Reinventing the Newsroom

What to Tell J-School Students

Posted in Cultural Change by reinventingthenewsroom on March 5, 2009

This morning one of my friends’ Facebook status updates read: “Talking to j-school students today. Should I tell them to sit tight for a couple years? Suggestions welcome.”

Wow. Deep breath.

A lot of journalists should be forgiven if their suggestion is that those students forget about sitting tight and run like hell. But I was happy — and, OK, a bit surprised — to find that wasn’t my reaction. What would I tell them? Something like this:

Everything in our profession has been flung up into the air, and when the pieces come down they’ll be in a new configuration. Nobody can tell you exactly what that configuration will be — how could we, with the pieces still cartwheeling around up here at eye level? We do know that some of those pieces will come down broken. We can be sure that some will come down in messy patterns that won’t work. We’re also pretty sure that some will come down in ways that are very interesting. Beyond that, nobody can say. And we’re not even going to start knowing for a couple of years.

If this level of uncertainty bothers you, you might want to consider doing something else. I’m not going to lie to you — it’s going to be messy around here for a while, with a lot of good people out of work and a lot of proud institutions forced to close up shop. (But good luck finding a something else that isn’t being similarly broken and remade by the headlong sprint of technology.)

On the other hand, if this uncertainty excites you, full speed ahead. Because this is one fascinating time to be a journalist.

What will you wind up doing? Couldn’t tell you. Heck, I don’t know where you’ll serve your apprenticeship. You might learn your craft as a blogger covering your neighborhood, or telling your own story. You might tell stories with video and audio. You might have a knack for sifting data and finding that pattern that tells a story, or for presenting data in a way that encourages readers to do the same. You might even find the tried-and-true route still works, and go from doing night cops at a little paper to doing other things at bigger papers. Don’t worry too much about where you do it or how you do it, because the rules are being rewritten so fast that they’re a mess of scribbles and erasures.

Instead, focus on this: Whatever route you take, tell stories with passion and conviction. Learn to tell them with clarity, fairness and authority. Watch how readers shape those stories in return, give them the tools to do so, and make them your partners in finding things out. Know and accept that you’ll do your share of telling small stories that may not particularly excite you — they’ll teach you your craft,  making clarity and fairness and authority stop being concepts and become muscle memory. Put your hand up. Ask questions. Try stuff. Fail in interesting ways.

That’s not just what you need — it’s what journalism needs. Yes, it’s a confusing, discouraging, frightening time. But it’s also an exciting time, even an exhilarating one. I know it’s a bit odd and a little scary to see veterans and mentors chuck the torn-up map out the window and admit they’re not quite sure where they’re going. But that means you get to help navigate, and do some of driving. I have faith we’re going somewhere interesting — come help us find out where.


4 Responses

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  1. Jennifer Hicks said, on March 5, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Right on!

  2. Christy said, on March 5, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Sound advice. The truth is that the world still needs reporters who can tell compelling stories, even though it may be unclear how those stories will be told.

    Being flexible about what journalism is is key – and you could probably say the same for many other types of work.

  3. Aileen said, on March 5, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Yeah, that’s totally what I said. I did emphasize a few things I thought were important:

    1. Good writing is good writing, no matter where it is. The way you approach print or online or stone tablets should be the same in terms of quality, clarity, and integrity.

    2. One student said she was interested in food and fashion and also wanted to affect social change. She was afraid of it being a question of Fluff or Serious. And it isn’t. You choose the stories to tell.

    3. If you write all the time, you will get better at it. If you read other good writing, you will get better at writing.

    They didn’t seem totally damaged, though. And that’s good – remember when it was fun to be broke and drunk in your twenties?

  4. Don Fry said, on March 6, 2009 at 2:50 pm


    Good column. I like the idea that “the rules are being rewritten so fast that they’re a mess of scribbles and erasures.” Some people, like you and me, enjoy times of rapid change, and others look and hope for the opposite. I hope print journalists who get bought out or laid off embrace this new world and don’t define themselves out of it. Your skill set is what counts, not your previous beats.
    Don Fry

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