UNLV Journalism Professor Julian Kilker’s spring 2016 Advanced Reporting class | Photo by Julian Kilker

J-school notebook: Learn to quickly evolve your skills, adapt new approaches to telling stories

I love visiting journalism schools. Even amidst this current era of rapid change and uncertainty across the media landscape, most classrooms and student media centers are filled with eager optimism for the future.

When Associate Professor Julian Kilker of UNLV’s Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies recently invited me to speak to his Advanced Reporting class, I jumped at the opportunity.

Just a couple days after my visit, Prof. Kilker followed up with a brilliant list of more than 30 questions submitted by his students for additional information seeking and dialogue. This was a wonderful surprise.

Over the past decade I’ve had the privilege of speaking to a few dozen journalism classrooms — but I don’t think I’ve ever received as thorough and thoughtful a follow up as provided by these future storytellers.

I’ve parsed down the lengthy Q&A submission into the following list of 16 insightful questions — combined with my attempts at sharing some bits of wisdom. Go Rebels!

1. What kind of documents do you put in your online portfolio that you can show to employers? And what is the best online portfolio in your opinion?

It’s pretty important to showcase recent work that you’re proud to have contributed to. This includes multimedia stories filed, produced video and photo projects, written text articles, social media experiments and anything else that best represents the power of you.

Potential employers want to see what you’re capable of, and the best way to convey that is through your recent body of work. And it’s not just about what you’ve done lately — show off what you’ve been working on for the last 18 months or so. Hiring managers want to see your growth and development over time. How far your writing, ideas and output has come over that period.

I recommend free digital portfolio tools like Contently, About Me, Sumry and Pressfolio.

2. What was the hardest part of transitioning from college life to your career life? What would be some advice you would give a student about post graduation?

I was pretty lucky, I was already working part-time in the newsroom of the local NBC station during my senior year of college. The key to this was a student internship the summer before my final year. (Seek out internships — if you’ve already done one, commit to another! They are incredibly valuable.) Upon graduation I was promoted to full-time. So the transition for me between college to career was pretty seamless.

As far as post-graduation advice goes:

Realize there will be fewer media jobs going forward — understand the trends and opportunities, leverage your passion and drive

Study the art of anticipation — know where are the “hockey pucks” are headed?

Figure out your brand — work on it, enhance, improve, own it

Entrepreneurship is a big deal — understand business acumen, economics, problem solving, selling your ideas/vision

Utilize your circle of contacts, mentors, alumni groups, people you meet at professional conferences. Follow up, add them to your networks, share your work for critique. You never know when future opportunities and paths will cross.

3. What is the newest underrated technology or application you are trying to push for enhancing the journalistic process?

What an awesome question! I’m passionate about all emerging trends that offer compelling possibilities for disrupting and potentially enhancing storytelling, as well as strengthening the connection between producers and audience.

Lately that’s meant social curation trends, wearable technology, virtual reality, drones, data viz breakthroughs and messaging apps. But the broader theme across the media landscape continues to be: adapt/evolve/change — so while these areas are fascinating currently, I’m always eager to discover and explore upcoming trends that are coming down the pike.

4. What are some tips for backpack journalists?

Tech is awesome. We can do so much great storytelling across multiple platforms thanks to breakthroughs in mobile gear (video, cameras, laptops, smartphones, mobile apps, broadcast transmission equipment, etc.) — however strong writing is the backbone of effective reporting. Learning to become a strong writer is instrumental to developing your editorial voice and presence.

I’ve trained hundreds of journalists in new media skills and convergence reporting techniques, but until they’re able to commit to becoming a strong writer, those other skills will be largely overshadowed. Good writing is key for just about every role in newsrooms.

5. When you are hiring someone, what makes a candidate stand out above the others? If everyone has internship experience and positive references do you look to cover letters or something else?

A major key to applying for sought-after positions is ensuring that you as a candidate standout. You want your resume to jump out — if you’re applying for a dynamic position in a media environment, then consider utilizing a visually-grabbing infographic resume instead of a traditional flat one.

Separate yourself from the rest of the pack. Showcase your digital media footprint and reach. Study the company — talk to people who work there, develop ideas about new possibilities, apply crazy research to what they do, why they’re special and where you can provide impact. Internships are hugely important — they provide great experience, networking opportunities and tremendous resource for understanding your potential long-term fit in that space.

For example, at Banjo we look for candidates that show vigor and enthusiasm during the process. Come prepared to the interview and provide follow up on what you heard and how you plan to implement action if the opportunity does transpire.

