A pep talk for journalists

I’m going to depart from my usual tips today, and give a pep talk. Why? Because I need one.

This has been a particularly tough week in a series of difficult months years for journalists.  This week was the first time that journalists I know personally lost their jobs. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer joined the list of newspapers up for sale. And The Atlantic questioned the health of the venerable New York Times.

So here’s my pep talk:

My fellow journalists, we are at what is indeed the largest crisis in our history. Newspapers have laid off thousands of workers. Advertising revenue is down and with the economy in ruins that’s unlikely to improve soon.  Some newspapers have stopped publishing print editions several days a week or at all.  Some journalists are doing new jobs at newspapers, just to keep a paycheck. And we fear — at least I do.

But we cannot freeze in fear like the proverbial deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck. For if we do, we are sure to die, just like that deer.

We must fight the instinct that tells us to give up, to hide under a blanket and cry or do only the bare minimum because we’re doomed anyway.

That, my friends, is the surest way to hasten our death.

We don’t have the luxury now to be mediocre journalists or even good ones. We must be amazing. We must harness all that we know and use it to innovate, to retool our industry to a new medium, to take advantage of how social media can help us reach readers. We need to be at the very top of our game, and we must fight for the life our industry.

It’s understandable that we’re anxious about whether our papers will survive, whether we’ll have a job tomorrow or next week or next month. But we need to set aside our broken hearts, and, as a wise editor at my paper wrote in a memo to the staff, “channel anxious energy into journalistic innovation and creative new content.”

We must embrace new media like never before. We must quickly find ways to use it and not get bogged down in the bureaucracy that can slow progress. We cannot leave it to upper-level managers to figure it all out. They need everyone thinking; everyone must be coming up with ways to reach readers, create news content, utilize the tools of the interactive Web.

We can do it

If you’ve ever ridden a horse, you know that the worst thing to do is to tense up when you get scared. If you get tense, your body hunches over, your legs clamp the horse’s flanks, which tell the horse to speed up.  In that stance, you can easily lose your form and fall off the speeding horse. What you need to do is relax, sit up straight, trust your training and move with the horse even when you’re terrified.

Journalists, we need to move with the horse. We need to reach deep inside and find that reserve that journalists have that makes them do the crazy things they do. It’s a reserve that’s a mix of chutpah, grit and, perhaps, a little stupidity.

It’s a reserve that make us head out in a blizzard to cover it. Or that makes us rush to the office when there’s a deadly hurricane, a plane crash or an ice storm because we need to do what we do: tell stories.

This quality makes journalists forget their own worries and do their jobs even when flood waters rage around their homes or they are afraid for their own loved ones following a terrorist attack like 9/11.

We can do this. We have the training. We need to summon that adrenaline that we get on Election Night that enables us to put out the paper even when the computer system fails or the voting database does not work. We do it because we must. It’s our job.

We must summon this inner strength because our nation needs journalists. A democracy needs an independent voice that questions those in power, that asks the questions others won’t, that demands to see evidence to back up spin. And we can do that on newsprint or a computer screen.

Sure, citizen journalists and bloggers are part of the new media, but I believe there’s a valuable place for trained journalists as well.

We cannot fail because even if the public doesn’t always appreciate what we do, they need us. Journalism is a bit like the post office. No one thinks about its importance until the mail is late. We know our value, and we must be committed to succeeding.

We must fight until we cannot, and then we must keep fighting. We must because that is our job. We cannot let journalism fail. We must set aside our own real pain, and, as Tim Windsor says on Zero Percent Idle, be the “people facing forward … doing the job of journalism in the new digital reality.”

If we fight, will we save journalism? I can’t guarantee that. But I do know this. If we don’t try, we’ve already lost.


19 thoughts on “A pep talk for journalists

  1. Thank you for the pep talk. One theme that resonated (sorry for the cliche’) with me is the importance of story telling. Not only in our writing, but teaching, parenting and socializing. And it actually gave me the idea for my next blog post: Telling a story from one of dozens of fascinating encounters I had during my weekend in a booth at the Green Builders (and Energy) Show…. Okay… uh hum… Once upon a time….

