10 Years Since I Left Journalism

exodus2

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.

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

pew_news sources

  • 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.

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?

cms

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.

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

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.

Adding Interactivity to Data Visualization

I’ve been doing infographics for a while now, but I’m just starting to make forays into the realm of interactive data visualization. The motivation for taking this step is obvious: Data visualizations are increasingly web-based, and there are significant usability issues online with infographics that are built more for print than for web. So I’ve been tinkering with Highcharts and a few other interactive data visualization tools.

Of course, the best way to learn is to do, so I needed a project. I decided to revamp the UNC research funding graphics found at research.unc.edu. While there is a ton of information there, the PowerPoint graphs have always made me cringe, especially these lovely 3D doughnut graphs (because, you know, nothing illustrates data better than 3D doughnut graphs with a dozen slices):

3ddoughnut

 

There is a lot of data to work with, and I’m still learning as I go, so this is a work in progress. Here’s the first step: an interactive line graph (made with Highcharts) showing the funding for all the research units at UNC over the last 10 years. It’s looking a little squished because it’s a responsive graph squeezed into the narrow width of the content area on this blog. Here’s the actual, non-squished graph.

An added advantage of this graph is that it is easier to update than a static graph since it’s pulling the data from a CSV file. When a new year’s funding numbers roll in, you won’t need to create a new graphic from scratch. Just add the most recent numbers to the CSV file, and the graph updates itself. Eventually, when I actually get decent at this, I’ll try to make the graph pull the data from a database.

Of course, this first graph is just me wading ankle deep in the sea of interactive data visualization. There is still much finetuning to be done with this graph alone, such as adding options to toggle all series on or off and addressing the issue of all those lines clumping together at the bottom of the graph. After that, I’m going to try to figure out how to do a waffle graph in Javascript so I can replace those doughnut graphs. I’ll blog my progress as I learn and do more. Stay tuned.

Showing, Not Telling, with an Infographic

One of the things I enjoy most about my job is the opportunity to produce stories about our researchers’ discoveries. I love this aspect of my work because 1) I get to learn something new every time, 2) I love explaining complicated concepts to a lay audience, and 3) it gives me the chance to tell stories in a variety of ways. Aside from writing news releases and feature stories, I always keep an eye out for opportunities to tell parts of the story visually, whether it’s a short video, an animation, or my favorite — an infographic.

Infographics certainly can provide eye-catching elements to draw people’s interest and to encourage sharing on social media, but that is not my only, or even primary, goal in producing them. In fact, whenever possible, I try to avoid adding to the daily online glut of “infographics” that are long on “graphic” and short on “info” — eye candies that are not much than a dozen or so words blown up to large point sizes, put against a colorful background, and sprinkled around some cute vector art. Instead, my main aim is to visually communicate a part of the story that is not as easily or effectively conveyed via text.

One such instance came last week, when I got the chance to put together this infographic to accompany a news release about a paper on racial and gender gaps in how likely heart-attack survivors are to stay on their preventive medications (PDF version).

adherence-big

When I started building the graphic, I wasn’t quite sure if the racial and gender gaps would be all that apparent, because the differences didn’t exactly jump out at me when viewed in a data table. Once I started placing the little figures in the slope graphs, however, the disparity quickly became obvious, and much more so than looking at the table. I think the the spatial differences among the figures on the two sides of the slope graphs really helped drive home the idea that while the different race/gender groups start out with similar odds of staying on the medications, significant gaps emerge within a year.

The graphs also allowed me to efficiently communicate several secondary themes, such as which racial groups consistently lagged behind, the differences in adherence across the three classes of drugs, the size of the gaps, and the steepness of the drop between the odds of adherence at one month and at one year.

If I were to try to articulate these themes in words, it would likely make the story significantly longer and bog down readers with an onslaught of numbers and comparisons. In this case, the picture was definitely worth a thousand words, if not more.