Advice for young (and seasoned) journalists? Ask some very recent grads

Grizzly grads tell current students loud and clear: Get ready to be rocked by (and enjoy)  digital-first publishing, heavy on social media, in a workplace of constant change.

[February 10, 2015, Missoula, Mont.] How are recent journalism grads navigating, or causing, the disruption rocking the news media today?

That was the assignment for students in my class, “Critical Thinking About Design and Disruption”: contact a recent alum from the University of Montana School of Journalism, and report back on how each is faring. Is it a nightmarish struggle? Or are they adapting and thriving?

The results are 18 stories, compiled into an eBook (viewable above, or downloadable here) released today, with tips for survival, but also adaptation, perseverance, learning, growing, and thriving. These findings, and our class discussions continuing this week, have turned out to be the perfect kickoff for my course, which is the cornerstone of an endowed professorship here at the UM J-school (learn more).

In applying for this post, and considering topics I’d wanted to teach, I settled on the biggest issue reshaping the news media daily: disruption. Disruption covers, of course, the contractions that have rattled the mainstream media, but also the massive (and exciting) experimentation, platform expansion, product launching and risk taking we are seeing in all areas of news creation and delivery, from traditional publishers to entrepreneurs. I also wanted to cover design in a broad sense, going beyond graphic identity into the design of companies, cultures, workflow, editorial and revenue strategies, marketing plans, audience development.

One of the key lessons from my students’ findings: speed is paramount once you are out in the field. For most employers, it’s a race to publish, across multiple platforms. It’s a race to get it right, and the Grizzly grads report it’s sink or swim. Likewise, the pressure was on our class to report back quickly, make revisions, and help publish this document in a manner we hoped would quickly add to the #AdviceForYoungJournalists dialogue trending on Twitter this week. Yes, there’s plenty of snark and gloom and doom floating around the Twitterverse, mostly from the older set. But a fair conversation needs input from all sides, and it’s great to see lots of openness and optimism as well.

Our subjects run quite a gamut. They are multimedia sports and news reporters, freelance cartoonists, public radio bloggers, marketing directors, photographers. The specifics of each job may differ, but each Grizzly grad shares a powerful story of rolling with the punches in order to produce rewarding work that makes a difference in their communities.

To a great extent, they credit their time here at the UM School of Journalism with preparing them to be quick to adapt, learn, and grow. While a few of them sound a tad exhausted by keeping up with the disruption, almost everyone shares a degree of excitement, fun and hope about what they are doing as well.

Their words of wisdom are as applicable to prospective students of journalism as they should be to fellow working professionals. “Think about what you truly want to do, what truly makes you happy, and find a way to do it,” says entrepreneur Austin Green, who packed his bags for Spain to start up an online sports news company. (See Page 13 of the report.) “You’ll have to be creative … but just go for it.” The specifics of Austin’s story, and all the others, show a perseverence and creativity that’s worth paying attention to.

WHERE OUR COURSE GOES NEXT: THINKING BIG

The remaining weeks of the semester promise to be a rollercoaster ride of case studies of massive change in the industry. We’ve already looked at radical changes inside the Chicago Reader, and this week, Champion, the magazine of the NCAA (which debuted its rethink this month and which I’ll blog about in a few days). We’ll look closely at many other “disruption” projects I’ve worked on, as well as others that come to our attention, in the weeks ahead.

For their final project, my students will expand the scope of this report dramatically, investigating how design and disruption are reshaping entire news organizations. They will report back on not just one person, but how teams of people are adapting to change; on how entire staff structures are being reshaped to accomplish new goals; on how strategies are being rethought to increase audience, boost revenue, and extend brands through partnerships and events.

One of my earlier possible titles for the course was “Think Like a Publisher.” At the end of this semester, my students should be able to do just that (and I’m hoping they view “publisher” broadly, as in “any boss in charge of getting information out into the world and making a difference and/or profit.”) Thanks for checking out their good work.

* * *

Two annual T. Anthony Pollner Distinguished Professorships are made possible by the generosity of the family of Anthony Pollner, a 1999 UM journalism grad who died in a motorcycle accident in London in 2001. The newsroom of the campus paper and website, the Montana Kaimin, is named in his memory, and is housed in facilities made possible by additional support by the Pollner family. 

Ron Reason has served for 20 years as a consultant helping to redesign and reshape news media companies worldwide. For many years he served at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies as Faculty Member, Adjunct, and/or Director of Visual Journalism Programs, Publishing and Research. In addition to the Pollner seminar course, he helps mentor the student staff of the Kaimin newspaper, website and social media teams. He is living in Missoula from January to June 2015, and (mostly) is taking a break from consulting in order to return to the classroom. 

Twitter: @ronreason
LinkedIn: Ron Reason

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