Traditional journalism is being crushed: letter to a young journalist

I just got contacted by a young journalist I met while working at Citizenside. She’s graduated from a good journalism school, and is now working for a local radio station – for free – while living with her parents, trying to find a steady job in journalism. Here’s my advice to her.

Sounds like you’re painfully aware of the difficulties most established news operators are going through right now. Publishing is essentially dead, or dying (witness the Encyclopedia Britannica’s decision to stop publishing yesterday – a case in point if ever there was one). By some accounts, television is holding steady, and radio too – but that’s only because most stations have trimmed staff to the barest possible minimum. While I was at the BBC, I worked through three separate rounds of staff cuts. Each one was meant to be the last one, impossible to go further, pushed through against tremendous opposition from the unions, and yet – they pared down even further. Those legacy publications that have done well, like the Economist and perhaps the Guardian, have done so because they’ve embraced the digital sphere and let it change the very nature of their business.

Make no mistake: traditional, platform-based journalism is being crushed, and its dust will blow away on the winds of the internet. I know this is a melodramatic way to put it, but it’s an important point to make. Newspaper, television and radio journalists now are all in the position of itinerant bards at the advent of the printing press.

The good news is that there’s never been a better time to be a journalist. The bards have disappeared, but we still sing, and we still spread news. Just so, the digital sphere is growing fast as the blast front of an explosion. Good skills in writing, producing video and audio are more important than ever. They just need to be couched in an understanding of sharing and search – the air and water of the internet. There’s no use writing if your content can’t be shared or found. A mediocre piece optimized for social sharing will beat a piece of beautiful content without links every time. So you need to intuitively understand the answers to two questions:

  1. What makes people share stuff? Will they want to share this? How will they share it, when they find it?
  2. How do people find stuff? How will people find this? What will they be looking for?

So don’t try to be a television journalist, or a radio journalist, or a newspaper journalist. There’s no future there. But be a 21st century journalist instead, and every day new opportunities appear, new platforms are launched, and the ecosystem you work in will grow more subtle and more complex.

If you understand the way social media works, you’re in a strong position. And by “understand” I don’t mean “have a Twitter profile.” That’s good – essential, even – but a real understanding of social media means always thinking against the background of those questions up there. Taking this further, it means knowing how a company or news operator can apply its brand values to effectively reach people of a particular demographic.

Editors and publishers can sometimes be an egotistical lot, so they’d never admit this: most of them are desperately trying to find ways to make their particular news brand relevant in the social media environment. As for those who aren’t, they either:

  1. think they’ve got it sussed, (in which case they’re guilty of a dangerous case of hubris), or
  2. think they don’t need to do anything (in which case they’ll be unemployed in a year or so)

No one has figured this out yet – not completely. That’s why if you can come to such an editor with implementable, practical ideas on how they can thrive in the interactive media sphere, you’ll have good chances. Be ready to sell your ideas with enthusiasm and persuasion. As the saying goes, never be afraid of people stealing your ideas. If they’re any good, you’ll have to ram your ideas down people’s throats.

You’ve already gone some of the way; you’re on Twitter, you’re on YouTube. Work on that. Make sure that when I Google you, your channels dominate the top 5 search results. If you’ve got a unique name, that’s an advantage. Use it.

If you want a job in PR, we’re looking for people in London right now. It’s the same stuff as journalism – communicating ideas with effectiveness and power. Better pay, too, and hot damn is there a lot of work to do. The team I joined in January was 40 people last year – now we’re 80, and hiring as fast as we can.

How about it? You can apply right here.

14 thoughts on “Traditional journalism is being crushed: letter to a young journalist

  1. what a complete tosser this bloke is – he cleary has never worked in a newsroom. PR the ‘same’ as journalism. No it ain’t Philip, journalism deals in facts and in the real world not the fake of a 21st centry wannabee. PR spins opinion, a view and often lies, for cash. A very big difference.

    1. Hi Pete. I just wanted to correct some factual inaccuracies in your comment. I have worked in several newsrooms: I began my career working in the TV/Radio newsroom for for the CBC in Toronto, before reporting at the United Nations HQ in New York and then working for several years as a researcher and producer for BBC Current Affairs in London. As for your opinions, you’re entitled to them of course, but I wish you could have expressed them in a more civilized manner.

      Now that I’ve set the record straight on my journalism experience – have you ever worked in PR?

  2. Publishing its not dead, its just waiting for cheap e-paper.
    At ancient times news spread person to person, stories were told by friends and older family members. Then come the book, then the radio and cinema and tv. Now everything its coming together, say iPad. content creators will always have a place on a content based system. However they must found ways to place their content on the system. Normal guy has found ways to share his “non pro” content. Now its time for the companies and pros, to change and forget the past and embrace the reality.

  3. You seem to miss the point that what makes good journalism is good stories. A good story will be read – ‘sharing’ is secondary to this.

    I find it sad that young people entering journalism are being told that the way you distribute a story is more important than the story itself.

    I didn’t get into journalism so that I could spend hours on twitter or my company’s content management system. I got into journalism because I wanted to break stories.

    Twitter is a tool but it is also a distraction from attending meetings, trawling through minutes and good old picking up the phone.

    Like I said, a good story will always be read.

    1. That’s simply not true. There are hundreds of great stories out there that no one is listening to. Any journalist doing good work will agree with this. Having a good story to tell is one thing – it’s half the job of journalism. The other half is telling it well, and that means distributing it in a way that makes people notice it.

  4. Seriously though, equating journalism with PR? Sure, there’s plenty more money in PR – just like there’s more money in robbing a bank rather than working behind the till.

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