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Archive for the 'Career' Category

Leaving the newspaper biz, but leaving the door open

Monday, October 4th, 2010

I no longer work for a newspaper. That’s actually old news by now. But I continue to be asked about it because, well, I haven’t made it official or explained myself here. So here’s the short and long (sorry) of it.

Tuesday, Aug. 17, was my last day as education reporter at the Lafayette Journal & Courier, and potentially at a newspaper. I started Aug. 18 at a new job at Angie’s List Magazine as an associate editor. Before we commence the tar-and-feather “how could you leave journalism??” bit… I didn’t leave journalism at all. I found another niche within it at a magazine that is part of a growing company doing work I think serves a good purpose; it’s actually an award-winning magazine with solid original reporting, so a company newsletter it’s not. I’m still writing and reporting, just about more consumer affairs issues and less (or rather not-at-all) about school boards. I’m also honing a different set of writing and editing skills for a different type of audience, and I’m working in a very different type of setting and keeping regular office hours.

Why change? (Here comes the long part, full of very honest self-reflection) (more…)

Embarking on a 10-month project *gulp*

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

On Friday, my editor, the projects editor and I finally finished developing the budget for a story I first pitched in May. Yes, it’s almost August.

But this isn’t just any story. I’m more excited about this story, or rather the series of stories, than I have ever been about a story and than I probably should be. Not that two years and seven months working professionally is a huge range to draw from, but this will be the biggest story of my career to date. Maybe ever?

And it wasn’t until I was staring at the wall of white board on Friday, every inch filled with the topics I will pursue, the people I will seek out, the issues I’ll explore… Even after months of pitching it, developing a list of topics I wanted to hit on, getting the support of my editors and the permission of the school and district, it wasn’t until I saw the wall of work ahead of me that it hit me how ambitious the undertaking is. How crazy I must be to think I can pull it off. And how accomplished I will feel when I do. And mostly, how powerful the story will be when it’s all in place.

I’m going to be doing a 10-month series. An entire school year, August through May. Each month, I will write a Sunday package on a different but related angle, with different vignettes and issues. I’m not posting the topic/theme just yet as we’re still working out details, but I’ll post about it when the first package runs Aug. 16.

I won’t have the luxury many people have had — in the past or at larger papers — when taking on projects of this scale. I work at a community daily with fewer than a dozen local reporters. I have a beat to cover, with more than two dozen school districts and hundreds of schools full of stories for me tell. I will still be at every school board meeting I’d normally attend. I’ll still write a weekly Schools Page and maintain my School Notebook blog. I will still cover test scores, graduation rates, announcements, accomplishments, features, breaking news and any other schools-related items. I knew that going in. That’s part of why we’ve structured the stories to fit into monthly chunks. They can see fruits of my labor throughout the year. And I don’t drop the ball on the beat I’ve spent more than two and a half years building.

I also have to do it not knowing what the next 10 months holds for the newspaper business or my own newsroom. Just since I first came up with the idea, I’ve been on a one week furlough and through one round of layoffs. (Obviously, I wasn’t laid off.) Both those events made me question whether it was prudent to launch into something as ambitious as what I’ve proposed and what now is weeks from coming to fruition. I’m embarking on a long journey. I don’t think when I first came here, I even expected to still be here today, let alone committing to at least another school year and likely much more. But this is the type of thing journalists live for. I’m going to a tell a story that’s never been told before, that shows my community the consequences of the choices we’ve made and the policies we’ve instituted, that shines a spotlight on an overlooked but looked-down-upon place to see why it matters, what everyone can learn and what they can do about it. Those are the types of stories that make people worry newspapers will go away. Yes, it’s scary to launch into something like this not knowing. But if you spend your life afraid to overstep your comfort zone, or looking over your shoulder worried it’s not worth the effort, you’ll never accomplish anything. At some point, you have to just jump and trust it will work out.

So, I wanted to document my excitement now.

I also was hoping that maybe some of the more experienced reporters and editors who stumble on it will give me some tips. I have, needless to say, never done anything of this scope. I’m on vacation this week (my 24th birthday is Wednesday!), and during that time I’m going to be putting a lot of thought into how I’ll organize my days and my notes as I proceed through 10-months of reporting. So I figured now would be a good time to solicit any tips from the veterans out there.