Most of all, work to effectively highlight your marketable skills. These days, no one wants to invest in generalists, they would rather bring on specialists. What makes you so special? Now run with that.

6. How can a journalism student who is not much of a forward-thinker/future-oriented thinker become involved in new and emerging technologies in the field such as Banjo?

Kudos for asking this question, and perhaps even possessing enough maturity and self-awareness to recognize this might present major issues.

If you don’t consider yourself very strong in these areas, then you probably need to think about new approaches to growing comfortable/energized about digital trends — or reconsider the professional directions you wish to pursue.

Innovation (the internet) has provided for the biggest disruptions to news-media in the last 50 years — it also brings loads of opportunities for new experiments in storytelling, communication, sharing behaviors and relationships with the audience.

Over the last two decades of newsroom culture, those who’ve learned to really succeed and flourish have been those who embrace change and show a willingness to adapt.

7. What kind of advice would you give for using social media sites as an integrated and adaptable portfolio to display student work? How professional should social media profiles be as useful tools for students and future employers?

This is huge. A few years ago I began seeing social media fluency highlighted on the resumes of candidates applying for traditional newsroom positions — Klout scores, number of Twitter followers, Foursquare mayorships, etc. This is smart, as stated previously, it’s all about displaying what makes you special and different from the rest of the pack.

Hiring managers routinely use Google search and seek out social profile information as one of first steps of the candidate-research process. These results can come back to help or haunt — you really need to work on timely, smart interactions on social media. Social isn’t just about avoiding embarrassing posts.

You need to show consistent activity and engagement inside the top platforms, and share meaningful posts that you’d be comfortable and proud if wider eyes began to scrutinize.

I’ve hired dozens of editorial staffers that I first discovered and began tracking via Twitter. People that popped up on my radar because of smart takes, articles and conversations.

Social provides for a brilliant recruiting service. Try not to be intimidated by stories of mishaps and poor decisions, be smart and be active. Chances are pretty good that your work, your brand and your potential will be first surfaced via social in places you might someday be happily employed at.

8. A lot of journalism is going online now, what is one of the biggest differences between working online and newspapers? And what advice would you give to adapt to this change and stay current?

This is a great question. This will probably come as a big surprise, but I would say fundamentally speaking, not much has changed between legacy mediums (print, radio, television) and the shift to online — in that the tenants of good journalism still remain as relevant as ever; truth, accuracy, ethics, balance, context, verification, diversity, integrity, obeying the laws, providing a voice for the voiceless, shining a spotlight on injustices, holding those in power accountable.

However EVERYTHING about the ‘rules of engagement’ have changed, because of digital.

How news is crafted and produced, where we find new sources of information for stories, news is distributed, shared and interacted with audiences, how we find compelling media content to go with our stories, how data is injected into coverage, how we reach people on emerging devices and even new revenue models for producing news programming — these areas and more are all deeply effected by the digital media revolution.

The biggest leap from how working in print-centric newsroom environments (or any legacy platform) from a decade ago and today is a vast majority of stories are no longer on a delayed deadline. Newsrooms have moved to digital-first strategies, meaning that when the news is confirmed and reportable (cleared and ready to report), the story is distributed immediately through available channels — usually online and social media. No longer are reporters and editors/producers holding onto ‘new’ news until tonight’s evening newscast or tomorrow morning’s newspaper.

Today’s journalists must not only accept this as the new norm of constant roving deadlines and demand, but actually learn to embrace. The only constant in our business is change, and this is likely to be the case for the for seeable future.

Biggest piece of advice is learn to quickly evolve your skills and approaches to telling stories in a multimedia world, as also equally important learn to anticipate new media trends and behaviors and work closely with your team and leadership to identify new opportunities well ahead of the curve.

As for staying current, really helps to get plugged into the right circles of knowledge and understanding. Contribute to this dialogue when applicable. Keep pushing to get even more connected in online groups, social media and in-person at professional gatherings.

Footnote: Journalism.UK just published this piece on ’50 blogs by journalists, for journalists in 2016’ that is a remarkable resource for keeping up/ahead of important trends.

9. What is your favorite aspect about journalism today? Why?

I love that the news media landscape is in the middle of a wild and adventurous transformative period. One that will not likely stabilize anytime soon. If ever.

The uncertainty of the future of journalism is daunting for some, but for others it represents a strong sense of unpredictability and surprise. Which is way more fun than knowing everyone’s hand at the table.

