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.