My new education beat blog at the J&C

Monday, February 16th, 2009

I started an education beat blog for the Journal & Courier in January.

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. Two years in, I now feel I have a strong command of my beat. I also feel I can handle both my normal workload and the added work of the blog without diminishing my daily work. Even though I knew (and know) it is more work for me, it is something I think will improve my beat and my coverage. So in my annual review this year, I really pushed for it.

After some discussion with editors, showing examples of other education beat blogs and explaining my ideas, I got the go ahead to try. The first few weeks were just be me testing the waters. I’ve kept blogs before (obviously), but this is a bit different both for me and for the J&C. While we have a handful of staff blogs (mostly sports), we do not have any news reporters blogging. Until now.

Obviously, the test was “live” because it was through the Pluck system on jconline. (Pluck barely qualifies as a “blog” except in concept, but it is what we’re working with, and although it hinders easy access, I’ve decided it’s doable. I think.) But it wasn’t put on the staff blogs page or promoted in print until last week. The editors dropped it in a couple of the print “more online” refers. I highlighted it in a breakout on my weekly schools page. And in Sunday’s paper, I talk about it in a Q&A on the opinions page about my beat and new blog.

Q:Tell us about your new blog.
A: What gets printed in the newspaper is a fraction of what I report. Much of what happens never lands anywhere beyond my notebook. I wanted somewhere to put those items and other things that won’t make it into the J&C but that parents or teachers might be interested in knowing. I’m hoping it becomes a collaboration between me, publishing what I know so far, and readers, responding with their thoughts or even leads I don’t know about yet. Check out the School Notebook at jconline.com/blogs

I have no idea if anyone else has looked at it. No comments yet. But actually, I did get one reader who submitted a message to my profile with a story idea that I looked into and posted a blog post about. Then, when the Indiana House voted on the bill, I turned it into an A1 story. I would have learned the provision in the bill eventually, and did get notes about it a day after my initial blog post, but that person tipped me off a little earlier.

Basically, this is still very much in the experimental stage. I’m still trying to figure out both what to post, how often to post and when to post. I know there’s no magic formula. (Though, I have to say if I could replicate Kent Fischer‘s blog in Dallas here, I’d be pretty happy.)

So far, I’ve learned a few things:

  • It takes more time than I expected to write up a post, including appropriate links/files, etc. Since my regular workload remains the same, this is one of my hindrances.

  • But for those posts I later turn into a story or a brief for print, it reduces the time needed to write the pieces.
  • I have a long way to go to put this into my “routine.” For now, it’s more an afterthought than where I break news. (If it’s true breaking news, then I’m breaking it on the front homepage where more people will see it.) So far, my posts have come first thing in the morning, around lunch, when I’m waiting on a call back, when I’m done filing for the night … basically when the urge strikes.
  • I also need to figure out what to post/not post and make it regular. This is hard because my schedule is pretty unpredictable. However, I think if I started a few regular features, they would give me something to post even when news is slow. It would also make it harder for me to ignore the blog when I get busy, which has been a problem so far.

There are also a few brick walls I’ve hit that I’m working through:

  • Pluck, the social media program underlying all Gannett sites and which our staff blogs run through, is not at all user-friendly. Not for the blogger nor the reader. You can’t, for example, just write HTML code for a link or to make something bold/italic. You have to actually highlight and paste in your link using its form. This slows me down because I usually just write the HTML as I write the blog, without stopping. You also can’t just drop in a YouTube video or a google spreadsheet. It does let you upload some things, like images, but it’s very limited WYSIWYG. That makes it easy for a regular person to start a blog on the site. It makes it maddening for an experienced person.

