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Archive for August, 2008

TNTJ: For young journalists, it’s all about attitude

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

(This is a post from the new young journalist’s blog ring, Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists. The topic was, “The biggest challenge facing a young journalist in today’s media is…” Click that link, btw, to read what other young j-bloggers have to say about this. I linked to some of their ideas in the second graf as well.)


I am late to the game on this, but I was off the grid for a couple days at corporate database training.

Wait, what? I thought young journalists are all self-taught and nobody respects you enough to care about whether you improve. And isn’t corporate killing journalism? And databases on the web, the curmedgeons wouldn’t approve of such new-fangled, innovative ideas.

Yet, I swear the company paid to send me and another young reporter (and about two dozen others from this region) to learn about computer-assisted reporting and database reporting from IRE teachers. It was awesome. And I can’t wait to apply what I learned to my beat.

Before I left, I thought about what I would say here. Certainly, every one of those points alluded to and stated in the previous posts in this ring crossed my mind. They all have validity. But after reading or at least skimming the other TNTJs’ posts and thinking about this during the 5-hour drives and over dinner with my fellow trainees, here’s what it comes down to for me:

The biggest challenge facing young journalists today is attitude. Our attitudes. Our professors’ attitudes. Our bosses’ attitudes. Our readers’ and our sources’ and our parents’ and our friends’ attitudes. It’s all about attitude.

The problem is we’re all too damn pessimistic.

Our parents and our friends wonder, whether they verbalize it or not, why we would want a low-paid profession with crappy hours and low prestige. If you have computer skills multiply this thought by about 1,000, because that’s how many times you’ll have to defend the decision to forgo untold riches to instead hold governments accountable (long nights in boring meetings included) and get to experience the things most people only read about (six-alarm fires in sub-zero temperatures fall in this category, too).

Our professors and our bosses and our sage co-workers will either love us for our enthusiasm or try to douse that spark with a dose of reality. In either case, be prepared for history lessons about “the good old days” and bring a Snickers for those trips through Nostalgia Lane. You shouldn’t feel guilty that they didn’t have Google or digital cameras. Your job is not easier because you do. Those are tools that allow you to do more accurate, more detailed journalism quicker. (Not necessarily “better journalism,” but the same things quicker, definitely and with a sophistication they couldn’t have had.) You are probably writing/producing more than your peer of a few decades ago and for more media to boot, all with quicker turn-around. Or, as my editor once put it to us when we were grousing in the middle of the office, “I was way lazier than you guys when I was a reporter.” It made me laugh and feel better. But the difference is, he may have been able to afford a little slacking. We can’t afford complacency. Our future, both our jobs and our industry, is on the line.

But we, young journalists, are just as guilty of pessimism, even if we haven’t yet (and we hope never do) become as jaded or cynical as the co-workers we bitch about in our blogs.

I have pretty much given up reading Romenesko. I understand why it’s so enticing. But it’s too depressing.

When I was about to graduate, I just knew I would never find a job. I lost so much sleep obsessing about how I’d end up flipping burgers, just a waste of talent and intelligence. I shouldn’t have worried. I was editor of my 10K circulation daily student newspaper. And I had professional experience, decent clips and all the skills employers say they want, coupled with an eagerness to learn and a geographic blank slate limited only — and I said it exactly like this to the corporate recruiters whom I interviewed with — to “any place that pays me enough to live.” Still, I knew I was doomed because I had been diligently reading about dropping circulation, layoffs and buyouts, and scandals that further tarnished the already tenuous credibility of the media. I was so screwed.

Then, about a month before graduation, the first editor called and asked me to drive out for an interview. I can remember the exact moment I realized I had a real job interview. I didn’t quit smiling for weeks. Someone, somewhere (and this was actually a decent-sized somewhere) thought I was at least worth talking to and introducing around. That was a turning point for me. I was hireable. I had skills editors desired. There were actually jobs out there.

That was a year and a half ago. A lot has changed in the industry and for me personally. But I still stand by the fact that every day you wake up and you get to decide whether to perceive the sky as falling, and if it is, how you will react. Somedays are better than others, some more depressing.

