Advice I’d give my younger self in J School

Last night, I had drinks and caught up with one of my friends from university who also lives in D.C. As is our habit whenever we get together, talk inevitably turned back to the college days, when we were on the student newspaper. I remember my last semester, when I worked a second time as the Kansan.com managing editor instead of being editor-in-chief. At the time I was disappointed but ultimately accepting. Looking back at where I’ve been since, it may have been a blessing in disguise at best, and irrelevant at worst.

So I’d tell my disappointed 21-year-old self, “Don’t sweat it. It will work out.”

While I learned a lot at the Kansan about production, teamwork, ethics and judgment, and made some amazing friends there, many of whom I still keep in touch with now, it was my internships that ultimately propelled my professional career, now that I look back. No one at The Columbus Dispatch cared that I wasn’t the editor; they liked my Dow Jones internship, which I earned by passing an editing exam and essay, not because of where I was on the Kansan staff. No one at The Kansas City Star cared, either; they liked my previous two internships. And POLITICO ultimately valued my three internships, my knowledge of online publishing (which I polished as Kansan.com editor and wouldn’t have had much of a chance to work on as editor, where most of my focus would have been on the paper) and my master’s degree.

My friend was in much the same position. After not being chosen for editorial leadership, she took up internships at smaller Kansas newspapers and eventually ended up in D.C. as the editor of a political news website, and will soon be a White House reporter for the bureau of a major publication. Another fellow alumna works at The Hill after having interned there. Just about everyone I work with on production at my current job had impressive internship experience that stands out. Two of my friends who are copy editors for major, large-market daily newspapers were “only” ever copy chiefs at the Kansan, but they each had strong summer internship experience. Another close friend had mid-level editorial leadership experience but branched out to editing and social media work for the university city government, and now does travel writing.

It’s probably only because I’m a few years out of university that I can look back with clearer eyes. To be blunt, I don’t see much of a correlation between the professional success of my fellow students and what positions they held on the campus paper. The ones who’ve gone the furthest (in terms of the relative size/prestige of the publications where they now work, if they work for one) made the best use of internships and outside-of-school reporting/editing opportunities, regardless of whatever work they did for the Kansan (which, to be fair, provided many of us with our first clips). That isn’t to say that former Kansan editors don’t or haven’t achieved substantial professional success (I know a married pair who’ve both gone extremely far, including a Pulitzer), just that there’s not really much of a link, from where I’m sitting. Being editor of the Kansan is not a guarantee of professional success, and not being editor of the Kansan isn’t going to keep you from professional success.

So that is what I would tell myself, if I could go back: Enjoy the student newspaper. Have fun, learn the process and make friends. But it is a stepping stone to other things that are stepping stones in and of themselves. In the professional world, no one will care all that much. I have fond memories of the Kansan, but the environment, pace and workload of my job now resemble it about as much as a Nilla Wafer resembles a wedding cake. And that’s fine, and doesn’t have to diminish the value of my campus newspaper experience. It just puts a lot of things into perspective, and I’m glad to have it.

Do facts have a bias?

It’s primary season. As a student of politics, I love it. It’s exciting and interesting and oh so messy. But there is one thing about it that frustrates me endlessly: the media’s lack of punch.

Journalists are supposed to be objective and keep their biases out of their work as much as possible. Lately, though, this has been taken to such an extreme that the media — the fourth estate and supposedly responsible for holding the powerful accountable — have turned toothless, for fear that someone will accuse them of bias or carrying out hit jobs. One of the biggest lessons that still resonates with me from J School came from my adviser. The gist is, “There’s a difference between being fair and being equal.”

There might be a segment on a news program called, “The Earth: Round or Flat?” In a fair model, a person who believes the earth is flat would never be given a platform or would be soundly shut down, because it’s a fact that the earth is not flat. In an equal model, one person who believes that the earth is round would debate a person who believes that the earth is flat. They’d yell at each other for 45 seconds, the anchor would sit impotently by and then sign off without settling the matter, leaving it open-ended and allowing the audience to believe that maybe there really is something to this flat-earth business.

In a recent debate, Mitt Romney made an error and mentioned something about John Adams authoring the Constitution. The moderator didn’t address this, nor did anyone else after the fact that I saw. The Constitution was largely authored by James Madison. I give Romney the benefit of the doubt and assume he made a harmless error, but that the moderator or another candidate didn’t correct it right then — either out of apathy, ignorance or fear of reprisal — is troubling.

That’s an example about a historical event in American history. What if the issue pertains to job growth, defense spending, abortion or health-care reform? A serious flaw in the debates is that the moderators always seem to ask questions with a hypothetical tilt. “What would you do about this?” I’d much rather see a fact-based question that forces the candidates to defend a position they’ve already taken. “You’ve said that X has been decreasing, but this data from Non-Partisan Research Body shows that X has actually been increasing. Do you care to explain your position, or provide a source for your data?”

Even better, have a squad of fact-checkers working during the debate and challenge assertions that candidates make during the debate. These days, fact-checking occurs after the debate is over, if it happens at all. Assuming that people even tune into the debates, I doubt that many of them stick around to see CNN or Fox or MSNBC or ABC go over and fact-check something that was said two or three hours ago or even two or three days ago. If there’s a question of veracity, bring it up then and have the candidates defend it then. 

