” is just the industry executive’s equivalent siren call as RIAA’s “think of the artist.” All they want is to make sure they continue to reap the rewards of others work whilst doing little themselves. Claiming that “art” or “journalism” is going away is farcical. The talent is out there, the problem is that the executives just can’t figure out to monetize the talent.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“The issue is the shift away from “paid journalistic oppotunities” and into the “working for Huffington Post for free” type posts.”

You realise there’s a huge middle ground between “working for a format nobody wants any more” and “working for free”, right?

Of course you don’t, which is why your arguments always fail – real life does not operate using false dichotomies like the ones you present.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Local News and Fact Checking

It will be interesting to watch how credibility evaluation develops. News organizations traditionally had people who checked facts, and there was a tendency to have more than one source (sometimes several) to insure that whatever they were printing was true. I don’t believe they necessarily follow this ‘rule’ anymore. I can see difficulty for the individual to develop and follow through on such standards.

In the case of local news, will there be a large enough market to support independent journalists and maintain the balance of what is known as the Fourth Estate? I think that a strong press looking over the shoulders of the political machine is very important. The journalist performs the function of keeping the politicians honest. The current scheme does not do such a good job at this, as mentioned above, large news organizations all have agendas couched in the political/economic point of view of their parent organizations. Having a sufficient cash flow and being able to weather a counter attack by a powerful politician (both different and the same) are processes that yet need to be developed.

And aside from the political machine, keeping corporations honest has been part of the game for a long time. How will this change?

Anonymous Coward says:

excellent point Leigh. journalists have a LOT of power & responsibility in their hands, the problem is a lot of the more powerful media journalists have started covering industries which are irrelevant (i.e: a fruity boy covering tech devices etc.) and have been forcing their own biased views and opinions rather than disclosing the facts and issues… true media ‘news’ is losing its own personality

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

In the sense here, Leigh, I think he’s talking about brand as a recognized and trusted person working in journalism. Other than there’s not much I disagree with in his post or your analysis of it.

Regrettably the decline of journalism in print and broadcast, particularly print, began ages ago big chains got larger, independent papers disappeared and all the papers in a chain essentially started to look and read like any other. It wasn’t just Newscorp but all the others out there who began to economize to pay off the acquisition costs of the papers they’d already bought.

It’s sad to think of how many good journalists and editors were “laid off” during this process and even sadder when I remember how much local coverage has been lost in the process.

This isn’t to say there’s not good reporters out there. What it does say is that there’s something wrong when every fresh J-school grad gets his or her own byline to every story they write, no matter how poorly, the day they start.

It’s sad to think of the lack of differing viewpoints on the editorial sections of a lot of papers and in the columnists the papers employ.

At least partly as a result of the 7/24 news cycle now journalists are almost always at the bottom of the pile of respected professions/trades when the polls are taken. Often tied with politicians. Not surprising when I think of how much the reporter/journalist and the politicians depend on each other now. One as a news source the other as a way to get their views out. If they’re of the same political and economic bias as that particular paper.

Unbiased is, was and always has been a pipe-dream. All news outlets have a bias. I’d be a whole lot happier if they just admitted to it rather than denied it all the time.

I don’t know what journalism will be in 10 years. It will certainly be different than what it is now. If that is accompanied by the death of Newscorp and others I, for one, won’t mourn that. If the J-school grads have to prove themselves in places on the Web that may not exist yet I won’t mourn that either. If a few have to work for free for HuffPo for a bit, well that’s just too bad. They learn their craft, get their names out there and can move on. At worst it’s an unpaid internship.

Perhaps I’ll listen to and read “news” again. Perhaps the days of cut and paste will have ended and there will be something new out there to discover.

What I’m very certain about is that it won’t be the newspaper as we now know it. As for TV news/sensationalism I stopped taking that seriously years ago. And I used to work in radio and television news gathering and broadcast. Way back when when there was still some journalism going on. Some reportage. It’s opinion now, carefully or not so carefully hidden but it’s opinion.

Sigh. I just don’t care about that anymore.

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