Listen Up, Old-School Journalists

by Laura Rich on June 9, 2009 in Work

people1It always makes my heart skip a little beat each time I see even a reference to “themediaisdying,” the Twitter feed that has tracked the steady, eerie erosion of the media industry. For 15 years or so, I’ve made my living as a journalist. And yet, now, people are writing stories for free and few full-time writing positions are left. Sure does sound like “dying” to me.

But after hearing a few of the folks at the Mediabistro Circus conference last week, I got a little hope back – journalism and writing jobs are not going away, but thanks to the recession, they’re undergoing a swift, head-spinning transformation, and the profession’s new iteration will take some hard work.

The changes underway aren’t simply in the domain of journalism, though. New work and new careers are emerging in the recession based on approaches that everyone needs to pick up in order to survive and thrive, and emerge from this downturn intact and better than ever.

Here are some of the new rules for old careers that were highlighted by the Mediabistro Circus speakers:

  • Readers Are Your Competitorsand Your Friends. The user-generated content trend isn’t over, but it’s different – it’s all about collaboration now. Co-opt them to improve your work and raise your profile. When the US Air plane crashed into the Hudson River, it was a regular pedestrian who captured the most enduring image. The New York Times published it. Everyone did. Consider adding readers to your army of resources.
  • Identify Your Expertise. The era of the generalist journalist is pretty much over. Expertise comes at a premium, and writers who want that premium should find some ideas and threads to get behind—and promote the hell out of.
  • Build Your Brand. Bylines are one thing, but journalists have otherwise tended to align their identity with their publication. No more. Going forward, the name of the game is personal branding. Start a blog. Twitter. Be consistent and persistent in the ideas you get behind—they’ll get noticed and you’ll get a following. That following is valuable to editors who can count on you to help them build their readership.
  • Be Transparent. It may seem anathema to some long-time journalists, but keeping a developing story top secret is no longer absolutely necessary—and can occasionally hurt your progress if it keeps good ideas from finding their way to you. You can get the word out about your story through Twitter and other networks, without giving it all away, and some unexpected leads may pop up in response. (This is true for products and companies in development – ideas benefit from more input and contributions.)
  • Crowdsource. This concept builds on the idea of “transparency,” but it refers specifically to actively seeking participation in the development of your story. Take advantage of the efficiencies the Internet provides by sending out parts of your story to your following, as Business Week writer Stephen Baker did for one of his stories: He published the first sentence of each paragraph on his feed and let his followers help him fill in the ideas, according to John Byrne, executive editor of BusinessWeek.com, speaking at the conference.
  • Use Self-Service. The Internet currently offers several tools to practically automate the reporting process. HelpAReporterOut.com is one channel for posting your request for sources. Spot.us is a site that helps raise money for your ideas.
  • Interact with Your Readers. This is another area that is a radical shift for journalists who are used to simply sending their words out into the ether. In the new order, journalists absolutely must interact with their readers – learn from them and, yes, serve them – to ensure their careers. To make his point, Byrne tells his writers that their stories will stay on the homepage longer if they post responses to readers on the comment board.

These new ways of working are hardly unique to journalism—but journalists may be among those who resisted the trend toward immersion with their audience.

The bottom line is that journalists must be more entrepreneurial and more community-minded. The Web is a web – of information, leads, and audiences and funding sources. “Digital technology allows us to collaborate with our audience at every step from idea to story to aftermath,” said Byrne, speaking at the conference. True dat.

P.S. If you’ve got experiences of this new way of doing journalism, please share them in the Comments section below!

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