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On A Blue Sky View of Chicago Media

The View from Chicago Media Pep Talk

The view from the 22nd floor Cliff Dwellers Club on S. Michigan Ave., was stupendous and the conversation was even more uplifting Saturday morning for the “All Chicago Media Pep Talk.”

A handful of speakers, all gathered for the event  organized by Karen Kring, president of the Association for Women Journalists-Chicago, volleyed about their reasons for optimism, in a lively banter moderated by  GreenMark Public Relations’ Sue Markgraf

“It’s a wonderful time to be in media,” Markgraf said, for media entrepreneurs going out on their own. “We are at our core a creative group.”  

Past what he called the “hand-wringing stage,” Chicago journalists are starting to realize they “have a skillset still much in demand,” said Thom Clark, president of Community Media Workshop, which just completed a 2010 study of 120 community news sites.

Storytelling “is all we do, no matter what platform,” said Sylvia Franklin, an independent producer and content strategist. “Be smart enough and stretegic enough for people to find your information,” she advised the room of about 75 media workers.

Moving from traditional print to a radio variety show, “Chicago Live!” co-executive producer Lara Weber said her career is still about “respecting the storytelling” in an innovative way. The stage show in a partnership between the Chicago Tribune and Second City, she said, is very much like a weekly Sunday print magazine, with the best stories of Chicago now reaching a new audience.

Hyper-local news is the impetus for a positive outlook, said Mike Fourcher, publisher of CenterSquareJournal.com and RoscoeViewJournal.com. in what appeared to be the only precisely timed, prepared remarks of the morning.

Fourcher’s four reasons for optimism:

  1.  Cynicism.  Because mistrust of mainstream media is high, “start-ups can find a niche and get a foothold.”
  2. Long tail. Taking a page from author Chris Anderson’s view of the Internet, Fourcher said the “one-size fits all” approach to news by MSM proves there is room “for as many different niches as possible.”
  3. WordPress. Noting the agility and ease of publishing with this free tool (this is a WordPress blog), there has been a “revolution in publishing.”
  4. Patch.com. Because of the high-dollar, aggressive start-up of this conglomerate of hyper-local news, this endeavor is the “Starbucks of news.”

      Editor and publisher of Our Urban Times Elaine Coorens presented her view in 4 C’s , a P and an S. She said Change, Challenge, Choice, Creative Collaboration  (actually it’s 5 C’s then), leads to Passion and Success. We all applauded.

      Sherry Thomas, former editor at North Shore Magazine, (coincidentally, my first job out of grad school was as managing editor there in 1979) said when the magazine folded she did not panic. Now the editor-in-chief of Quintessential New Trier magazine, Thomas said the secret for success is to “give them stories they are not getting anywhere else. ” She added, “People will want what they always wanted– good storytelling.”

    After Kring cheerleaded the group to finding their own answers and concluded that she hoped everyone “got inspired for a few things,” the tables of journalists and media entrepreneurs went about the process of sharing their take-aways.

   Swapping praise and business cards, we filed out after Markgraf reminded us it was up to each of us to “create your own brand.” That is precisely what I tell my students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.

   Ending just after 11 a.m., it was the start to a sun-fileld glorious Chicago day, where the view on the media landscape was as inspiring and bright as the one from the 22nd floor.

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“Eat Your Fear” For Your Career

“Eat your fear and go for it,” Maria Hinojosa of CNN and public radio fame advised the crowd at the recent Journalism & Women Symposium conference in Texas.  It’s good advice. And advice was what was on hand in the buffet of career suggestions offered at the panel I moderated, “Portfolio Careers.”

Journalists are no longer able to survive with singular specialties. What is required is affinity for change, a mega-nimble approach to adapting to the marketplace and a willlingness to shape your talents to the needs of media outlets and organizations. All of this was evidenced by the panel of superstars who quilt together professions highlighting different interests and passions.

Roberta Baskin, a broadcast investigative journalist with 75 illustrious prizes to her name, has moved from the post of executive director for the Center for Public Integrity, and is now senior communications advisor at the Office of the Inspector General for Health and Human Services. Her years in Chicago and Washington, D.C., working for ABC’s “20/20,” CBS’ “48 Hours” and “CBS Evening News,” as well as “NOW with Bill Moyers,” prepared her for a shift in career where her skills as an investigative reporter help uncover fraud, scams and crimes that harm the American public on a grand scale.

 Arnesa Howell advised the audience to manage time efficiently, as she moves from her posts as full-time freelancer, editor and consultant in Washington, D.C. writing for People, Uptown, Heart & Soul, USA Weekend and adjunct speaking gigs at Georgetown University and American.  

