10 Years Since I Left Journalism

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On December 30, 2005, I finished up my shift on the sports design and copy desk, stepped out of the office building of The Herald-Sun shortly after midnight, and walked away from journalism — the career and craft that had been my calling since the summer between high school and college.

It has been 10 years since that night, and I have now spent more time out of journalism than I did in it. With each passing year, “journalist” or “ex-journalist” becomes a smaller part of my professional and personal identity. My journalism work has gone from the bulk of my résumé and portfolio to secondary entries. I no longer consider myself a refugee from a profession, but rather a proven practitioner in another.

Here are some thoughts on life in and after journalism, with the benefit of a decade’s worth of hindsight.

Do I have any regrets about leaving journalism?

No, but I do regret having to leave journalism to be able to pursue the things that matter to me professionally and personally, such as:

  • Working in a place that puts me in position to succeed and to keep learning
  • Working in a place committed to putting out the best product it can
  • Having some semblance of stability in my career
  • Living where I want to live, not where my career dictates I must live
  • Having a life outside of work, i.e., a personal identity separate from my professional identity

When I decided to leave journalism, I felt that while I could find some of these things in a job had I remained in the profession, I would not be able to find enough of them in any one job to keep me happy in journalism. Looking back 10 years later, I know I made the right move, and that makes me a bit sad because of what it says about journalism. The financial state of the journalism business was certainly a significant motivation to leave, but even if that wasn’t a factor, journalism is a tough mistress, and eventually I probably would have grown wary of its demands.

What do I think of the current state of journalism?

There certainly does seem to be more enthusiasm now than a few years ago, thanks in part to a few splashy investments in the journalism business from tech barons and the rise of more experimentation. Still, so many of those seem to be happening in the same space — national and international news — while regional and local journalism operations continue to wither for the most part.

It’s an awesome time to study journalism and to do journalism. It’s a crappy time to do journalism as your primary means of making a living if you value anything remotely resembling stability in your career and life.

Look at this advice from a former staff member of Digital First Media’s defunct Project Thunderdome:

“My general advice, hard as it can be to hear, is to always be prepared for a layoff.”

Look, I’m not looking to be in the same job for 20-plus years, but if you have the constant threat of layoffs hanging over your head, it is corrosive for your personal and professional well-being, however exciting the work may be. From where I’m standing right now, journalism looks like an exciting job and a lousy career.

What life lessons have I learned since leaving journalism?

There have been many, but most importantly, never close your mind to possibilities. When I walked away from journalism, I could not have foreseen myself ending up in public relations (the “Dark Side” in journalist parlance) and actually finding it to be fulfilling work. Then, when I started in PR eight years ago, I never could have foreseen that I would one day do PR for Duke (the “Dark Side” for everyone who went to school at UNC). Life takes you to unexpected places, and when you get there, you discover unexpected things about those places, so don’t preemptively shut any doors for yourself with a “I will never …” mindset.

How has my view of journalism changed since leaving the business?

  • I am more convinced than ever that there is a vital role for journalism in our society. Journalism, done properly, may be inconvenient to someone. It may even at times be inconvenient to me. I would, however, accept the possibility of such an annoyance without a second thought, because for every instance where journalism is a pain in my rear, there’s an instance where journalism serves to watch my back.
  • I have, however, noticed how much of the daily journalism output is just not that important (and sometimes just downright awful), and I really wish journalists would stop trying so hard to claim the moral high ground. That is probably what bothers me about the journalistic mindset more than anything — the profession’s attempt to wrap everything it does in a cloak of nobility. I can probably make a decent case that almost every job I’ve held since leaving journalism has contributed more to society than much of the journalism that’s produced on a daily basis (that one job where I designed catalogs for door knobs might be a close call).
  • My other wish for journalism is that its practitioners would do a better job of living up to the transparency standards they set for others. The recent reporting by the Las Vegas Review-Journal to expose the identity of its new owner, who tried to remain anonymous, was a fine example, but one all too rare. Far too often, when the uncomfortable lens of scrutiny is turned on themselves, journalism operations tend to clam up instead of embodying the kind of transparency that they demand from the institutions they cover. Journalism is as much an institution as any governmental body it covers, and journalism outlets, with the vast audiences they reach, wield significant power. Journalists take pride in afflicting the powerful, but far too frequently fail to live up to that credo when they would be the ones afflicted.

Role Models for My Daughter

I just watched “Dawn of Humanity,” a documentary about the dig that uncovered a new species of hominid and made discoveries that could change how we think about human evolution. I hope the six women scientists who traversed the impossibly narrow cave to extract the fossils get all the attention they deserve. What great role models for my 2-year-old daughter (who is definitely small enough to fit through tiny crevices).

