Journalists need to unlearn 'we are the authority.' 'We are not.'
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter following the digital transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
What do you need to unlearn to stay in journalism?
This week, two journalists named almost exactly the same thing. That’s not rare, but it struck me as interesting because they’re at such different points in their career.
Here’s what they said:
Mandy Velez, social and email editor, Google, New York City: “Unlearn that editors, reporters and even potential hires are limited to their beat or title. The state of journalism is moving from a one-trick horse way to a jack-of-all-trades way. I think that by sticking to the old way of hiring (i.e. segmenting reporters or editors) can eliminate a lot of talented people from projects simply because they didn't make it their ‘niche’ from the start. Yes, I am really confident at social, but I can also write longform. As someone from the startup world where I did everything, I'd like more journalists to see me through my work, not what my job titles are on my resume.”
Eric Francis, freelancer, Boston area: “Here's what I am still struggling to unlearn: Modern journalism doesn't need specialists, it needs jacks of all trades. I spent 25 years as a reporter and an editor, and I was (IMHO) a damn good one. But to get that job these days, I need to know how to do some or all of the following: Coding (HTML or Python, mostly, maybe mobile apps), Photoshop, Wordpress, video editing, InDesign, SEO/marketing. In other words (at least in my view), what used to be the core competencies of a journalist — you are a reporter or an editor or a photographer or a graphic designer — are now just elements of a broader skillset.”
This conversation happened in several places last week, including my inbox and on Twitter. It particularly bubbled up among two communities that Mandy and Eric are part of: The classes of Poynter and ONA’s women in digital leadership and a Plan B Facebook group for journalists. Some answers have been edited for length.
OK, I won’t keep you hanging around at the doorstep any longer. Come on in and see what other people are saying journalists need to unlearn. Or forget. Or reprogram. (I’m trying here.)
And stick around until the end to see who our boss is for next week!
You’ll notice these pretty much fit into the three buckets we talked about last week: Culture, audience and practice. Here we go…
Some of these are long-time legacy things that need fighting. Others, interestingly, are bad habits that have sprung up with digital journalism.
Jeanette Beebe, freelance radio reporter, Princeton, New Jersey: "As a long-time commuter and freelancer based halfway between two major markets (Philadelphia and New York), I’ve had to unlearn the ‘room’ in ‘newsroom.’ My central New Jersey location has forced me to travel light and reframe my thinking.”
"I’ve learned how to choose my gear carefully, because I’ve got to lug it around all day... It’s got to be light when everything else seems heavy — my newsroom has to follow me, wherever I go.”
Rachel Schallom, editor-for-hire, Miami: “Stereotypes about jobs. Obviously the young-people-know-digital-and-old-people-don't stereotype, but I've also encountered others like ‘sports reporters are too busy to add that task!’ We need to hold everyone to the same standards and not let columnists do whatever they want when it doesn't align with strategy.”
“I would also like for the industry to unlearn ‘what is your final goal?’ or ‘where do you want to be in five years?’ when you are talking with someone who is job hunting. Many jobs today didn't exist five years ago, and it would be silly for me to think I know what I'll be doing so far in the future...”
Gabby Sims, digital media specialist, East Texas: “Unlearn that digital has time to do tasks other departments 'don't have time to do.' I think other team members/managers underestimate how much time digital takes. TV reporters have time to write one, maybe two packages and that's it? Give me a break.”
Kevin Spradlin, law student (and former journalist), Grantsville, Maryland: “I daresay ... giving their work away for free.”
Kari Cobham, senior manager of digital content, Cox TV, Atlanta: “Unlearn that a seat at the table equates with seniority. We need to listen, pay attention to and value a range of voices in the newsroom, not just management.”
"Unlearn that the way things used to be done is not the way of survival or success. The writing's on the wall if you insist on focusing on legacy; by the time you're close enough to read it, it'll be too late.”
This transition from putting audience at the end of the process to putting them at the center is clearly ongoing. (For more, see everything Hearken founder Jenn Brandel is doing.)
Lauren Bracey Scheidt, marketing technologist, NPR, Tucson: “Unlearn thinking of 'everyone' as the audience. Our audiences are much more specific, and there are many of them.”
“Also unlearn putting the story at the center of the process, and instead put the reader/listener/viewer at the center of the process. What are they going to learn? What do they need to know? Where are they starting, and where will the be when the story is over?”
P. Kim Bui, editor-at-large, NowThisNews, Los Angeles: “I wish we could unlearn the 'we are the authority' viewpoint. We are not. Speaking from on high, and being the biggest expert in the room has jeopardized our relationship with our audiences, and I think that's the reason for eroding trust.”
Erin Skarda, digital editor, 5280 Magazine, Denver: “The way media brands can come off as ‘above’ their readers drives me crazy. And it's tough to overcome when it comes to building a community on social.”
I got a long email that was kind of a poem from Hans Boot of Ideas Bureau in the Netherlands. Hans wrote that he stared into the abyss for a year before realizing it was old thinking that made him feel stuck. I love his advice, and I know it’s hard for journalists, myself included: “To unlearn is to start with experimenting. Don’t blame yourself in failing. Fail big.”
Kainaz Amaria, director of storytelling, Vox Media, Washington D.C.: “Unlearn the notion that if you do one thing well, that's enough. Journalists need to have a strong foundation in one area and then learn how to integrate other topics, formats and workflows onto that foundation. Speak and share your languages in the newsroom to make better stories that serve a wider audience.”
Charo Henriquez, digital journalist, New York City: “Adding to Kainaz's super smart response, unlearn ‘that's not my area,’ ‘this is not how we've always done it’ and ‘that's someone else's job.’ Yes, we may not be directly responsible for the business operations or the technical areas, but the more we learn about how things are built and sold the better we are at helping our jobs endure and evolve. It's OK not to know things, but refusing to learn isn't.”
LuAnn Schindler, managing editor, Clearwater Record/Ewing News, Nebraska: "Unlearn inverted pyramid, as well as short-form. Sometimes, long form journalism works best!"
John Harvey, journalist, Cape Town, South Africa: “Stop being swayed by the almighty click in an effort to keep up with popular sites. Grunt work is making a comeback.”
Michelle Mueller Teheux, copywriter (and former journalist), McDaniels Marketing, Pekin, Illinois: “Stop working fast! Quality over quantity.”
Alex Veeneman, journalist, KettleMag, Chicago: “It needs to be reinforced that it is better to be right than to be first, and in the case of TV news, not everything has to be billed as breaking news when you go on the air.’
Cristina Wilson, chief operating officer, Charlotte Agenda, Charlotte, North Carolina: “Sometimes a story is really just a headline, or a headline plus a few quick details. The leftover print habit of filling space can lead to local media outlets essentially acting as extensions of local PR companies. Save the deep dives (and your time) for topics that are worth it.”
Thanks, everyone, for being part of this week's conversation.
Next week is boss week, and I'll be talking with Monica Guzman, a Washington state journalist who has been a pioneer in a lot of spaces, including her latest gig as editor of Seattle's The Evergrey.
Between now and then, make sure to check out CJR's local news coverage. Reminder: Nieman Lab is looking for international digital innovation stories. Facebook is holding events in Chicago and Denver next month. There are lots and lots of ONA Local events coming up. And speaking of audience, and practice and culture, Poynter has a Webinar next month on writing and editing for social.
See you next week! We have a lot more to talk about on unlearning. (And I don't feel so awkward using that term after seeing that Yoda used it.)