Charreah Jackson is doing it all out of New York as a writer, speaker, editor and family life educator. She is associate editor at Heart & Soul and a social media editor at Siren PR, as well as head of her own communications company, Studio Social.     

Linda Kramer Jenning is the Washington, D.C. editor for Glamour and an adjunct at Georgetown in journalism. A former Associated Press reporter, she has worked as an editor for People as well as in stints in broadcast outlets. She juggles editing as well as freelance work.

Gone are the days of journalists spending 25 years in a single media job resulting in a gold watch, gold pen or party with champagne in the newsroom with a single layer cake. You do what you can for outlets who will contract with you for your efforts. And you make it all work because you need to make it all work.

You eat your fear.

When I was a student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in the 1970s, every instructor spoke with great reverence about how we should all aspire to be reporters on the national desk for the New York Times. It seemed a noble goal, but I also looked around and decided that if my class that year had 150 students in it, and every class all four years had 150 or more students each, then 600 students every year were told to get the same job at the New York Times.

Chances are they had been telling students for the last 10, perhaps 20 or 30 years the same thing. So anywhere from 6,000 to 18,000 people were right now trying for the same job. And the one person in that job wasn’t leaving.

I learned before my writing career even began that I would make my own way and craft for myself a challenging and fulfilling career out of writing that satisfied me and met no one else’s idea of success.

Now I teach at that journalism school.  In the last 30 years, I have worked on staff as an editor at three magazines and one major daily newspaper. I have freelanced regularly for dozens of daily newspapers, magazines, websites and written for radio. I have written thousands of articles appearing in hundreds and hundreds of media outlets.

I even branched out to non-traditional writing experiments. About 15 years ago, I wrote health briefs for a new company whose idea was to have health tip annoucnements every morning on voicemail at different subscribing companies. Forward thinking we all thought. But not forward thinking enough. Even laughable right about now.  

I am a journalist, but do not have one journalism job. I teach journalism, have published three books, am revising my fourth and brainstorming on a fifth. I have a bi-monthly magazine column, three websites, two blogs. I have three sons and am right now paying two college tuitions. I just finished paying for the basement reconstruction after a flood.  

 I write for money. I write because I love to write, but also because I love to pay the mortgage.

I give speeches. I give writing workshops.  For clients, I have written brochures, slideshow scripts, photo exhibit captions, annual reports, and for a little bit in the 90s I was the parenting columnist for Kellogg’s monthly newsletter, The Best To You. And I am not ashamed.

  As my friend and colleague Lisa Shepard says, journalism is undergoing a revolution. And the rate of change is volcanic.  

Success looks differently in 2010 and far beyond, than it did even 10 years ago. For sure, very, very differently than it did in 1975. There are new ways to get to work. New ways to share your multimedia journalism skills, new ways to produce content and put food on the table and non-sensible shoes on your feet, money in your account and books for your kids.  Ways to brand yourself. Ways to prove your worth and get out there. Ways for people to seek you out.

There is no one right way. Not everyone gets on the national desk at the NYT.

One thing that was so striking about all the women on that panel is that they appeared fearless. They are striving ahead in many different areas, all by choice. 

As Maria Hinojosa said, it is time to eat your fear. Bon appetit.

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2010 and still not half the media world yet

A few weeks ago the American Society of Newspaper Editors Diversity Report came out with the latest depressing numbers. It’s worse now for women in newsrooms than it was last year. Thirty-seven percent of all newsroom employees were female in 2009, compared to 37.4 percent the year before. OK, not so much.

Except that I wrote about this in 2004 for womensenews  when the percentage of women in newswrooms was 37.23 percent. One step forward, a few steps back. Or maybe we are just running in place.  My lead then was:

 “Ambition defies the boundaries of gender. Opportunity is less democratic.”

I guess that could be my mantra.

There are the same percentage of women supervisors in newsrooms now as  in 2005– 34.8 percent, after a brief trend of minor increases. There are fewer women reporters, or 38.7 percent of  staff, compared to 39.1 percent in 2008. A woeful percentage of women are photographers, artists, videographers, or 26.9 percent, down from 27.1 percent in 2008.

 Recently businessinsider.com posted a story on the 12 most powerful women in new media, boasting that Tina Brown, Arianna Huffington and my old friend, Melinda Hennebeger, were part of a force of digital nature.   

Check out this breathless lede:

Media is not just a crotchety old man’s world. Women are making a huge impact, too.

