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 What can we do with our outdated skills?"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.