It doesn’t feel good when an official who you know makes $124,000 claims that if you spread the number of hours he works out, you (reporter) probably make more than him. Clearly, newspaper reporters are overpaid and don’t work nearly as much as the rest of America. And you’ll roll your eyes through those contract negotiations where teachers with zero years experience, fresh out of college lament the $33,000 starting salary for a 184-day work year, with health insurance and a government pension, as being “underpaid.” You just have to hold your tongue. Yes it is disheartening. Woe is me.

But then there are the days where you know what you do matters. Policies and laws are changed because of what you have written. You do follow-up stories where someone tells you the story you wrote was the catalyst to stay with a program that turned their life around. And strangers stop you on the sidewalk or in the halls to thank you for your work or tip you off to something you’d never have found. Occasionally, in a public meeting, officials refer to the story you broke and compliment you on a story well done — even when this story portrays them negatively, they acknowledge it was “fair.” Often, their questions to administrators are prefaced with, “I read in the paper…” No this isn’t my imaginary utopia. Every example here is first-person, my own experience. They are the yang to the disheartening, depressing yin.

Being optimistic is not going to stop the ship from sinking. It’s not going to pay your salary. It’s not going to exempt you from downsizing or critical comments. But it doesn’t hurt, and it’s a lot more enjoyable. Yes, there are as many reasons (probably more) to be scared about the future as there are reasons to be excited about being part of the generation that gets to shape the future. Reality, to a large extent, is how we perceive it. This doesn’t mean we can selectively ignore the more depressing things (you can, but that won’t fix it). It means, approach those things with a frame of mind that they are a challenge to be overcome not a stumbling block on which to trip and fall. So choose your reality: We can believe journalism is dying and there’s nothing to be done about it. Let the violins play on. Or we can believe that we, journalists young and old, can make it work in some form, some way. We have everything to lose either way. But this is worth fighting for. I say forget the ship, jump in and let’s set about selling the pessimists on our ideas.

Post script:

I love inspirational quotes, as any of my blog readers can attest. So I leave today with the one I have written on a sticky note by my computer as a daily reminder of the importance of attitude: “If you want to be happy, be.” — Leo Tolstoy


Meranda Watling is a 23-year-old reporter covering education for the newspaper in Lafayette, Indiana. She used to read four newspapers a day in print, but today is lucky to find time for one that’s not coded in bits and bytes. She blogs, mostly about journalism, at MerandaWrites.com. Her friends also worry about the amount of time she spends twittering, even if they obsessively read her updates.

The truth about newspaper industry woes: It’s all relative

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

Bryan Murley has posted the best post about online journalism I’ve seen in awhile. At least it made me smile. It’s, in his words, full of snark. But it’s worth pondering. Check it out: Newspaper industry woes deconstructed.

Here’s a sampling:

The Internet is the (best/worst) thing to ever happen to newspapers. It is (killing/rejuvenating) the newspaper industry in ways we (always/never) imagined. Top editors and newspaper execs (are/are not) getting involved in (innovating/suffocating) our practices on this (new/old) way of doing things.

You get the idea.

The point is, there are arguments to be made — and that are being made — for and against every item you’ll read in the journalism blogosphere, including here on my blog. He just steps back to remind us we’re arguing in circles on some of these things. One organization’s Godsend may be another’s tragedy, and there are probably valid reasons for choosing whichever side of the slash you do.

I still think it’s worth discussing and plan to argue or at least present the facts of my side of the slash — and that would be “the newspaper industry (looks bleak/looks to have a bright future).”

My Twitter proof-of-concept moment

Monday, August 4th, 2008

I’ve been using Twitter for about a year and a half. At times I have a love hate relationship. But a few occurrences have cemented its place in my arsenal of reporting tools.

Because I’ve blogged about Twitter probably too much already, I had sort of put a moratorium on blogging about it. But a few posts from Ryan Sholin, who offers five solid tips for reporting with it, and Mindy McAdams, who wonders if it’s reached the tipping point, brought it back to mind. I thought I should share, for those of you trying to convince your editors of its usefulness, what I’ve done with it and how it’s worked.

