What I did in grad school: Social journalism for social journalists
I graduate on Friday after 11 months in CUNY’s new social journalism master’s program. It’s been an exciting year, and before I run off on my next adventure, I just wanted to recap all the fun I’ve had, a few of the lessons I’ve learned, and thank the folks who taught me the most.
What I’ve done:
For this program, we each had to choose a community to serve. I chose newsrooms, and more specifically, I focused on social media and engagement editors in newsrooms.
In my community
We spent more than a semester on different listening and observation techniques journalists can use to better understand the communities they serve.
I’ve learned about members of my community through:
- interviews (more than 40),
- events (more than 20 IRL, and dozens more online),
- surveys (2),
- shadowing (5),
- and just generally becoming of the community. (I admire how Laurenellen McCann has pushed the idea of “build with, not for” in civic tech, something that journalists too could embrace.)
Once I had a sense of what people in my community needed, I set out to do journalism that would be in service of them (one of the guiding principles of the #socialj program).
The needs I saw in the social journalist community involved needing support (from connections to others in the community) and respect (from others in their newsrooms).
I decided to do several profiles of social journalists, with the intent that if I showed what these jobs entailed, others in newsrooms could get a better understanding of what these folks are doing, and maybe respect them a little more (or at least stop asking whether they’re “really journalists” and if they “just sit on Twitter all day”). I wrote four of these profiles, on a social media coordinator, social media editor, engagement editor, and growth editors.
One of my favorite activities to try to connect more social journalists to each other was hosting Twitter chats. I only hosted two, but I loved seeing people who do similar work in very different places talking and learning from each other. (One was about career paths for social journalists, the other about daily routines.)
I also wrote pieces about other issues in my community, including jobs in journalism other than “reporter,” comment sections, how to prevent burnout, and social distribution partnerships. While the stories are pretty traditional in format, the #socialj twist was that we had to establish a community interest or need in the story before writing each one. Think of it as somewhere between trying to pitch as a freelancer and writing a grant proposal, where the more pre-reporting you do about both the topic and the publication, the higher success rate you’ll have.
Journo Salary Sharer
As part of the summer semester, we took a design and development class where we had to conceptualize a tool or service for our community (and, of course, prove there was a need for this tool). In that process, I came up with Journo Salary Sharer.
The social media editors I was talking to had no idea what “fair” pay would be for the kind of work they were doing, especially as they moved into new management roles. But social journalists aren’t the only ones — I knew personally several college journalism professors had a good sense of the going rate for certain jobs in certain markets, but I wished there were a way to make that information public and searchable, in a much more granular and comprehensive way than Glassdoor or other existing tools offered.
I envisioned a simple survey that would be able to at the end tell you where you fit compared with others in your job title, organization size and location. After a few weeks of wireframing and some invaluable development help from professor Jue Yang, Journo Salary Sharer launched. It was definitely a “1.0” version, without many of the features I’d hoped for, but it was a solid start.
I wrote a piece about its launch on Medium, which got linked to by Poynter, and then soon after Romenesko, Nieman Lab, Columbia Journalism Review, The American Press Institute, Smashd, All Digitocracy, Huffington Post, The Local Fix and more were linking to the survey and sharing my takeaway posts. More than 3,600 journalists shared their salaries with me, which allowed me to write a bunch of job-specific takeaway posts. (There’s still a few more I’m hoping to write soon.)
Many thanks to professor Amanda Hickman, who taught our data skills class, for editing many of those posts and helping me think through the whole data collection-cleaning-analyzing-turning into graphics-and writing process. I wasn’t even in her class at the time, but she was kind enough to put her professor/editor hat back on, which I’m very grateful for.
People who took the survey had the option of signing up to receive email updates from me, and more than 1,500 people did that (and I saw a >60% open rate on almost every email). I also included suggested “share text” for people based on their comfort with talking about salaries, and a surprising number of people used that share text.
The best part of doing Journo Salary Sharer, though, was hearing individual stories from people. Hearing how it sparked a discussion in a newsroom’s Slack about pay equity, or being able to answer a young reporter’s question about how much more she should expect if she moves from a small market to a big market, or giving context to a journalist with 40+ years of experience who’s reentering the U.S. job market.
