Successful journalists need to 'be adaptable,' says Politico’s Kara Kearns

by Sam Berkhead
Oct 30, 2018 in Journalism Basics

A turning point for POLITICO Director of Operations Kara Kearns's career took place Sept. 10, 2001, the last day of her junior-year residency at MSNBC.

“On the morning of Sept. 11, I was in my car with every possession of mine in my trunk," she said. "I was driving home because I had to start school in a few days.”

Then the first plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Instead of going home, Kearns turned around and drove back to MSNBC’s offices in Secaucus, N.J. Because many employees who lived in Manhattan couldn’t get to work after its roads and bridges were closed, Kearns arrived at a desperately understaffed newsroom on one of the biggest news days in history.

“I arrived no longer technically an employee — I didn’t even have a badge with me — but I went in and I rolled up my sleeves and I did anything that was asked of me,” she said.

Fourteen years later, Kearns’ journalistic career has evolved from print to broadcast and finally to digital. During a recent keynote speech at a George Washington University journalism conference, Kearns stressed the need to constantly be aware of shifts in the industry and to take advantage of every opportunity available.

Be adaptable

In the ever-evolving world of journalism, where new tools and platforms are constantly being developed and implemented, Kearns stressed that “complacency kills.”

“The best piece of advice I can give you is to be adaptable,” Kearns said. “This world is in constant flux, and if you don’t adapt to it, you will get left behind.”

As traditional newspapers continue to give way to young, nimble digital media outlets like BuzzFeed, Vox, Gawker and others, Kearns said today’s journalists must be able to perceive sea changes in the journalism industry — and to follow these changes rather than resist them.

"Don’t ever allow yourself to get comfortable,” she said.

Take initiative

Succeeding as a journalist isn’t just about having the right skills and experience, Kearns explained. Showing initiative and playing an active role in your career is also necessary for success.

Taking initiative as a journalist means accepting opportunities that you may think are below you — jobs with low pay, long hours and seemingly menial tasks — and never complaining about the work you do, she said.

“I spent a solid year working 20 hours a day for very little pay,” she said. “It seemed really intuitive to me that this was how I was going to make my mark and separate myself from the rest of the pack, and it worked.”

Just as it worked for her, it will likely work for you, she said.

“In recent years, I’ve been someone who hires employees and runs internship and fellowship programs,” Kearns said. “I’m still really amazed by the sheer number of young students and young employees who just don’t take that kind of initiative. They don’t go the extra mile. They roll their eyes at weekend work or early start times.”

Work with integrity

Lastly, Kearns said, it’s crucial for journalists to act ethically and with integrity, both in your writing and reporting and how you treat those around you.

“This industry is very tight-knit, and if you have a bad experience with one person, that will follow you,” she said. “Just like my 9/11 story helped me get hired at MSNBC a few years later as a full-time employee, there are other folks out here who have bad experiences that follow them.”

While none of these keys to success in journalism are “reinventing the wheel,” Kearns said, it’s impossible to underestimate the value of being hardworking and respectful to others in the industry.

“There will be twists and turns, layoffs and restructures,” she said. “The market today is going to look wildly different than it will even look a year from now, so I would encourage you not to linger on disappointment, but to look for open windows and new opportunities.”

Main image CC-licensed on Flickr via Bruno Farlas.