The setup… My friends list is composed of three distinct types of people beyond news feeds: real life friends from college, other journalists and people who live in my town (including a city council member and many members of a department relevant to my beat at the local university). I tweet probably an average of a dozen times a day, mostly via my blackberry or on the Web at home. Most of these, sadly?, are mundane details about what I’m reporting on or how I’m having terrible luck getting a hold of sources, or about funny things I happen upon. I do not in any way pretend my feed is for work. It’s not. Any work-related elements are happenstance. It’s as personal as this blog, though I pimp my day job on it a little more there than here.

So what have I done with it beyond bantering about how tired I am? Plenty that should convince my bosses I’m not just tinkering around with the technology. (Though I still limit its use during the work day, because I don’t want to leave a trail of perceived procrastination/unproductiveness.)

I live tweeted a few presidential campaign events, which included conversations via twitter with people in the audience and back in the office. These spurts, during which I was also live blogging for our news site, also gained me several new followers here and beyond our region.

I have used it to push content to my org’s site. That means, when we published live video on election night, I posted the link and a tease a few times that night. (This actually sparked several of my followers to move the Twitter conversation to our Web site where there was a chat on the video. Said chat — which a half dozen of my followers tried to get me to join as if I wasn’t busy on election night — also sparked a Facebook group, of people who met through Twitter/joined together on our video’s chat.) Other live video events have also been published on my feed, as well as some breaking news items. I post links to my own stories/columns or others we write which I think might be interesting to my followers, or that garner a “Wow.” or “WTF?” response from me.

When we had a severe storm/nearby tornado and all that goes with that, I used Twitter and my and the paper’s followers to see how many people were talking about it and if we could get a sense for damage and where.

I’ve used it to find sources, though this has been met with limited success, in large part because I haven’t developed my list enough for this purpose. But when another reporter needed to find — on deadline — a real person who travels the local interstate on a regular basis to talk about increased speed limits, I turned to twitter with limited success.

Also, I’ve help scoop other news outlets by watching my stream. For example, I knew Obama was setting up a campaign office here — and even where — because I listened. And we’ve been able to tamp down and confirm some rumors via twitter. Granted in those cases, Twitter was the starting point, but it was a point that put us a few days or hours ahead of others.

All those are great. But the moment I really felt I got proof of concept for Twitter was totally unexpected. I had tweeted about my failed attempts to find parents for a story I was working on. It was more a flippant, “I don’t think I’ll ever find…” tweet. But about half an hour later, I just happened to check my replies and saw one, from someone I was not following back but who was following me, it was a simple reply, “I’m a parent.” Desperate, but not expecting much since I didn’t really know who this guy was and had already resigned myself to not finding what I needed, I DM’d him, explained my story and what I was looking for. I told him I’d be around for another hour or so, if he fit the story and would be willing to talk, call me. When my phone rang half an hour later, I had no idea who could be calling me. When he said his name, my mind flashed. And as I got his personal details (backed up not only by his bio, but by other stuff I’d looked up briefly — so no, I wasn’t just going blindly with random strangers) and his kids names, schools, etc. I couldn’t help but think how this just kind of happened not because I was trying but because I wasn’t. I’d joined the conversation, and actually listened to the noise.

And that is what the take-away from this whole post and all my previous notes about twitter is. You just have to jump in and join the conversation. Don’t set your expectations high, as they are likely to be dashed. But when it works, it works. It’s not going to be the everyday scotch tape in your reporting tool box. It won’t fix everything. But it might be like duct tape. You probably won’t use it as often, but sometimes it’s the right tool for the job or at least worth trying when you’ve run out of options or time. The more you interact, the more you get to know your twitter stream and what segments of your community is there, the more you’ll get from the conversation and the more you can give to the community.

Those are only examples relevant to my day job. That says nothing of the amazing, intriguing debates, stories and conversations I’ve seen and participated in with other journalists. But that’s for another post.

(By the way, I’m meranduh on Twitter. If you want to join my conversations.)