Research consulting for Chalkbeat
I spent ~15 hours a week during the fall semester working with Chalkbeat, an education news nonprofit. I helped do research and consult on audience growth strategies, their evolving community editor role, and also looked at how product managers tend to interact with editorial. (Chalkbeat was hunting for a Director of Product and Growth, and ended up hiring Ryan Sholin, who started on the team this month.)
Community management for Hacks/Hackers
Also during the fall semester, I worked for Burt Herman at Hacks/Hackers trying to reinvigorate its social channels to better connect the 75+ chapters of the group around the world. I conceptualized and wrote a weekly newsletter as one way to try to build relationships and awareness between chapters.
As you can see, I’ve had a busy year, and a particularly busy last 5 months. Stepping back from what I did, here’s what I learned from doing this work and from my smart professors.
What I learned
First, I learned a lot about where the news industry is at this moment in time, and where a lot of smart people think it’s going. I wrote about what I see as the three biggest mind-shifts that newsrooms are (or IMHO should be) adopting.
Next, in my coursework, I learned about reporting, data, law and ethics, entrepreneurship, how newsrooms are measuring their impact, and much more. A breakdown of our class schedule, which Rachel Glickhouse wrote up in her piece about why she quit her job to go to grad school:
A few bite-size lessons to give you a taste of it all:
In Thomas Page McBee’s social platforms class, we learned about what kinds of posts are most successful on each platform (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and many more) and more generally. Some of the tips:
- How compelling is the image? Is the image colorful, visually interesting, easy to read quickly?
- Is the headline/text of the post written like you’re sending it to a friend in Gchat? Does it answer either/both “why did you write this piece?” or “why should I care?” Does it set expectations for the reader appropriately, and not simply rely on the curiosity gap?
- Are you publishing it at a time of day/week/season that your audience is around and interested in talking about this topic?
- Are you re-posting successful posts?
In Carrie Brown and Jeff Jarvis’s community engagement class, we read and discussed Jeff’s book “Geeks Bearing Gifts” and heard from many guest speakers. We blogged each class, and the guest quote that stuck with us the most throughout the year was Meetup founder Scott Heiferman’s “Fuck you, it’s about them.” The whole class and program really is about listening, making sure you’re doing something that there’s demand for in your community, and fine-tuning it with their input, rather than just writing whatever stories are interesting to you alone.
In Lam Thuy Vo’s metrics and outcomes class, we learned about the different ways newsrooms measure their impact, starting with pageviews and going all the way to the advanced impact measurement philosophy of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Lam’s syllabus for this class is comprehensive and worth reading if you’re into this topic at all. The workflow we walked away understanding is that you should think about what different kinds of impact your story can have, how you could keep track of those impacts, and then build something that actually will keep track of those (whether automatically or through you spending 15 minutes a week updating a spreadsheet).
And as for what I learned about my community, well, that’s what I’ve been writing here on Medium all year. I’m also doing research and writing up a report for The Kettering Foundation where I’ll go on at length about trends and behaviors I saw among social journalists. (P.S. If you’re a social journalist, please consider taking my research survey: http://bit.ly/ketteringsocialjsurvey)
First off, thanks to my husband, Justin Myers, for moving to New York with me in January at the drop of a hat and taking on this big adventure together.
Thanks to the wonderful, smart professors who put up with my occasional sass and the typical student whining, for pushing me to work harder, learn more, experiment, and do great journalism. Special thanks to Carrie Brown, director of the #socialj program, who served as everything from professor to guidance counselor to director to fellow Packers fan.
Thanks to everyone in my social journalist community who took the time to talk with me and tell me about your days. Thanks to those of you who let me shadow you while you were at work, even though I know it’s awkward. Thanks to so many of you who have cheered me on, connected me to other great members of the community, and shared my posts.
And last but certainly not least, thanks to my classmates. We supported and pushed each other to succeed so hard, and learned so much from one another. I’m glad to have spent the past 11 months locked in a classroom with you all.
Exciting news! From January through April, I’m going to be an audience engagement editor at The Wall Street Journal! I’m really looking forward to learning from and contributing to the strong team of social journalists there.
And then in May, Justin and I are looking to go on another adventure. We’re thinking Seattle or Chicago. We’ll see what the future holds. If you’re someplace in either of those cities or someplace that offers remote work and you’re interested in chatting with me about future job prospects, I’m all ears.