  • There is no spell checker on the blog form. Since the posts don’t go through an editor, this is kind of an important feature. I have to spell check it in another program or site. Even the automatic spellcheck on Firefox doesn’t work on the site for some reason. I could write the post in another program, but then I have to go back in on the site and format the links/text.
  • There’s no easy way to point people to the blog. Pointing to a specific post is even more challenging. So far, what we’ve been doing is just referring people to the jconline.com/blogs directory. That works, OK. Except, then they have to find my blog (the second one listed for now). Then, even though the most recent three posts are listed, whatever they click takes them to the main page of the blog. And finally, from that page, they can actually click to read an entry. One entry at a time. I get that each of those are page views, but seriously, how many newspaper readers would follow three jumps for a 200-word story? I suspect even fewer will follow those jumps online.
  • Each post is its own page without context in reference to other posts. The main page is like a partial RSS feed: You see the first few sentences but have to click to see more. What’s more annoying, however, is that the posts themselves are standalone. You have to click to see them, then to see another one, you have to go back to the main page or click a recent post in the sidebar. There’s no “next” or “previous” and no way to see multiple posts on the same page. Again, this has to do with page views. But I tend to think ease of use will get someone to load more pages and stay longer, rather than get annoyed with an unwieldy, unintuitive interface.
  • Only the most recent 10 tags are shown. If you look in the sidebar, you can click on the most recent tags, but not any others. This is complicated for me because I want to make sure I’m using the same tags to make them useful. But it doesn’t recommend tags I’ve used in the past or have a list where I (or readers) can look specifically for that tag. This is a problem because I cover more than two dozen districts, with multiple schools. I want people to be able to find stories specific to their community. I haven’t figured out an easy way to do this yet.

Now that I’ve complained, here are a few things going OK:

  • The RSS feed seems pretty good. I would like some of the tracking and social media features feedburner (Google?) offers. But the feed works and includes — Thank you! — full posts.

  • I’ve been able to drop things on the blog before I could get the story out and also things I will never print. For example, the post about an anonymous $1,000 donation for impoverished kids and about schools continuing without power. I’m trying to limit these to things people might actually be interested in. I don’t want to bore the potential readers with process, but I do want to expose some of the things that spark my interest or might spark theirs.
  • It’s already prompted at least one story idea. See my comment above about the charter school bill. That is even before we’ve really started promoting it. As I start telling people on my beat about it and regularly promoting it on the schools page, in print, etc. I hope it will become more useful — for me and my readers.

I still have a long, long way to go to make this what I want. The blog is very much in its infancy. But so far, I’m already seeing the payoff, even if it sometimes come with the headaches. Unfortunately, many of the headaches are beyond my control. But where I can, I’m trying to come up with some other solutions/ideas to make it work.

Since I know some of my readers here are beat bloggers themselves, I’d be remiss not to end this post with this plea: What mistakes did you make that I should avoid, and what are your best tips?

Also, if you’re a beat blog follower: What posts get your attention? What could you do without? What would you want to read about your local schools/education?


I decided to take some time this morning before I go into work to come up with solutions to some of my complaints. Not ideal, by any means, but I think these will make it easier on my readers:

• I created a blog entry with every tag I’ve used so far and links to search for it. I will update that entry (dated to be the first entry in the blog) as more tags come into use. I also made a tinyurl for that entry (tinyurl.com/jcschooltags) and placed it in my “about me” section above the blog. Unfortunately, the profile section doesn’t let you actually create a link. So they’ll have to copy and paste it. I did put it as the top link in my “blog roll” — just under the most recent tags section.

• Until I come up with a better way to easily point people to the blog, I created a tinyurl to link people there: http://tinyurl.com/jcschoolnotebook

Follow-up: Fundamentals will always matter in journalism

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Last weekend, I posted about the advice Midwestern newspaper editors have for up-and-coming young journalists. Mindy McAdams did a much better job on summarizing in detail what it all means.

I just wanted to follow-up with a link to the executive editor of my paper’s take on that job fair and what she says you need to break in: The foundation of good journalism never changes.

From Julie Doll’s weekly column (emphasis mine):

But there also were students who wanted to write news or features. Others wanted to be photographers or page designers. And a growing group style themselves as multi-media — ready to go anywhere with a notebook, a video camera, a regular camera and a digital recorder and become a one-man reporting band for the Web, TV, the paper, you name it.