 

Giant Step Forward for American Parents of Infants

This, from a story on two Washington state agencies generously allowing their employees to bring their kids between six weeks and six months of age to work with them:

State officials say both parent and baby win, saying “research proves that allowing a parent and infant to remain together in the earliest stage of life supports critical bonding, healthy infant brain development and parental wellbeing.”

 

Put another way:

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N&O’s “Roy Williams Was Never Getting Fired” Column, with Links

UNC gave Roy Williams a contract extension today, which the News & Observer’s UNC writer, Andrew Carter, said was no surprise. Carter wrote:

He was never going to be fired. That was never a possibility.

Those who thought he might be fired – or should be – amid the NCAA investigation into the long-running scheme of bogus African studies paper classes at UNC probably fit into one of two categories:

▪  The under-informed who have made Williams the face of a broad, complex paper class scheme that went on for 18 years – a decade of which took place before he became UNC’s coach in 2003.

Or:

▪  Supporters of rival schools who’d simply love nothing more than to see Williams lose his job and watch his program go up in flames.

But what’s inarguable is this: The Wainstein report essentially cleared Williams and his staff of wrongdoing associated with the classes.

So who were these people “who thought he might be fired — or should be”? Good journalism should include some links to back up its claims, right? Since this piece had no links, I’ve helped add some:

Those who thought he might be fired – or should be – amid the NCAA investigation into the long-running scheme of bogus African studies paper classes at UNC probably fit into one of two categories:

▪  The under-informed who have made Williams the face of a broad, complex paper class scheme that went on for 18 years – a decade of which took place before he became UNC’s coach in 2003.

The N&O has a paywall, so in case you run up against it and can’t see the stories, this is what those links point to:

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And before you start, no, this is NOT an attempt to absolve Williams or UNC for whatever they did and failed to do.

This is just to point out that as a journalism outlet, if your UNC writer — the guy who presumably is the most knowledgeable on your staff about the situation with UNC athletics — thinks anyone who says Williams might be or should be fired is either under-informed or has an ax to grind, perhaps you should think twice about trading in news and opinion pieces saying exactly that.

You know what? I can even forgive the opinion pieces because they are, after all, just that — the opinion of a single individual, who may or may not share your UNC writer’s view on this. But that news story that leads off by suggesting that the findings of the Wainstein report and Williams’ contract provisions might get him fired? Written by the same UNC writer who’s now writing that there was never any question whether Williams might be fired? The same writer who’s now also writing that the Wainstein report “essentially cleared Williams”?

Look, it’s not complicated: Either you believe the Wainstein report cleared Williams and won’t get him fired, or you don’t. But you don’t write a news story saying the report’s findings could get him fired, and then later write that the report’s findings cleared him and that his dismissal was never a possibility. The Wainstein report did not change between the time when you wrote those two pieces, so which is it? If you don’t believe his firing was ever a possibility, then why did you write a story suggesting it was? And why wait until he got a contract extension to assert that he was never going to be fired?

JOURNALISM!

Pew Report on Political News Sources: Beyond Facebook

The Pew report on where Millennial, Generation X, and Baby Boomers get their political news sparked a lot of chatter about the Facebook/local TV divide between Millennials and Boomers. There are, however, some other rather interesting tidbits in the report beyond that headline item.

First, though, more about that Facebook thing

This is the graph you’re most likely to see thrown around in discussing Facebook and local TV as sources of political news for Millennials and Boomers:

Millennials and Baby Boomers: A Generational Divide in Sources Relied on for Political News

 

However, it’s also important to consider this graph, which I have not seen in pieces discussing this topic:

Main Source of Government and Political News Across the Three Generations

So … where’s Facebook? And note the similar percentage across generations for local TV.

Here’s the report’s discussion of the data in this graph (emphasis mine):

When asked separately to name their main source for news about government and politics (before being asked about the 42 specific sources), only a handful of sources garner double-digit percentages within each of the three generations. CNN, for example, is named most often by both online Millennials and Gen Xers at 21% and 18%, respectively; and among Baby Boomers, 16% name Fox News and 11% name CNN as their main source. About one-in-ten in each of these generations name local TV. All other sources are named by less than 10%.

These findings also suggest the degree to which Facebook, even though it is by far the most common way Millennials get news about government and politics, is not top of mind as their main source for this type of news. Three percent of online Millennials volunteer Facebook when asked for their main source for political news (as do 1% of both Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.  This is consistent with our previous research indicating that getting news on Facebook is largely an incidental experience.

Beyond Facebook

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  • Millennials use Google News and YouTube as political news sources much more than the other two generations.
  • More Millennials get news from the New York Times than Gen Xers or Boomers.
  • The conservative news sources are not doing so hot with Millennials compared to the other two generations.

You haven’t heard of what??