Not only is the business constantly changing with new business models, new forms of storytelling, new iterations of technology, but anyone/everyone is welcome to surface bold ideas and possibilities. No one is expert enough that new learnings and takeaways cease to remain relevant. Variables change all the time and the need to aggressively be on the balls of one’s feet has never been more important in this field.

10. What would you suggest journalism students learn in school right now to prepare them for the changing world of journalism. For example since everything is pretty much going digital, is there any pertinent skill a future journalist should learn to do?

Without hesitation — my top piece of advice would be learn computer programming. News organizations routinely hire standout candidates with a strong background in news editorial — AND — separately for highly skilled programmers/developers.

HOWEVER on special occasion, someone will pop up on their radar who is strong at both. This is known as the holy grail of recruiting in news.

Familiarity, insights and experience in both worlds that can lend foresight and aptitude to building new editorial products and audience experiences. This is a very powerful proposition for newsroom leaders, and an opportunity most would not think to pass up.

If you can take some computer programming classes through school, then ideal. But have to find any available resources to grow your understanding and skill. Online courses, focused internships, professional meetup groups, classes at local community college, etc.

11. I was wondering what app that you showed the class is most beneficial and useful? In other words, what apps that you use so you find meaningful and helpful to others? How do you find out about all these apps that many people have never heard of? Many of the apps that you talked about was new to me and I’m glad that I got to learn more about apps that can be beneficial and can possibly help out when finding jobs in the future.

First off, glad to hear you enjoyed learning about new apps. If you couldn’t tell, I’m a bit of a geek about apps so love learning and sharing about what works.

Really depends how you define benefit and impact. There are a ton of really worthwhile apps avail, depending on the genre you’re interested; news, video, productivity, weather, travel, games, etc. There’s also a lot of really crappy apps that are a pure waste of time — as well as money in many cases.

I read a bunch of tech sites each day, as well as use social media (Twitter) to stumble onto new and interesting apps. Some of my favorite online bookmarks include: Ars Technica, Engadget, Gizmodo, Mashable, The Next Web, everything from Nick Bilton from NYT, ReadWriteWeb, Recode, Silicon Alley Insider, TechCrunch and The Verge. One of my favorite sources for new apps is a weekly feature from BoyGeniusReport (BGR.com) that highlights paid iPhone and Android apps on sale for free for a limited time.

I’ll check out just about any mobile app, especially if it’s free. Though an overwhelming amount only get one test drive and then I delete it. Occasionally I’ll find one I like, and in turn, become apt to recommending it to others.

Current iPhone apps that I’m really digging are: Dark Sky (weather), CrowdFire (analytics), Slack (collaboration), KnowMe (mobile video), BleacherReport (sports), unroll.me (productivity), Facebook Messenger (messaging), Nuzzle (news curation), News Pro from Microsoft (news), Moment (productivity), Numerous (dashboard), Periscope (livestream), Evernote (productivity), Cardboard (virtual reality), Quartz (news) and of course Banjo.

As you begin/continue your career hunt, I recommend the following mobile apps to support your search: LinkedIn Jobs, Jobr, Sumry, about.me and Anthology. Good luck!

12. Do you have any tips or recommendations to young college students who want to become successful at a young age? You mentioned starting our own company, during class, but since there are so many “new” companies and apps everyday, how can we successfully do that?

Hard work, hustle, develop specialities for which you’re hopefully passionate about, learn to make sacrifices in order to further your development are general traits for finding success early on in your pursuits — no matter the path.

I’ve also found those with insatiably curious appetites do well. Never stop asking smart questions. Seek answers. Keep exploring.

And yes, entrepreneurship is a tremendous way for getting ahead.

You’re absolutely right, there are a flood of new startups that hit the scene every year. Which is why it’s critically important that you develop a better idea or align with a sharper company than the rest of the pack. You must invest in yourself, your vision and your future. Grow new skills, prototype your ideas, connect with forward-charging professionals that will propel your prospects for a brighter outlook.

Above all else, I recommend that you find your creativity and passion. Pursue the things that are going to drive your will and spirit in these areas.

Don’t settle for jobs, instead chase a calling. Even if it means starting off in the proverbial ‘mail room’ for a little while to get your foot in the door and develop your foundation. You’ll be glad you sacrificed slightly higher paying jobs or ones with better hours later on in your career when you’ve realized what you’re doing is worth so much more than paychecks and having holidays off.

13. How much has the evolution of social media influenced your career choices and how do you see that impacting the future of journalism for newcomers?

HUGE. No question.