The skills and talents of the students varied — as is usually the case in these kinds of settings. Some colleges and universities are now more than a decade behind the technology curve that has changed not just how we report and publish news but how the world consumes it. Others offer Internet and multi-media, but separate it from traditional journalism classes. And a few understand that news in the 21st century isn’t about the format but the enterprise. They know the fundamentals of journalism — accuracy, ethics, credibility, reliability, good story-telling, and so on — don’t change when you move to a different media venue.

One of the questions that many of the students asked is what I look for in a newsroom staff member. I’m sure they thought the answer would have to do with Flash skills, blogging abilities or experience with page-design software. But even more important are those fundamentals.

I look first for journalists who are committed to being accurate and fair, who have a solid grasp of the English language and how to use it, and who are curious about the world around them.

Those are fundamentals that help ensure we produce news that serves the community and its readers. They are also fundamentals that should serve aspiring journalists well — even in these tumultuous times.

We don’t always, but I have to say on this we agree.

News execs advise journalism students to be versatile

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Take a look through some of the advice that Midwestern newspaper editors have for journalism students today. Mostly, it seems their take is optimistic.

It says the survey was conducted with 86 news managers in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Makes sense since this is coming out at a job fair sponsored by the Hoosier State Press Association and Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors.

I can’t find the original documents on which that AP story is based, but I came across some other versions with more quotes from the editors.

Here’s my favorite of the advice I saw because it was exactly what I looked for — and mostly got — in my first job:

“Pick a newspaper that already is way past thinking of itself as a newspaper. Pick an organization that values journalism in all its aspects but recognizes that it needs people to be part of a seismic change at the same time. You can be part of that change.”
• Dennis R. Hetzel, Kentucky general manager, Enquirer Media, Fort Mitchell, Ky.

And here’s the one to take away no matter your medium:

“Be prepared across a range of skills because it’s so hard to tell what will be needed on your first job. Further, job skills are a moving target. What’s required today could be much different in a few years. If adaptability is a skill, students will need to acquire that.”
• Dan Corkery, managing editor, The News-Gazette, Champaign, Ill.

There are more details of the survey from the version posted on the Indy Star. It is the sidebar on that page (look in the right column).

Here’s a loaded question with unsurprising results (hello, they were asking newspaper editors!):

Could you suggest any reason(s) for college students to consider a career in newspapers in light of the downsizing in our industry today?
1. Skills of a journalist will always be in demand regardless of format: 29
2. Important work: 27 (Serve as watchdog for the public; expose corruption; ensure justice and freedom; make a difference; do some good.)
3. Still can be a rewarding and satisfying career: 7

But what we should read from that survey, if you ask me, is there are still plenty of people who believe that journalism is still important. But it’s harder than ever and maybe even more a roll of the dice than ever to break in. To better your odds, j-school students need to be willing to work hard, have strong basic skills but also be flexible, adaptable and diverse in building their skillset. Also, start by freelancing and don’t overlook small papers.

I am alive and still employed

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

To answer the questions I have received in my e-mail from blog readers (I am humbled even to know I have regular enough readers to notice my absence): Yes, I am alive, and yes, I am still employed (for now, more on this later).

My apologies for my month-long absence here. My MacBook hard drive gave out (about a month to the day after my two-year warranty was up, how convenient?). I decided to start an experiment rather than immediately fix or replace it. I wanted to test whether I could survive my high-tech lifestyle sans personal computer.

Surprisingly, the answer was, for the most part, yes. A BlackBerry is a handy tool, and I suspect I’d have had even more success this past month with an iPhone or G1. But alas, other than my blog and a dip in Twittering (both of which I make a point of not doing on my computer at work) I survived. Unfortunately, as anyone who knows me well knows, those are kind of key elements of my digital persona. So I’d hesitate to call my month a success. But there were a few lessons. The one to take away, for me at least, is while most mobile news sites lack the depth of news available on their traditional counterpart, I was able to get most of the news I would want quickly just on my phone. And when I’m just looking for the headlines, I actually prefer the stripped down mobile version of my own paper’s site.

SO… back to my second point above: I am still employed.

