Advice for College Journalists: Don’t Do What I Did
I have a confession: I was part of the problem for American newspapers.
In 2005, I had just started covering City Hall, and I felt like my newspaper career had taken off. I covered people in suits walking fast through an important building. I measured my success by how many times I landed on the Sunday front page.
But I didn’t realize that I was missing the biggest story of all: the information revolution. In fact, I proudly ignored it, rarely thinking about technology or the business of journalism. I started two blogs and tweeted. But I did it reluctantly and halfway.
Just as I settled into the City Hall bureau, Facebook created a ripple across college campuses. Google, YouTube, Twitter and Apple then powered a new digital wave in social and mobile media. Newspapers were never the same. Within five years, the industry lost half its revenue and is now trying to catch up with the former startups.
In 2011, I left my reporting job to become publisher of my old college newspaper. The topics I used to ignore — technology and the business of journalism — became my obsessive focus.
With some perspective, I see now that I committed the journalism crime described by Mark Briggs in “Entrepreneurial Journalism”: “The willful ignorance of the business of news is precisely what made us journalists such awful and irresponsible stewards of journalism … Too many journalists believe they were exempted from changing, even as the world around them exploded.”
To college journalists, here’s how to avoid my willful ignorance:
Reporters got used to generations of stability and comfort. Get used to being uncomfortable. But remember, every crisis is an opportunity to create something better and faster. Become an “intrapreneur.” Find ways to bring entrepreneurial practices into your newsroom. Try new things. You’ll fail sometimes. But that’s OK. Keep trying.
Your business is information, not newspapers:
Be a journalist, not a newspaper reporter. Dig out the information people need and use the medium that works best. For extra credit, read “Marketing Myopia.” Learn how to be focused on your customer (the reader), not on your product (the newspaper).
Journalism is a business. Get to know it:
Go to lunch with the sales reps, circulation staff, classifieds team and marketing directors. Learn about their job. Don’t breach the news-advertising wall. But do be open minded about learning how the business of journalism works. The digital age rewards people who understand distribution, marketing and sales.
You’re a reporter, but learn to be proficient in everything. Learn to code, shoot video, make pictures, create a WordPress blog. Buy Mark S. Luckie’s “The Digital Journalist’s Handbook” and Briggs’ “Entrepreneurial Journalism.” Follow industry leaders on Twitter and read Romenesko daily. Don’t get too stressed about doing everything at once. You can’t. Pick up new skills when you can, then use them when it makes sense.
Read. Read. Read.:
You’re studying reporting and writing. But read up on the journalism industry and business, innovation and technology. Read “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News.” It will scare you — and it was published in 2004, a year before Facebook became a thing. Make sure to check out “Losing the News” by Alex S. Jones, “Newsonomics” by Ken Doctor and the annual State of the News Media report. If you want to dive deeper into business, check out “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and “Lean Startup.” Better yet, read how the author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” analyzed the newspaper business in 2006 and 2012.
Find the next technology, then run to it:
Facebook is fading a bit, Instagram is hot, you love Snapchat and the iWatch is next. Whatever the next technology is, get it and master it quick. Be the early adopter in your newsroom.
You don’t have time to waste. Make things happen. This afternoon.
Ryan Frank is president of Emerald Media Group, the independent nonprofit media company at the University of Oregon. He previously spent 11 years reporting for The Oregonian. He blogs at The Garage and tweets @rfrank_oregon.