Facebook has 1.4 billion users, around 20 percent of the world’s population. A recent survey from Pew showed that 63 percent of adults in America now get their news from Facebook.

YouTube has a billion users and 300 hours of video are uploaded to the platform every minute. Twitter now has over 300 million users.

Weibo, the main Chinese social network is bigger than all of them. Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and WeChat are rapidly becoming default platforms for younger audiences.

I believe Director of the Tow Center at Columbia University, Emily Bell captured journalism’s collide with social media very eloquently when she said, “Twitter is has become the most useful tool for journalists perhaps since the invention of the telephone.”

Personally I just can’t see myself not working within any future environments that weren’t heavily immersed and engaged in digital and social. Whether that be tech or editorial or some hybrid combination of the two. Digital storytelling is the future — news content, programming and expertise distributed across connected devices — mashed together with audience participation and activation to form a diverse media ecosystem.

At some point in the future I believe the industry will forgo traditions of antiquated job titles and legacy-linked platform descriptors — no more newspaper reporters or broadcast anchors or camera person/photographers or web producers. We’ll just have digital storytellers and the unique speciality skills they possess.

The reality is everyone working in news today must learn to deliver stories across multiple platforms. No one only files for one specific platform anymore. Just as no one just consumes news on only one screen (television + desktop + mobile + tablet + wearable + whatever’s next).

14. What do college graduates struggle the most with that you have seen and what can they do to improve that?

The one thing I’ve seen a lot of recent grads struggle with is the lack of true focus and definition with what they are ((realistically)) looking for in a first job. I hear a lot of, “Well, I can do a lot of things well, and I could see myself with your organization doing just about anything.”

Important to remember that most managers are searching for specialists, not generalists.

I certainly appreciate someone hopeful for just getting their foot in the door at a place they’d love to work at, but I think what goes amazingly farther with hiring managers is someone who is dialed into exactly what they’re looking for, strong sound explanations for why they are the perfect fit to fulfill this role, and an understanding of what success looks like in this position.

Do your homework, conduct ‘informational interviews’ with people in similar if not the same positions as which you desire to reach, compile some analysis on how your strengths and weaknesses fit into the overall success of fulfilling this role.

15. What can we do as college students to position ourselves in front of social media trends?

Read: Consistently turn to top online sources to better understand which emerging trends are important to evaluate potential impacts. [AllTwitter, DigiDay, Lost Remote, Mashable, Medium, The Next Web, NY Times Tech, Poynter, ReadWriteWeb, Re/code, Social Media Today, StoryBench, Tech Insider, VentureBeat]

Absorb: Keep good notes of what you’re learning, experimenting with. Track what works, what doesn’t. Remember, even if the experiment you try fails, some value in learning why it failed and chance to avoid repeating similar mistakes down the road. Find a creative outlet to share findings… local journalism student or professional chapters for example.

Participate: Be actively engaged on social media. Can’t just be a lurker! Post about smart takes/articles/questions that advance dialogue on topics you are passionate about. Get involved with Twitter chats like #WJchat on Wednesday evenings where media professionals, academics and students gather on Twitter to tackle developing topics of online journalism.

Write: Figure out effective and savvy ways to take what you’ve learned, absorbed, analyzed and experimented on to forge a nicely crafted piece against, then share it out. Whether it’s on Medium or Tumblr or somewhere else, there’s a tremendous value to contributing to the new media dialogue via smart pieces. Not only will you be adding to the discussion, but you’ll be putting out fresh content that may be viewed by your next potential employer.

Engage: Once you’ve posted about what you’ve learned/mashed up/experimented with, don’t forget to respond to questions and update your piece if appropriate. One of the reasons writing platform Medium is so popular is because it allows for users and readers to annotate right inside the text — if readers ask you questions or weigh in with additional thoughts, definitely take a few minutes to follow up. It’ll go a long ways. Trust me.

16. What is the best way of how to build up your entrepreneurship? Also, those who we encounter in the business, is it beneficial to keep them updated on our work? For example, stories (updated reels) and so on.

I’d recommend going into sponge mode and soaking in as much smart information as your brain can handle. Read books, take classes, find successful entrepreneurs — ask them questions, follow them on social media, read their articles, watch their TED Talks and YouTube videos, take notes, learn from their successes and failures.

Yes, definitely good to keep people in your network or you respect up to date on your work by way of stories, projects, reels, ideas. Have to be smart-aggressive, create your opportunities, pursue chances. If laid back and wait for these opportunities to fall in your lap, you’re likely to be waiting a very long time.