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Why I’m Leaving IT for Journalism

May 30, 2011

After ten years in IT, I’m changing careers. In the fall, my wife and I are moving to New York City, where I will be starting an M.A. program at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

I wouldn’t be taking this step if I didn’t believe that the future of journalism is bright. I realize that my optimism flies in the face of popular opinion, particularly amongst those who bemoan the increasingly desperate state of the newspaper industry. The coming decades will bring a different type of journalism than exists today, but the fundamentals of news won’t change. World events will still happen. People still want to know what is happening in their communities. And finally, they will still want quality and accuracy, because they’ve been used to it for so long. The big questions for media organizations, large and small, are how to fulfill these demands without going bankrupt, or paying journalists below-subsistence wages.

Over the next few years, this will be the first of many posts on the media industry. However, today I’d like to talk about my personal reasons for going down this path. My overall goals are twofold:

  1. To learn to make insightful, engaging and informative content.
  2. To lead the future of the news industry, drawing upon my background and experience working for a large media organization for nearly a decade.

Good content should still be the price of entry

My wife is an interaction designer, someone liable to agree with Evan Williams of Twitter when he says good design used to be a nice-to-have on the Internet; now it’s the price of entry. The inverse could be said about content on the Internet today: good research and writing used to be the price of entry; now it’s a nice-to-have. I realize I sound like a crank when I say things like that, someone liable to agree with Bill Keller and other old-media types who liken social media to a crack pipe destroying intelligent thought in our society.

I do understand the underlying fear though: that without merit-based, brand-name media organizations vetting the news, the Internet is becoming a virtual wasteland of sloppy reporting, opinions, and snarky tweets. There’s certainly no shortage of that on the World Wide Web.

On the other hand, there’s still a place for intelligent content, and the same medium that allows us to disseminate LOLcats worldwide at light speed also allows immense possibilities for distributing great work with the same velocity and reach. The public radio programs that I respect — This American Life, Radiolab, Spark — owe as much of their success to the Internet and social media as they do traditional radio listeners. Podcasting, in particular, has caused a huge renaissance in radio. (In a future post, I’ll talk about why I think radio is the most resilient medium, the one best able to survive massive upheavals in consumption patterns and delivery mechanisms.)

Good content is difficult and time-consuming to make. I’m going to speak mostly to radio, because it’s the medium I know and love best, but that’s true across all platforms. I’ve heard that the spike rate for This American Life is close to 50%; nearly one out of every two stories that makes it through to the ready-to-air stage still gets killed for a number of reasons. That’s an awful return-on-investment, but it means the stories that do make it through are that much better.

I’m hoping to use my year-and-a-half at j-school to practice how to make good content. I believe I have the foundations for being a good journalist: a natural curiosity, a propensity for asking hard questions, strong writing skills, and an analytical mind. Where I need help and practice are in finding story ideas, story development and editing, and pitching. I’m thinking of my forthcoming j-school experience as a laboratory, where I can try new things, fail at some, and hopefully find my voice.

Leading The Future of News

I’ve worked for eight years in a broadcast media company, but only in the past few years have we realized the threats that inexpensive digital tools pose to existing business models. It really is the perfect storm: both the content creation & distribution tools are so affordable and easy to use that media production has been completely democratized. Almost anyone with a little bit of money can make content to go head-to-head with the pros. The effect on the whole news industry has been dramatic. Democratization has both increased fragmentation of the audience across many platforms and bled audiences completely from others. I’m not surprised that old-school journalists are both awed and frightened by the onslaught of digital tools that they feel they must master — or be defeated.

To cope, news organizations urgently need to take some drastic steps. First, divorcing news gathering and reporting from the delivery medium is key. For example, newspapers, which are most threatened by digital tools, desperately need to focus their efforts away from the legacy paper product. By some accounts, the mechanical processes involved in just printing and distributing the print product eats up 55-75% of a newspaper’s operating budget. Instead, newspapers must find ways to distribute written content in a digital format, so that they need only focus on making enough money to pay the journalists. Sadly, many papers have instead tried to revolutionize the print product — whether that be spending gargantuan sums of money on capital infrastructure, or building a paywall around their online content whose actual goal is to drive customers to purchase print subscriptions. None of this changes the fact that the physical product is something that people increasingly do not want.

What legacy media companies need to do is invest smaller amounts of money in a larger number of entrepreneurial ventures and experiments. At some point, I might just end up being one of those entrepreneurs, or bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to “old” media. One of the other reasons I am going to journalism school, and CUNY in particular, is to understand the business of journalism from the other side: the news-gathering and programming arm. After all, the business of news is the dog that wags the tail, not the other way around. No matter what any general manager might think, production & resources is still the servant of the programming division. It’s easier for the journalists to push for change than for the outsiders, the production staff, to wrangle them into it.

After J-School

Many of my peers in j-school will want to practice as journalists — reporting, producing, editing. I may well end up doing that for a while, but I do not see myself having a career in journalism composed solely of those duties. I certainly have aspirations to make content, and I have many stories I’d like to tell. But I feel I can be most valuable as an informed leader in the challenge to refactor journalism. Whether that is done best by making engaging multiplatform content, or by playing a disruptive, entrepreneurial role at either a startup (or even at a “legacy” news organization) remains to be seen. As Robert Krulwich so brilliantly said in his recent commencement speech to the Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011, those who persevere in journalism very often win. And I intend to do just that.