Look at this table of the percentage of respondents who have HEARD OF a particular news souce. Things that make you go “Hmm …”:

  • Almost 1 in 5 Millennials and Boomers have not heard of the New York Times.
  • Almost 3 in 10 Millennials have not heard of the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post.
  • Among Millennials, 55 percent have not heard of NPR.
  • Among Millennials, 60 percent have not heard of Buzzfeed.

Saunders Hall Renaming: A Few Thoughts

I’m happy UNC no longer has a building named after a KKK leader.

I do believe there could be a certain level of burying history with removing the name from the building. However, history is only one of the factors to be weighed. The effect on current students also deserves significant consideration, and it’s not a big stretch to imagine how walking past a building named for a Klan leader can have a negative effect on black students. I do subscribe to the “man of his times” argument in some situations, but starting the KKK in North Carolina is well past where I might draw the line.

I’m not mad the building was not named after Zora Neale Hurston.

I get the symbolism of naming it after someone famous who was denied admission to UNC because of her race. Nonetheless, her ties to UNC are just too strenuous for me to really feel that her name should be on a building on campus. Other people of color who have made greater contributions to the university should be considered before her, and I hope they will be at some point. That said, however …

I’m kind of glad no one’s name is going on the building right now.

Given the contentious nature of the renaming debate and the fact that many are upset by the rejection of Hurston Hall, any other person whose name is put forward for the building at this particular time is likely to have every record of his or her life meticulously picked apart and debated not only in and of themselves, but also in the scope of this controversy and the angry feelings it has engendered. To me, that’s unfair to the individual, and it doesn’t strike me as the best way to decide someone’s worthiness to be thus enshrined. A cooling-off period is probably good for all involved, though the 16-year moratorium seems a little excessive (can that really be called “temporary”?).

The BOT’s lecture to protesters was way out of line.

The Board of Trustees told protesters to turn their attention to more substantial issues like the plight of black men on campus. That is absolutely ludicrous since, hey, that is YOUR job, UNC!

A thought on whom to rename the building after

How about: UNC courts donors for major gifts to develop an awesome support program for students from underrepresented races/ethnicities (e.g., scholarships, on-campus support, etc.), and name the building after the top donors. The renaming would then not only carry symbolic meaning, but also deliver tangible benefits to UNC and its students, especially at a time when the university could really use more money. Surely UNC can make that happen in 16 years, right?

On the journalism around the renaming

An unexplored story angle: An interesting story for a reporter to do (and please point me to it if one has already been done) would be to examine, through the lens of the renaming controversy, the fact that Hurston was denied admission to UNC because of her race yet was a vocal opponent of desegregating schools (not for white supremacist reasons, of course).

I know precious little about Hurston. It fascinated me when I discovered, while searching for information to better understand the renaming debate, her stance on desegregation, but I don’t recall seeing any mention of this in any of the coverage of the debate. It would be very interesting to delve into that aspect of her life; its pertinence to the issues raised in the renaming debate; and how it might affect the debate (e.g., if the building had been renamed Hurston Hall, do we need a plaque explaining why it was named for an opponent of desegregation? Would/should an accomplished person of another race be considered for enshrinement on a building if they were against desegregation, even if for non-racist reasons?). I hope someone writes that story someday.

The DTH’s coverage: The Daily Tar Heel has done a really good job staying on top of the renaming debate. Its searchable database of comments submitted to the BOT by UNC faculty and staff regarding the renaming is a clever use of public records.

However, I do wonder about the database potentially being used to identify people for harassment by those who disagree with their views. This is why I can’t really get on board with the DTH’s complaint about the university redacting names of students when it released the comments. If I were UNC, I would not readily give out those names either, considering that doing so could open those students up to harassment when I’m supposed to be providing a safe environment for them.

I’m not saying that’s why UNC did not release the names (I don’t know why); this is just my own reason for not doing so. Claiming that the names are under FERPA protection is unquestionably a stretch, but what other tool does a public university have to keep such information private, even if for a good reason? Also, if I were still practicing journalism, this would be a situation where I step back and really weigh the benefits and potential consequences before publishing the names, especially those of students.

Death to Embed Codes with Script Tags

Recently, while putting together a story for a website at work, I wanted to include a collection of tweets as part of the story. No problem, right? Twitter has an “Embed Tweet” function specifically for this. Just go to the tweet you want, click “embed”, copy the code, paste into your website content editor, and …

Oh crap. This embed code has a <script> tag in it.

Why is this a problem? Let one web service (which shall remain anonymous) explain in its answer to a user asking why this service’s embed code isn’t working on his site:

Frequently, a CMS may automatically strip out the script tag or important fields from our embed code. We’ve seen this with some WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Shopify, and other CMS installations that have either custom security settings or security plugins/add-ons that do this automatically.

