5 no-nonsense career strategies for digital journalists

5 no-nonsense career strategies for digital journalists

H R Venkatesh | March 01, 2018

The job cuts are coming. It doesn’t matter if it’s now, next month, or next year. They are inevitable, because the costs of running a digital newsroom, generally speaking, are still higher than the revenues trickling in. Even if the digital brand you’re working for is subsidized — either by print or TV — or by other industries, billionaires or venture funds, there’s no telling how stable your job is. This state of affairs is likely to last until we all figure out how to get people to pay for journalism, or at least until digital ads begin to fetch as much money as traditional advertising.

In this scenario, the way to survive doing the journalism you love (which you might still think of as a service to society) is to become “so good they can’t ignore you.”

But first, what’s a digital journalist?

A digital journalist is anybody in an editorial role at digital-only or hybrid newsrooms. This includes reporters, of course, but also editors, copy editors, writers, producers, curators, newsletter compilers, social media ‘posters,’ video journalists, photographers and immersive producers. Each of these jobs involves choosing to publish some content at the expense of another piece of content, which is an editorial decision. If you’re working in any of the departments I’ve listed above (or making editorial decisions in other departments), you are a digital journalist.

What should you focus on as a digital journalist? According to a recent ICFJ survey, there are at least 23 digital skills currently in use across global newsrooms. Of these 23 skills, “only five are used to produce stories in half or more of newsrooms.” And even of these five skills, most are are ‘first-tier’ skills, such as social media and digital photography. ‘Second-tier’ skills such as verification and visualization are not always found in newsrooms. Rarer still are ‘third-tier’ skills like immersive storytelling and data journalism.

Bottom line: There’s an urgent need to fill this skills gap.

The following strategies will help you get closer to that goal.

1. Focus on skills first, add passion later

Consciously or unconsciously, we were all probably drawn to journalism out of a feeling to “do something.” As a young TV reporter, I had Steve Jobs’ famous “Stay hungry, stay foolish” quote as my computer screensaver. I didn’t much like TV news then, and I worried incessantly that I hadn’t found the one thing within the profession that would keep my passion alive.

Years later, when I read the writer Cal Newport tear into our obsession with staying hungry and foolish, I bristled at first, then conceded that he is onto something.

In “So good they can’t ignore you,” Newport writes, “I have argued that ‘follow your passion’ is bad advice, because most people aren’t born with pre-existing passions waiting to be discovered. If your goal is to love what you do, you must first build up ‘career capital’ by mastering rare and valuable skills, and then cash in this capital…”

This approach makes sense. The first thing you ought to do, maybe after speaking to a few experts and mentors, is decide what these ‘rare and valuable’ skills are, and get to work on getting good at them. It takes months to master the basics of anything and years to get really good at it, so choose wisely. Anything you can learn in a day or week is, by extension, not a ‘rare and valuable’ skill.

2. Discard the vanity resume

Regular resumes with job titles are really vanity resumes, because they often don’t impart the information recruiters look for. At Indian newspapers, for example, a principal or special correspondent is usually someone who has spent years getting good at a particular beat. Because of rapid changes in the industry, however, job titles are no longer an accurate reflection of the work you do.

On the other hand, a skills CV or resume is, as the term suggests, a document that focuses on the skills you’ve learned, not the job titles you’ve held. Working on a skills resume forces you to take stock of where you are and where you need to be, so it’s a great way to start building your skills.

3. Discard the vanity job after it has served its purpose

A lot of journalism jobs come with glamour. Think of a television reporter with a mic in hand, keeping crowds of people at bay with her elbows and hurling tough questions at a politician.

Sure, this kind of work gets you noticed. But it achieves precious little after a point. Politicians know how to evade these tough questions, and the reporter often knows he or she will get little out of the exchange. It’s usually just a charade. Of course, careers will continue to be made and salary growth will likely be good in the beginning. But reporters who stick to this path will eventually discover that they’re stuck. And they will find it tough to move. Eventually, they will be replaced by people with more fervor and energy.

Most important, this kind of work is not journalism. By the time the glamour has outlived its purpose, your soul will either have been destroyed, or more likely, you will have left the profession in sheer disgust.

4. If it’s easy, don’t do it (Or, don’t do anything a bot can do.)

A thumb rule that has worked for me is this: if my job is easy, then I’m not really learning anything. This is especially true of digital-only or hybrid newsrooms, where there are a number of jobs that involve drudgery.

And these jobs are fast becoming automated. The Associated Press already uses bots for stock market and sports updates. The advent of artificial intelligence is speeding up this process.

What kind of work should you look for? Alex Williams, writing in The New York Times, says, “the most vulnerable jobs in the robot economy are those involving predictable, repetitive tasks, however much training they require.”

So how long should you stick to your ‘easy’ job? As long as you feel you’re learning something, it’s probably okay. The moment you’ve stopped being challenged, start looking for other options.

5. Don’t worry if you can’t change your circumstances

If you feel anxious about being unable to do the above, don’t worry. Maybe you can’t afford to move jobs right now. Or perhaps it’s hard to ask to switch to another role. Life is messy and unpredictable, so go easy on yourself if you can’t shake things up just now.

There are other things that count too, such as relationships at work. Having kind and supportive managers and colleagues is never a guarantee. And if you’re the sort who is reliable, accountable and hard-working, chances are you won’t suffer.

Still, it pays to learn something on your own. For example, throughout  my television career, I did a number of things on the side that weren’t tied to my job. I started at least three blogs, experimented with a podcast, ran a campaign against intrusive advertising, pitched shows and started volunteering with Hacks/Hackers India. It took me five years to leave television news after I first decided it wasn’t for me, so as you can see, I too bided my time. This secret, parallel career of mine helped me learn new things, and made me feel less worried that I wouldn’t know anything when I eventually did leave.

These five strategies are geared toward altering the way you think, rather than learning any specific tool or skill. For obvious reasons, that is a decision best left to you. Once you’ve got the strategy right, the tactics will reveal themselves.

Main image CC-licensed from Pexels via rawpixel



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