In addition to coaching a team focused on multimedia journalism, I spoke to the group at Brooks on the necessity for emotional resilience when coping with abrupt changes in employment status and how one could even thrive as a result of undergoing a job loss.
This week, I have been on panel discussions about preparing students to enter a journalism career at a time when the journalism profession is under great stress, and at a point of turmoil unlike any I have experienced in my 35 years as a journalist.
It is clear to me that the seeds of the present situation were sown several decades ago as journalism organizations sought to maximize their profit potential and scaled their operations based on a false sense of long-term profit possibilities. Frequently, as journalism ownership centralized in corporate hands, Wall Street investors and analysts demanded profits in the 20-40% range. While such margins may have been possible in the last decades of the 20th century, the business plans yielding them did not account for the creative destruction forces unleashed by changing technology, the Internet, and changing readership habits.
Those failures to anticipate change in all dimensions have rocked the journalism world in the past five years particularly. Highly-leveraged journalism companies have sought to stay afloat by jettisoning major operational costs as fast as possible, focusing particularly on personnel costs. In the process, thousands of talented, experienced journalists have been sent packing. I have been struck by the parallels to the experiences of those in Michigan who have been affected by the collapse of the American auto industry.
As I talked with my colleagues at Brooks, many continued to register pain, shock and disappointment at the turns that their professional lives had taken. They expressed fear about finding income sources to meet their immediate life needs, and doubt about their long-term ability to remain viable within a profession that they loved.
These are all sentiments I fully understand.
In February, I left the world of corporate journalism voluntarily after 35 years, believing I could better contribute to journalism’s future by applying my skills and experience from a different place. While still holding fast to that vision, I can fully understand the struggle of my colleagues as I work to reinvent myself in a particularly harsh economic climate. I recognized in others’ comments, seeds of self-doubt, anxiety, and uncertainty that are easily planted as soon as one enters into unfamiliar terrain without a fully-developed Plan B. People were questioning the wisdom of their career choice and whether they still had a role and place in journalism.
To those in such a place, I can only offer words of support and encouragement. You are not alone, and your journey is being shared by many. The temporary conditions of uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity, and a certain amount of personal chaos, are actually doors of opportunity leading to the possibilities of renewal and reinvention that are so typical of the American experience. I see the downtime of unemployment or underemployment as a chance to reassess and re-evaluate. I am looking to use part of my time to build new skills I consider crucial to mastering as a part of creating visual journalism in the multimedia age with all the possibilities of digital distribution. We can learn from each other if we use the power of sharing to be found as an essential aspect of social networks and that can augment the personal support networks we all also have available.
That was part of the joy of the five days spent at the Brooks Institute campus in Ventura, Cal. We were creating out of a spirit of experimentation and personal growth, using the potential of failure as a spur to growth. We were free to envision, execute, and even fail, without fear of penalty or sanction. At the same time, my peers were able to give each other encouragement and support on the personal front, as thoughts were freely expressed and shared about the challenges being created by changed, and uninvited, circumstances.
To me, it was fascinating to see how well multimedia stories turned out, given the quick time frame for story development and editing, and how well things jelled for all involved, even as many grappled with new tools and processes. In a very real way, pure creative energy and passion was being released in a collaborative environment where all were encouraged and supported. It was worlds away from my recent newsroom experiences.
As with many workshops, I saw just how far people could go in achieving new learning and exciting results when properly supported. Such energy is seldom present in newsrooms where the prime focus is personal survival, and the daily mantra is do more with less. Many workshop participants commented on the difference and recognition dawned about how toxic newsroom cultures can erode personal confidence and undermine individual talent.
As students are being instructed by journalism professors like those present at this year’s AEJMC conference, I think certain lessons must be imparted. In addition to providing strong guidance about the ethics and philosophy necessary for professional work, young journalists have to learn a variety of techniques for story-telling and information gathering. They have to master knowledge about a variety of tools and related aspects of craft practice. But, as importantly, they also need to understand they are responsible for developing a “personal brand” and creative identity that is separate and distinct from any company they might work for in the future. They need to know that their only professional security may turn ultimately on how well they develop their own talents. Such development is best undertaken as an ongoing aspect of a life’s work, separate and apart from assignments undertaken for a journalism organization.
I was tremendously moved by the powerful work shown by my peers who were fellow speakers at the Brooks conference. Their multimedia stories, done on a variety of subjects, expressed real life in such a rich, full way that the power of the visual story-telling as narrative was undeniable. I think the examples gave us all a renewed sense of the power of possibility in our work.
I was grateful to be present for the conversation and sharing that went on, and I came away fueled for the journey ahead. Meanwhile, this week’s AEJMC convention has given me the chance to see how last week’s lessons could be applied fruitfully.