Why I Quit My Job to Get a Master's in Social Journalism

Wtf is social journalism, anyway?

Me, right, interviewing Maria Lopez in Chambersburg, PA in April 2015. Image: Eliseu Cavalcante.

When I applied to journalism school last year, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.

I didn't realize just how much work it would be, or that the stress would make me want to curl into the fetal position most weekends. I didn't realize how little time I'd have for freelancing, and that as a result, I'd be a lot more broke than I'd expected. I didn't quite get that because the program was three semesters back-to-back, I would have very little time off for an entire calendar year. I didn't realize just how many hours a week I'd find myself in the school newsroom or in front of a computer. And I didn't understand what social journalism was or what the program would actually entail.

This is what I did know.

That the CUNY J-School, an amazing institution, was launching a brand-new program focused on digital journalism. That the application was relatively simple, and I wouldn't have to take the dreaded GRE. That the program's founder Jeff Jarvis and director Carrie Brown seemed great. That the school had offered me a generous scholarship. And that even though I loved my job at a think tank, I had to take the next step in my career.

So I quit my job, and in January, I joined CUNY's first-ever social journalism class.


Social journalism: trial by fire

Here's what the year looked like.

Spring Semester

Reporting I (taught by Kathryn Lurie)
Data Skills (taught by Amanda Hickman)
Community Engagement (taught by Carrie Brown and Jeff Jarvis)
Social Media Tools (taught by Thomas Page McBee)

Summer Semester

Reporting II (taught by Indrani Sen)
Design and Development
(taught by Jue)
Legal and Ethical Considerations
(taught by Michael Boone)
Metrics and Outcomes
(taught by Lam Thuy Vo)

Fall Semester

Entrepreneurial Journalism (taught by Jeremy Caplan)
Practicum Final Project
(advised by Jan Schaffer)
Internship

In some ways, it bears similarities to the regular MA program, though there's an emphasis on learning HTML and business skills.

So what makes journalism "social"? Hint: it's not just the social media part.

The idea is to re-imagine journalism as a service and to serve communities — in the broadest sense of the word — using reporting.

The program is founded on the principles of Jarvis' book Geeks Bearing Gifts, which spells out this approach. By focusing on listening and avoiding parachute journalism, reporters aim to establish trust and relationships with communities. At the same time, journalists need to use all of the digital tools possible, from social media to data to new platforms, to conceive creative and innovative ways to reach communities and audiences. Finally, journalists must make an effort to measure the impact of their work beyond traditional web metrics.

In other words, this program set us up to take a variety of routes in the media world: traditional journalism, strategy, audience development, analytics, and beyond.

It's beat reporting on steroids. It’s participatory journalism, or crowd-powered reporting. It's impact journalism. It's combining data and social with shoe-leather reporting. It's about starting thoughtful conversations online and IRL. It's putting your sources before your own needs and ego.


On the immigration beat

During the program, I focused on immigrants. I wrote about how the government’s new deportation policies were actually continuing to target non-criminals, and the story likely helped a grandfather avoid deportation. I covered the nearly imploding immigration court system, and the story sparked coverage of the issue in the national media. I wrote about a little-known regulation preventing tens of thousands of young immigrants from getting affordable health care — just as the Democratic presidential candidates began positioning themselves on the issue.

Pedro Rivera, the grandfather I wrote about whose deportation was stayed.

I also worked on two big social journalism projects through my internship at Medium with the Matter team: Ghost Boat and My Time in Line.

Ghost Boat is an open investigation led by Medium's Bobbie Johnson to determine the fate of 243 refugees who disappeared in the Mediterranean last year. The incredible reporting team includes Eric Reidy, Gianni Cipriano, Meron Estefanos, Rebecca Cohen, Noah Rabinowitz, and Martino Galliolo, among others.

The project not only depends on traditional reporting, but also on the power of the crowd and digital tools. (The investigation is still ongoing.) Along with assisting with research, reporting, outreach, and social media, I also organized a hackathon with CUNY and Columbia j-school grad students to see what we could find through social verification and digging through data.

Me, pictured left, at the hackathon in October 2015.

My Time in Line is a crowdsourced Medium series I created in which immigrants in the U.S. explain what it really takes to get legal status. So far, close to 30 people have written essays about their immigration struggles, including Ben Huh, Vikram Babu, Angy Rivera, and Dan-el Padilla Peralta, among many others.

Here's what I learned.

Doing good journalism doesn't always mean using traditional formats. Great crowd-powered projects do best when they amplify voices in a way that an inverted-pyramid story couldn't. And new digital tools from Storify to Medium mean it's possible to tell stories beyond text with tweets, eyewitness media, and more.

Identifying and befriending ambassadors to the community will help you win trust and legitimacy among those you’re reporting on. Like in beat reporting, finding sources trusted by those in the community will open up doors.

Maintain journalistic independence is through transparency and facts. I think the advocacy journalism debate is overblown, and the greater problem in media is bad reporting. If you do your job right and do your due diligence as a reporter, you can still report well on controversial issues — particularly one as thorny as immigration.

Be proactive, not reactive. There needs to be a strategy behind reporting and publishing. It's important to find a balance between breaking news and enterprise stories, because getting to the heart of a community's problems is often going to fall somewhere between the two. Plus, by getting to know a community well, you'll be able to anticipate important stories that the audience at large isn't aware of. And then, the key is finding the right timing to publish a story to ensure its maximum impact.

Goals must go beyond web metrics. This is one reason news organizations need alternative revenue streams to avoid reliance on display ads, since doing good social journalism means seeking impact aside from pageviews. Were new laws passed? Were minds changed? Was a source’s problem solved?

Collaboration is everything. It's easier to reach larger audiences by working together with other media companies, organizations, or reporters. Exclusivity is useless in the internet age; if you can find great partners for a story, the more knowledge you can pour into the investigation and the farther the story can travel. And ultimately, you'll have a much better shot at having an impact.

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