Much of the disinformation peddled during elections — not just primaries, but general elections too — is aided and abetted by journalists’ unwillingness to take the gloves off and do their jobs. Will they make enemies this way? Sure. But it seems like too many political journalists these days are more interested in schmoozing and gossip and buddying up with candidates than they are in actually examining and evaluating their campaign platforms. As my dad said when I embarked on my (high school, haha) journalism career: “If you’re not pissing anybody off, you’re not doing your job.”

Your Social Media Strategy Here

Fertilizer-pushing is not my strong suit.

I’m deep, deep into the job hunt at the moment. When I apply for a position, I do my very best to use direct, plain language. If I describe an achievement or a milestone, I use tangible markers. Kansan.com saw increased site traffic and expanded multimedia content, and won a Pacemaker from the Associated Collegiate Press when I was the site’s managing editor. See how simple that was?

No mention of “humanizing the brand.” Or starting “organic conversations.” Or “leveraging influencers.”

Almost a year ago, I wrote about social media strategy with the same level of annoyance, and nothing has really changed.

How can we, as journalists, put such a high value on clear, concise language, while simultaneously clogging our CVs, “About” sections and job postings with rhetorical nonsense? If I read a job posting and can’t even figure out what my daily duties would be, I move on.

In my earlier post, I hypothesized that maybe we use vague language to describe social media because even we haven’t really figured it out yet. Or we want to seem indispensable. I grimace when I see anyone describe themselves as a “social media guru.” There is nothing spiritual about Twitter, I promise. If you’re that good, you don’t need to hide behind flowery language.

Ascribing some higher level of importance or even mysticism to social media ignores or downplays the stone-cold truth: If you link to quality content and reply to your audience respectfully and helpfully, you will gain and maintain followers. If you ignore queries or rarely tweet or spam people, you won’t. From the perspective of a company like Foursquare, successful branded accounts will post tips early and often and reward their followers with badges and possible merchandise discounts. Foursquare is, at its root, a game. So give your customers that experience.

I love editing. I love the ins and outs of journalism on the Web, and I love social media and what it can accomplish in terms of connecting people and spreading information. I love those things so much that I can call a spade a spade. I can say exactly what I do. I hope others can do the same.

5 tips for the journalist in limbo

There comes a time in (nearly) every journalist’s career when she (or he) has to take a break from the profession, for whatever reason. I’m in that position now, with graduate school. I admit that at times, without a paper or news site for which to edit, design or write, I have something of an existential breakdown. Am I still a journalist?! Is someone in a trench coat going to revoke my membership card? 

That kind of a break, whether it lasts months or years, or is permanent or temporary, can be difficult to take. Here are some ways for the journalist in limbo to stay sharp (or more accurately, they’re how this journalist in limbo stays sharp).

1. Keep writing. I write all the time — blog entries, academic essays, dissertation notes, tweets, neurotic emails to my mother. It doesn’t have to be publishable or even journalistic. Stay used to writing as much as you can. It keeps your voice, grammar and mechanics sharp. If you’re in school, academic research is good practice for looking up public records. I’m looking up Hungarian electoral data; what are Sarah Palin’s emails compared with that?

2. Keep reading. I read and skim a ton of content every day. The New York Times, Washington Post, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Guardian, BBC, Poynter, Telegraph, Gawker, Mashable, Slate, Salon and Kansas City Star form my core go-to links, but there are probably dozens more that I visit tangentially. Not only do I stay connected with global, national and local news, but I also get a good dose of quality writing and reporting. Good writing comes from good reading.

3. Keep practicing skills. This could be any one thing, or several small things. For instance, I’m working through HTML and CSS exercises in a workbook, and sampling some free online courses through News University. The code work is a refresher of basic skills I learned in J school, and the online tutorials offer a more theoretical approach to ethics, business planning and management. News University also offers inexpensive online help with several critical applications like InDesign and Photoshop, if you’re interested in that.

4. Stay engaged with social media. I tweet all the time, on a variety of topics — politics, sports, cooking, travel, movies — and it helps me practice brevity in my writing (see #1), engage others in dialogue, learn about different sources of news and practice filtering information. I’m also active in Foursquare (I love leaving tips) and maintain a LinkedIn account. You don’t need a steady journalism job to build an audience.

5. Network, as an extension of #4. Talk to people and follow people in a wide range of professions, not just journalism. Think of everyone as a potential source. Follow accounts that regularly link to job postings, maintain a website for your professional use and keep all of your contact information up to date. I created and ordered my own business cards, which I designed myself from scratch. Use the time when you’re not beholden to a media company to cultivate your own brand and learn how to sell yourself.

I’d be jumping the gun if I told you that the above points were guaranteed recipes for success (I’m still in graduate school and don’t have a job yet), but they’ve definitely helped me to stay in the loop and feel connected to my chosen profession.

I’ve worked for a newspaper of some kind in a staff capacity almost non-stop since I was 15: four years on my high school paper, four years on the University Daily Kansan and consecutive summers at the Indianapolis Star, Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star. It’s taken me a while to accept that while it’s awesome to get paid to write and edit and have an official press pass, my writing and opinions aren’t necessarily less valid if I’m not employed at a newspaper. Do I eventually want a full-time job in journalism? Yes, I think I do. But that doesn’t mean I have to sit and twiddle my thumbs until I get one, and neither do you.