As many of you know I do work for a Gannett newspaper. And as most of those reading this likely know, we will be suffering that same 10 percent payroll cut as the rest of the company’s newspapers. And while our newsroom has been spared cuts during my 22-month tenure here, we’ve been told not to expect the same fortune this time.

I don’t know how I feel about even blogging about this, especially since who will be in that 10 percent is undecided still and I know my bosses read this. I haven’t really blogged about cuts in the past. But this is the first time I’ve felt even a hint of “what if it’s me?” Still, I realize part of my mission for this blog is to tell the story of what it’s like to be a 20-something breaking into this industry. Part of that for me, for kids at other papers in my chain and in journalism jobs elsewhere is the reality that everything we’ve worked for so far could be taken away in one conversation and for no good reason.

So I’m going to tell you how I feel about the cuts:

I’m not scared. I’m not unafraid because I think my job is safe. I’m unafraid because I know even if it’s not, I’ll rebound. The truth is, I’ve been prepared for this news since I started. I’ve always felt a job at a newspaper was a precarious situation, even if I prepared myself as best I could by loading up on skills beyond writing and reporting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past week. It would suck, certainly, to be fired (err laid off?) from my first job. But as I told the other reporters when we got the note from the publisher in our inbox, “The only surprising thing about the layoffs is it took as long as it did to come.” One of my questions to the Gannett recruiter I first interviewed with a few years ago was about layoffs, and he was blunt they were a possibility. Unlike some of my older counterparts, I knew the volatility of the industry I was entering. I knew what I was getting in to and that it would likely bring me heart break. But it was worth it to do something I love.

Mentally, I am prepared to at any time have a tap on my shoulder saying thanks for your hard work, get out of here. In this cut or others that may inevitably follow. I almost think I’d feel better if it were me cut not one of those old-timers who have made a home and a career here. I am 23; many people my age haven’t even graduated college yet, while I have two years experience. I also have Web skills many don’t and the willingness and ability to learn pretty much anything. Not to mention, I have networked reasonably well, so I’d probably stand a better chance of finding a journalism job than someone who has been here longer, although I don’t think I’d like to have to compete against the thousands of other people being let go. And finally, I don’t have roots in this town beyond my job and friendships I’ve made, and I don’t have a family or a mortgage to worry about. Even the bills I have to pay every month, I could manage on minimum wage if I moved back in with my parents, which is a lot less embarrassing at 23 than 43. For those reasons, I’d be a logical choice to cut. Of our reporters, I would be the least personally hurt by the business move. But unfortunately, these things aren’t logical.

I work hard and already feel I carry the weight of more than one reporter. I’m also pretty sure I’m their lowest paid or among their lowest paid reporters. I also have contributed in other areas of the business, including helping develop new or better existing products to reach our community. In short, I think I’m an asset not a drag.

So the truth is, it’d be Gannett’s loss not mine. In short: Mentally, I’m prepared to be posting a plea here in a month to help me find a job. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But if it does, don’t feel bad. One of the great things about me is I’m an optimist. I know things will work out just fine. And it would take a lot more than a layoff to kill my desire to do good journalism.

Connie Schultz: Young journalists will be the heart and soul of this industry

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

As I’ve mentioned before, Connie Schultz is one of my favorite journalists and one of my idols in this industry. For those who don’t know of her, Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She also happens to be a fellow Kent State alumna and former Daily Kent Stater editor — like me!

Poynter has an interesting interview with her posted online this week that’s worth reading, but mostly worth listening to. (Her responses are linked at the end of each bullet point.)

I’ve transcribed the last bit, which is her advice to young journalists entering this industry:

We’ve never had a time when we need you more.

I do think that young journalists will be the heart and soul of this industry and will keep it afloat. Because the ones who get into [this business], let’s face it, if we thought we were committed back when I got in, and you could make a living, compared to what they could do and make a living … in the business world, they could be making money in so many different ways.

If they come into [the] newspaper business, they really care about the business, and we need them. Because I think they really will be the ones who can poke the bear, who can say, but wait a minute we are the last stop in government corruption. If we aren’t watching them, nobody will. I just think that’s such a powerful … I believe that even more now having been married to a member of the United States Senate … I’m so aware of all that can go wrong if we aren’t paying attention.