When I graduated from college, like a lot of you, I wanted to be a reporter. I had gotten into journalism because I liked to write. I had had a few good internships and just completed a two-year fellowship with a local NPR station. In grad school I had learned a bit about computer science and library science – HTML, Flash, audio and video production, database querying – but that was just supposed to be gravy. I was going to be a reporter, dammit.
Let’s face it, I probably wasn’t a great reporter. I hated talking on the phone. Also, the job market was in an upheaval. Newspapers had just started going online in recent years and they struggled to figure out what to do with their websites. They were training previous reporters and copy editors to run them. They needed people with even the most basic web skills. Tons of jobs out there for web producers. Not so much for reporters, especially new ones.
I was in the middle of a job interview to be a reporter at my hometown newspaper when I decided to take my first big risk: I accepted a job as a web producer. That which was meant to be gravy ended up being the basis for my whole career.
The JS was an online pioneer, making money on the web back when it was unheard of. I worked overnight, putting the newspaper online after everyone else left. After a short time there, I was pushing my boss to update the site more than once a day. We didn’t have staffing to support that, so I suggested we start a blog for reporters to add in their updates that autoupdated on the site. Newswatch became a massive source of traffic and still exists to this day. I pitched to my boss that we needed to do a nightly news podcast. I also asked to go to news meetings, even though they were during the day and I worked at night. I started training other people on recording podcasts, writing blogs and building interactive photo galleries. It became a lot more than web monkey work.
When I moved to Cincinnati, I was excited to work normal hours and to not be tied down to the daily production schedule. I got to attend every editor meeting and enterprise planning meeting to pitch how we might best enhance projects online. I worked closely with editors, reporters and multimedia people to create microsites and web packages. I got to be a part of the creative process. It was great. But I worried that I was just one of many “online people”. I wanted to set myself apart, especially with layoffs looming.
In late 2007, social media was starting to be a thing in news. There were a few sites that had built successful early presences there – Austin, Chicago Tribune. As our site was preparing to move to to a new commenting platform, I had a plan. 20 page social media and engagement strategy. I didn’t know how to make a strategy. I laid out plans for our social media presence, a local blogger network and a training and staff workflow plan to handle our comments and make our site more engaging.
It was arguably one of the craziest things I’d ever done. But they bought it and I took over this brand news role – not only at our paper, but to the whole chain. This single move changed my career forever. I executed my plan. We built the social accounts, did the training, made the blogger network – which is still in existence and makes the Enquirer $
In 2008, I was worried. While on furlough from my job, I created my own website, Zombie Journalism, mostly as a way to establish myself online. I wanted to make a name for myself outside of my employer. I started blogging about social media and digital media, what we were doing in Cincinnati, what was going on elsewhere. I followed and made it a point to interact with major media figures in social media and journalism. I acted like I belonged in their class. It was there that I connected with Steve Buttry, a self-made expert on social media in journalism. He had been working in Cedar Rapids, Iowa when I helped him with a guide for Twitter.
I had been reading on Twitter and industry sites about a high profile, but mysterious news startup coming together in DC. It was going to be started by Jim Brady, a journalist well-known for his leadership at Washington Post Online, and the folks behind Politico. I wanted in. When I heard they hired Steve Buttry, I immediately direct messaged him and told him, “I want in.” I wanted something new, even if it was unreliable.
TBD was one of the best jobs I ever had. It was my first time in a truly digital newsroom and my first time getting to start something ground up. Probably the most talented staff I’ve ever worked with, though my current one rivals it.
Nine months after we started TBD and things seemed to be going well, the owners abruptly decided to shut it down. We all lost our jobs. It was one of the worst days of my life.
But it was also one of the best days. From the time I announced on Twitter that we were being laid off, which was around 11 am, to 7pm that day, I had dozens of calls, emails and direct messages offering me interviews for positions at companies that I couldn’t even get an email returned from a year earlier. My network really came through for me. And it demonstrates why the risk of going to TBD was so worth it: It gave me a platform from which to propel myself to the next level. I did not spend a day out of work. The risk was well worth it.
One of those companies I had applied to numerous times in the past and never even got a call back was HuffPost. While there, I got a chance to work somewhat autonomously and volunteered to restart their citizen journalism program, OfftheBus. About a year in, I caught wind that my old bosses, Jim Brady and Steve Buttry had a new startup in mind. Everyone I knew said it was crazy to leave the rocket ship that was HuffPost, but I wanted another shot at working with these great journalists I respected.
