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.

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.

Where Journalism Jobs Aren’t, Triangle Edition

Last week, [intlink id=”7598″ type=”post”]I wrote[/intlink] about a Washington Post story on how journalism (or at least reporter) jobs are increasingly concentrated in three large cities and dwindling just about everywhere else, while public-relations jobs are growing. After writing that post, I took a closer look at how those numbers have trended in the Triangle:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Notes

  • The numbers combine statistics for all metropolitan areas that include Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. The definition of those areas change several times over the span shown in the graph.
  • There are some oddities in the number of reporter and correspondent jobs:
    • In 2005 and 2006, the Raleigh-Cary metro area did not report any reporter jobs.
    • In 2012, the Durham-Chapel Hill metro area did not report any reporter jobs.

Where Journalism Jobs Aren’t

This excerpt comes from a Washington Post story about journalism jobs being increasingly geographically concentrated in a handful of the biggest cities. Outside of those insulated zones, the picture is grim:

The number of news reporters in the Washington, D.C., area nearly doubled over the last decade, from 1,450 to 2,760. In Los Angeles it grew by 20 percent. In New York City, it basically stayed flat. Outside of those cities, in that same timeframe, one out of every four reporting jobs vanished – 12,000 jobs in total, according to the Labor Department.

DC, New York, and Los Angeles, by the way, each boasts more reporter jobs than the ENTIRE STATE of North Carolina. In the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, where I have lived and worked for virtually the entire past decade, the number of reporter jobs declined by 46 percent, from 370 in 2004 to 200 in 2014. In that same span, overall employment in the area GREW by 22 percent, and public-relations specialist jobs increased by 38 percent.

That’s ok, you say. I don’t mind moving to one of the big three, you say. Well, ready for a little more bad news? Take a look at those cities’ cost of living compared to what reporters there make. I did, and here’s what I found, comparing reporters’ wages and job numbers in New York, Washington DC, and Los Angeles to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. Continue reading Where Journalism Jobs Aren’t

Advice for Young Journalists

Felix Salmon stirred up a big online discussion this week with a post that essentially told budding journalists to not make journalism their career. To me, the last three paragraphs of his story are spot on:

I have every faith that great journalism will continue to appear online, and reach a large and grateful audience. For news consumers, that’s fantastic news. But I have no faith that the individuals creating that great journalism are going to end up getting paid anything near what they deserve — or even that most of them will be able to build a career out of it.

If all you care about is the great journalism, then, well, go out and find great stories to tell, and tell those stories in a compelling manner. You’ll always be able to find somewhere willing to publish them, even if they pay little or nothing for the privilege of doing so.

On the other hand, if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road, I don’t really know what to tell you. Except that the chances of getting there, if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower.

Note that Salmon is NOT saying journalism is dying (despite some people’s misreading). In fact, he sounds quite high on its future. What he is down on is the likelihood that a journalism practitioner will be able to make a decent living on it.

This echoes what I’ve believed for a while now: It’s a great time to do journalism; it’s a bad time to do journalism as your primary means of income. It’s not hard to see how those two statements can co-exist, but if you need an explanation, Salmon’s post lays it out well.

Some people seem upset at Salmon for giving this advice, but I think his analysis is something every budding journalist needs to read. It’s fine if they decide to keep working toward a journalism career after reading it, but they definitely should read it, because it’s about understanding what you are getting into.

Here are a few additional pieces of advice I’d offer to aspiring journalists: Continue reading Advice for Young Journalists

First Look’s Non-Problem Problems

Vanity Fair has a long piece on the troubles at First Look Media. That, coupled with other reports about the media startup’s recent turbulence, makes it sound like part of the problem is a clash of cultures between the company’s Silicon Valley founder and its legion of journalists. According to the Vanity Fair story,

The problems at First Look are many, including an essential culture clash between people who appear to have antithetical opinions about everything from management style to subject matter to seating arrangements to whether journalists should have landlines. Disagreements over “process” have been at once petty and paralyzing.

And then you start reading the examples of this culture clash, and it strikes you just how ridiculously petty these things seem to be. The entire “Up Your Asana” section of the Vanity Fair story just makes you go, “You guys are grumbling about that?” To wit:

The editors were encouraged to use a task-management system called Asana. It works like this: a person creates a task on Asana and invites relevant colleagues to join the task. The task has a deadline, and everyone invited can see the chains of conversation about the task. When the task is completed, a box is checked, and the task goes into an archive. Jeremy Scahill jokingly called the program “up your Asana.” Matt Taibbi used the program so infrequently he had to be continually reminded of how it functioned.

First Look managers also encouraged the use of RASCIs—responsibility assignment matrices—to manage various projects, whether it was site design or promotional spots. The acronym stands for the five different categories of people on a given project: Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, Consulted, and Informed. Although many of the journalists were not expected to use RASCIs very frequently, editors occasionally had to. In an organization that First Look editors had billed as non-hierarchical, the use of responsibility assignment matrices rubbed some people the wrong way.

First, Asana: The description makes it sound like a typical project-management system, and as someone who has used such systems before, it’s the kind of thing that I would just shrug and go, “Yeah, it’s a new system. Big deal.” Also, how big an annoyance can it be if, in Taibbi’s case, you use it so infrequently that you can’t remember how it works?

Same with the RASCIs. They do sound antithetical to the way many journalists are used to working (but hey, so is “digital first”). But if the story is correct that the journalists were not expected to use them very often and that editors only “occasionally had to,” you have to again wonder why an infrequent annoyance could become a sore spot. Get it done and move on with life.

The other part that struck me as kind of interesting from the Vanity Fair piece:

In late July, Omidyar announced in a blog post that, instead of launching a variety of sites, First Look would be “building out” The Intercept and Racket. No other sites were immediately planned, and First Look would focus on experimenting with the technical aspects of distributing First Look’s journalism, rather than simply creating new content. For some of the journalists who had joined the site expecting to be part of a large, reporter-driven, and all-purpose media organization, the news came as a shock. Omidyar’s technical curiosity about the distribution of news was trumping his interest in actual news, some of the journalists said.

So let’s see: The journalists at First Look apparently

  • are more interested in mocking a piece of unfamiliar software instead of trying to make it work for them;
  • scorn a workflow that’s different than what they are used to; and
  • see leadership’s interest in the technical aspect of journalism distribution as a negative and distraction from what’s really important (writing stories)

Granted, the Vanity Fair article comes off as much more sympathetic toward Omidyar than the other accounts of the problems at First Look. Still, if these attributes were ascribed to journalists at a traditional media outlet, we would say they sound downright curmudgeonly and that their refusal to adapt to a new system is partly why their companies are flailing. How this can be a problem among employees at a startup founded by a Silicon Valley star is … befuddling.

Hail Our Machine Overlords

The quote comes from a story about Narrative Science raising $10 million to continue its development of software to write stories without any work by humans. Maybe it wasn’t intended to sound this way, but the quote invokes visions of a dystopian future where humans are barely needed by our machine overlords. Perhaps it’s the fact that drawing conclusions is supposed to be where the humans’ value lies in this production chain now that so much can be automated.