As the media industry evolves, they are leading powerful companies, launching new ventures and redefining the future of journalism. And their success stories serve as models for those hoping to make a mark in this multi-faceted, risky business.

Isn’t it a little late in the 21st century to think it’s news that media is not just for men? I mean, how old is Brenda Starr? Seems condescending and a little ridiculous to keep saying it is not a man’s world. And a lot old.

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Wake up! It’s Transformation Time!!!

Students in Caryn Brooks’ and my Journalism Methods class

Driving to work last week, where I teach graduate and undergraduate students at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a news story perked me up a bit.

ABC News President David Westin announced Tuesday what he is calling a ‘fundamental transformation’ of his network’s news division that will slash the payroll and re-engineer the way ABC produces news in the digital age. The network is seeking to shed several hundred jobs in the news division, or up to a quarter of the 1,400-person workforce.”

No, I do not have a ghoulish view of someone else’s unemployment. I am sorry 25 percent of ABC journalists are getting fired. But, it has long been the time for all of old media from newspapers to  broadast companies to change tactics. David Folkenflick of NPR goes on to write:

“But Westin says he finds hope in the same nimble approach that helped to ensure the survival of Nightline by keeping costs in check and enabling ABC journalists to get to stories more quickly.

“Much of the work that we do on Nightline today is shot by reporters and producers and edited by them and transmitted by the Internet by the field by them,” Westin said. “Anyone watching Nightline would never think, ‘Oh, they’re gathering their news differently or producing it differently.'”

This should not be news to a news organization. At least not in this century. Since 2003 in some classes and since 2006 in all classes, we have been teaching cross-platform multimedia vigorously across the curriculum, from freshmen clear up to the grad students. Anyone who follows the listserv or local blogs knows just how much grief we as a faculty and school  have endured because of that key move. We were damned for abandoning solid, investigative journalism, becoming button pushers. Criticism was fast and fierce and relentless: It’s nothing  but technology and software you teach. Stick to the old way. The old way was best. Who needs to know Soundslides? Why care about Premiere Elements as an investigative reporter? Where is the journalism? The journalism is in it all.

The reality is to stay alive, a journalism organization has to be nimble. And journalists moreso. That translates to the necessity for reporters to be equipped with a toolkit of marketable skills, all upheld by strong journalism traditions steeped in ethics, accuracy and transparency.

In the first year at Medill, students learn the fundamentals of news judgment, interviewing, sourcing, writing, fact-checking, database reporting, design, photography, audio and video storytelling and a splash of Flash. They end up producing audio and video stories that stand alone,  audio slideshows, as well as strong short and longer form text stories complemented by a barrage of relevant alternative story styles. What that means is they are employable.

To have considered journalism as a sacrosanct estate immune from the consequences of the economy was myopic, archaic and arrogant. And to resist the possibility that any journalist should be able to perform on at least two or more platforms with proficiency– if not mastery– is professional suicide.

I have the pleasure of teaching 15 marvelous grad students this quarter. Those are their smiling faces above.  They are smart, they are engaged and three days a week they are reporting and producing stories on specific beats in the community–from text to audio and video, slideshows and graphics. They will find jobs, they will produce journalism and they will hopefully not complain. 

On a recent American flight, I flipped through American Way magazine and read Carlton Stower’s February 2010 column, “Read All About It” concerning his take on the death of newspapers.  He wrote:

“That printed paper you folded into your briefcase and carried on the plane with you is a tried old dinosaur sadly limping away to its  dying place. All to which I say, “Balderdash!'”

OK, so I have not ever used balderdash in a a sentence, written or spoken, but I agree. It is the content that is important and an audience will arrive if the content is valuable. That means solid reporting and vetted, authentic good journalism  readers cannot get somewhere else faster. Good writing, insightful reporting, fresh ideas played out in a variety of formats. What we teach.    

The ABC story reminded me of a Christian Science Monitor column last May, “Why Journalists Deserve Low Pay,” by Robert C. Picard that initially made me angry at the headline, but then made me agree.  Picard wrote:  

“Journalists like to think of their work in moral or even sacred terms. With each new layoff or paper closing, they tell themselves that no business model could adequately compensate the holy work of enriching democratic society, speaking truth to power, and comforting the afflicted.”

Picard continues: “If value is to be created, journalists cannot continue to report merely in the traditional ways or merely re-report the news that has appeared elsewhere. They must add something novel that creates value. They will have to start providing information and knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere, in forms that are not available elsewhere, or in forms that are more useable and relevant to the audiences.”

They will have to transform. Before it is too late. Our students have until graduation. They will be fine.

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