I told Jim I wanted out of social media, I didn’t want to continue to be defined by it, especially since it was becoming a skill everyone had. Because he had faith in me and was willing to give me a chance, he made me a manager and put me in charge of the data journalism, video and social media staffers at Digital First Media’s new digital startup – Project Thunderdome.
Digital First Media is a newspaper company – 2nd largest in the USThunderdome is an all-digital startup formed to be a national newsroom and innovation hubwe're kind of like an internal wire service, but we get to do a lot of experimentation with storytelling
I didn’t know anything about video or data journalism, but I took the job. I got an incredible shot at hiring and working with amazingly talented people whose jobs I could never do. I gained very valuable management experience.
That experience led me to becoming Thunderdome’s first managing editor. I manage a staff of about 40 journalists and run day-to-day workflow. Every day I am absolutely terrified. And it is amazing.
What was the point of all this? It wasn’t just to tell you I’m awesome.
If you do, be flexible and ready to shiftIt's tough to anticipate what pitfalls and opportunities will come your wayA set plan can derail you.
You saw that word come up a lot and it is 100% true in today’s industry: you have to be willing to take a leap of faith. A lot of my college classmates are no longer working in journalism, those who are took risks. They moved somewhere crazy, they took on jobs they never planned for in new beats or new skills. They sometimes left the safe road for new opportunities. Pursue something that terrifies you and you thik is out of your league. I think I’m out of my league every day.
Friendships and relationships you make will pay back dividends.Establish real relationships with your peers and your betters. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone with experience with a question or idea – no journalist is too good for that. I have gotten my last three jobs due to relationships, not resumes.I didn't even submit a resumeWhen I lost my job, my network set out to help
Recent study from Pew says millennials expect to be in management within two years of entering the workforce. You don’t need to be in management to lead. That means you volunteer for projects, you pitch ideas. Make something newYou learn new skills in your own time and teach othersMy social strategy, my suggestions as to how my job could be made better
I owe my career so far to the changes that digital news has brought to the news industry.For one, digital spaces are usually more willing to take a chance on young talent Some for financial reasons, but others because how we work and the skills we can bring to a newsroomsThe news business is in need of ideas and they know it
Anothermajor difference for digital news is the way you can move up in the industry and your organization.There used to be a ladder for news jobs. There was a set protocol to become a manager and up. It differed depending on your role (reporter, photog, ec.), but the ladder was a thing
. You might move up by staying in the same newsroom for 20 years. You may move up by hopscotching to other news orgs. But the ladder remained.
Ladders aren’t a thing in careers these days, especially in news. They are more like jungle gyms. You climb up, you’ll climb across, you’ll make a move downward to try something different. Maybe you’ll leave the industry and try something else then come back. You can get to the top, if you want, but every place on the jungle gym has a great view.. Credit: Sheryl Sandberg
The shift to digital news has changed our newsroom workflow tooWe work more collaborativelyIt used to be that you did your part in a project and handed it off to the Next person in line
In small,digital operations, that doesn't work. We’re smaller and we have to be more nimble as news and projects change fast,We work as a collaboration from idea generation to publicationIt isn't a flow chart, it's a circleEveryone contributing, often checking each other and editing each other, projects shifting midcycleYoung people work better in a collaborative environment too
We all know you are smart, but there’s always more to learn. Find other with skills and experience you admire and learn from them. If you go into a job acting like you know everything, nobody will want to work with you.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to those you consider yourbetters, but if you do, don’t expect them to do all of the work. Have an agenda, bring questions and ideasMake a meaningful connection - help them with something, offer thoughtful feedback, have a shared experience.They will choose you. And they will change your life.
In staff meetings, in business meetings, do not let yourself be regulate dot a background role. Women are especially bad at this. Always sit at the table when you can. And always take up the big boss on an offer of one on one time. Look people in the eye. Shake hands.
Don’t expect someone to recognize your greatness and give you some available promotion, make it for yourself. Pitch a great idea and offer to run it. Build something of your own – even inside your current company.
I hire for attitude more than experience.Lots of smart and talented young journalists, but only some are the right kind to work for me. An interest in the industry that goes beyond the creative side - business models, what others are doingA willingness to accept uncertainty. Excited to experiment. A certain degree of entrepreneur ism.Willingness to learn and teachNO DIVAS
Questions? About what I do, what others do, Thunderdome, etc.
How Digital Has Changed News, Leadership and Our Paths to Greatness
Make Your Own Road
How Digital Has Changed News, Leadership
and Our Paths to Greatness
Mandy Jenkins, @mjenkins