  2. Solargroupies ..

    Good point. Story telling isn’t just for journalists. Certainly, it’s for all bloggers, but it’s part of socializing and parenting, too. It one way I use to explain the world to my kids that hopefully doesn’t bore them to tears.

    – Gina

  3. forumcommunications,

    What can I say? I’m glad it moved you. It comes from the heart. Thanks for kind words.

    – Gina

  4. I found this at http://www.avc.com/a_vc/2009/01/what-if-your-mo.html

    But what matters more is how we change our culture, our society, our government, our economy and the companies that help make it up. A good place to start are Tim O’Reilly’s three rules:

    1) work on something that matters more than money

    2) Create more value than you capture (that’s the kind of DNA that’s winning the day now)

    3) Take the long view

  5. Also included in this discussion needs to be not only using good tools well, it has to be good content.

    People get so many different opinions — both objective and subjective — now, and they’re smarter news consumers. That link above is to a piece Jay Rosen wrote about what journalists write about, and that includes writing with certain “givens” that are assumed to not be up for debate (“Lincoln was a great president,” “Barry Bonds was doping and therefore a bad ballplayer”), and so readers see harsh bias.

    So, don’t only use tools, use them to give readers what they’re craving. Don’t assume anything. Do all the research, link out to your sources, and involve people in your discussions. You’ll grow in your craft for it, and you’ll feel you’re learning more.

  6. Another approach is to give readers not just what they want, but what they need.

    For example, what if every local newspaper in the country took as it’s mission to invigorate the local economy? Not just so they could sell more ads, but to make life better where they live.

    A critical part of a local economy is social capital. Social capital means smarter people. Smarter people need a historical, economic and realistic picture of where they live.

    Given that the next couple of years is going to see the most massive reorganization of America in 40 years, readers need to get a context to understand what’s going on.

    Problem is that only a very small number of your readers want to know this, they’re much too busy living their own lives. But everyone in every audience needs to get it.

    Inform, entertain and educate. Maybe it’s time to really concentrate on educate?

  7. Thanks for the pep talk and great post.

    It is up to journalists to turn the tide. I’ve been doing my part to reinvigorate the economy by focusing on the positive news. In an economic downturn, people are looking for viable plan Bs. Whether they’ve been laid off, or simply looking to reinvest funds. Good news gives them options and ideas, and fosters positive thinking.

    ~Lydia Dishman

  8. jsfwcz,

    Some good suggestions from a more global perspective, especially “Create more value than you capture.” I think that’s really important to remember and sometimes gets lost.

    And your point about context is well taken. People have plenty of ways to find out the news; we need to find more ways to explain what it means.


    – Gina

  9. Josh,

    Couldn’t agree more that good quality content is vital. I didn’t mean my post to give the impression that it’s all about using new media tools.

    I think we have to use everything right now — tools, amazing content, reaching out to readers, citizen journalism, context — and pull out the stops.

    – Gina

  10. Lydia,

    You raise a very important point about telling readers what to do now — without dragging them down.

    A nonjournalist friend of mine recently complained that she can’t even read the newspaper anymore because it’s too depressing with all the news about the economy. We need to be able to reach that person and not depress her but empower her, I think.

    – Gina

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  12. Impressive, I’m not a journalist but found your pep talk inspiring. Interesting, I like your parallel to the post office. Thanks for your comments at TSB. Appreciate your support. :)


  13. Miguel,

    Thanks for checking out my blog! I guess we’ll be seeing (reading) more of each other now that I’m associate writing for Yan as well.

    I’m glad you found my post inspiring.

    – Gina

  14. Yep, it’s an exciting (but a bit scary time) to be a journalist. I think the changes in the industry can really revive it. At least I hope so.

    – Gina

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  17. All good ideas. Just wanted to add my 2 cents from the Print viewpoint. To be clear, I’m neither a journalist nor involved in a newspaper. I’m a semi-retired blogger who spent 30 years running a Print business and then a stint teaching in design school.

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