… you will need to disable the security setting or configure your security plugin to allow our embed code. How you do this varies from CMS to CMS so you may have to do some searching on google or contact the person who manages your CMS to do this for you.

Oh, so your embed code likely doesn’t work with WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla. No biggie. Who uses those CMSes anyway?

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Source: builtwith.com

 

Yet so many web services keep making embed codes that contain <script> tags, which pretty much renders their content unembeddable to anyone managing a site on a CMS. Disabling the security setting that strips out the <script> tag, as the tech support above suggests, is almost never a realistic option for a website manager. The security setting is there for a reason, and every programmer I’ve come across in the decade-plus that I’ve worked in web development has recommended against disabling it when this issue came up. Hmm. Open a possible backdoor to my company’s site that could wreak havoc, against the advice of my programmers, just so I can test out a new web tool? Why, yes please! While I’m at it, let me click on that mysterious link in the poorly written email from the shady-looking address warning me that my password had been compromised.

Sure, sometimes you can have your programmer add the script into the site header or the appropriate JS database to solve this issue, but that takes time — time you may not have when you’re working on deadline. Also, it may simply not be deemed worth the time or expense unless it’s something you will use frequently.

This is becoming a more frequent issue as more and more of the websites shift to running on CMSes while more and more content are being generated on third-party web services like Twitter and Facebook. As a content producer, you want to experiment with new tools to enrich your storytelling. Yet, when it comes time to pull the content from those web services into your site, well, let’s just say there’s a reason a web service’s embed function is among the first things I look at when considering whether to use that service for work.

A Year of Podcasting

rotk-album-art_squareLast April, on somewhat of a whim, I started a podcast where I try to tell the story of the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a way that is more accessible to a Western audience. It’s been a little over a year and I’m still going strong, 38 episodes into what’s looking like a roughly 150-episode undertaking. Thanks to the success of “Serial” (which I still haven’t listened to) thrusting podcasts into the mainstream, I can now say I was podcasting before podcasting was cool.

Here are some things I have learned in my year podcasting.

It’s the relationship with listeners that keeps you going.

I’ve said this a few times on my podcast, and I’ll say it again here: The listeners are the ones that make this venture worthwhile. I don’t make any money from it, and it doesn’t really tie into my professional work, so it’s not really a professional promotion vehicle. There are weeks where it’s tough to get up the motivation to put in the hours to write the script, record the episode, and produce all the supplemental material. That’s when a thank-you note from a listener who sounds so happy to discover your little corner of the Internet really gives you the little boost you need to keep going.

All good things should end.

This podcast will end when we reach the end of the novel. The simple knowledge of that fact is important because I know this is a finite commitment and I can measure my progress toward living up to that commitment. If this project had no clear ending, then I would feel less obligation to stick with it through the lulls.

Setting a publishing schedule that includes a regular break was a really good idea.

I set out to publish three episodes a month, and that monthly off week has been crucial in helping me avoid burnout. I’ve said this before: When you know starting out that you’re embarking on a project that will take four-plus years, what’s a few more months if it means ensuring you keep your sanity and enthusiasm for the project?

Shorter is better.

The first couple episodes clocked in at almost 40 minutes and felt really long during production and when I listened to them. I’ve since cut back to 30 minutes, and the episodes now feel snappier, and I don’t sound like I’m about to fade away by the end.

Thank you, Romance of the Three Kingdoms video game franchise!

I can’t begin to tell you how many comments or emails I have received from people who discovered the show that include something along the lines of “I got into ROTK through the video game and have been interested in learning more about the novel ever since.”

Confession: I’ve never played any games from that franchise, but maybe I should start.

I’m learning new things about the novel, too.

I’ve read the novel many times since childhood, but when you are doing a show on the book, you have to read it and research it in a much closer way, and I’m discovering new nuggets of insight into particular passages and characters.

Apple rules podcasts.

More than 65 percent of the clients used to listen to my show is some kind of Apple product, and 50 percent of all downloads come on an Apple platform (including 41 percent on iOS).

That said, I think it’s still important to make your show available on other platforms. For instance, I’ve had a number of people discover the show through its YouTube channel. Adding the show to various podcasting networks also helps improve the site’s search engine rankings.

iTunes’s listings are messed up.

I’m not griping because of where the show is ranked in iTunes’s listings. I knew starting out that a podcast on a subject as specific as this would naturally have a smaller potential audience. However, it would be good to know more about where the show ranks in the listings and why. Generally, it seems like the show is in the low 100s under the History section of podcasts on the iTunes Store, but probably 40 percent of the time when I go into that section, I don’t see the show listed at all. Then I leave the section and come back, and it’s back in its usual spot. Maddening.