Advice for aspiring journalists amid media tumult

Four themes I’ve been pushing out to my 70 or so first-year students this fall semester, amid the steady litany of job losses, consolidations and reports of “outsourcing” from traditional Canadian news media:

1. Story still matters. The great flux in the worlds of media and journalism are essentially about modes of delivery and creation of new business models. There’s very little serious talk about whether journalism, in some form, will survive or whether engaged citizens of North American democracies will continue to demand timely, accurate and contextualized information, whether through flat screens, podcasts, e-readers, mobile devices or more traditional media. Journalists are analytical storytellers, so practise and hone to a razor edge your skills at telling stories across the wide range of platforms. Don’t, however, ignore development of an equally important skill — something past generations of journalists have called a “nose for news.” Master the knack for anticipating and uncovering the story and, as within the proverbial mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. If you can’t do that, all the software and technological prowess in the world won’t make you successful.

2. Develop your own brand. As you practise your writing — in the classroom, on your blog, through social media postings, etc. — begin to ask yourself about what will distinguish you from the thousands of other journalists with whom you’ll soon be in competition. How will your work stand out? What special interests, proprietary knowledge or, yes, even bias might you leverage or develop to set yourself apart? An intimate knowledge of the procedures and databases or the Transportation Safety Board of Canada? An expertise in sport-related injuries and the clinics that treat them? A heightened understanding of food science and food distribution? Now’s the time to take a hobby, special interest or mere curiosity and turn it into a sort of mini-specialization. Don’t dismiss the importance of competence in journalism’s primary skills: investigation, interviewing, vocabulary, accuracy and deft writing, among others. But develop your personal brand on a parallel track with those basic competencies. Take your first steps, however halting, along that path.

3. Think entrepreneurially. Consider the possibility that you may never spend 20 or 25 years as an employee of a large media company. The trend toward leaner staffs and outsourced work is often characterized as evidence of the slow death of journalism and news organizations, especially by those who have spent their careers inside those walls. It needn’t be so. While traditional news media outlets will likely continue to hire staff writers, reporters, photographers, illustrators, designers and engineers for some time to come (albeit at a slower pace), don’t dismiss the notion that your journalistic career might be more akin to that of the owner/operator of a small business or a member of profession. Find ways of learning or practising entrepreneurial skills, such as pitching story ideas, promoting yourself and the type of work you’re interested in doing, keeping proper financial records as a self-employed individual and collaborating with others to break and tell great stories. Consider the possibility that, as they develop leaner business models, news organizations may some day contract out reporting in addition to copy editing; that journalism will be more collaborative and as much the purview of self-starting, independent professionals as of staff tied to desks inside corporate entities. And within that scenario, what’s to prevent clusters of excellent journalists from operating collegially as units, offering their services to buyers or “clients” the way law firms have operated for decades?

4. Rev up your flux capacitor. Don’t be cowed by the naysaying and pessimism of those within traditional news media who live — or in some cases are imprisoned — inside legacy products and the business models on which they’ve too long relied. Rather than focus on its delivery modes, place your confidence and faith in journalism itself: the human yearning for story; the pursuit of truth in an age of spin; the need for mediated discussion, spirited debate and forged consensus among bonfires of various vanities; the continuing importance of assembling that “first rough draft of history” for the benefit of those who come after, whether they be other journalists, historians or their critics. The questions around delivery modes and business models will eventually sort themselves out — and you have an opportunity to play a significant role in helping devise them. Within another generation — one slice of the duration of a typical career — the news media landscape is likely to look very different. So what. Seize the historic moment. Master the storytelling arts; muster your courage.