Eight takeaways from visiting 18 New York media companies in 5 days

The University of Oregon’s New York journalism class, pre-trip. Picture: University of Oregon.

Note: this is an extended version of an article which originally appeared on the BBC Journalism Academy website.

Last month, along with my colleague Lisa Heyamoto, I was lucky enough to spend a week in New York with 14 of the University of Oregon’s top journalism students.

The aim of our trip was to expose students to some of the media opportunities available to them in the Big Apple. And, in turn, to help New York’s finest realise what great journalistic talent we have here in the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon’s a long way from the East Coast. It takes as long to fly to New York from Portland or Seattle as it does from London. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that some students had never been to the city that never sleeps before; and that many of them hadn’t necessarily considered New York media as a potential home after they’ve graduated.

By the end of an action-packed and memorable week, all that had changed. Enthused by the opportunities they saw — and delighted at the wonderful generosity of our various hosts — students and faculty alike returned to campus on a journalistic high.

We concluded our trip with a visit to Dr Claire Wardle at the Tow Center.

Here are some of the key lessons — and affirmations — that I took away from the experience:

1. There’s never been a better time to be a journalist

Yes, the economics of our industry are challenging. Yet, at the same time, the diversity of opportunities and outlets to ply your trade in has never been greater.

We were fortunate to visit traditional organisations such as the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker, newer entrants like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, top grad schools like CUNY and Columbia, as well as the online analytics company Parse.ly.

Every place was different. Each was an inspiration.

2. New models of journalism and media are emerging

People are committing acts of journalism in new — and exciting — places.

This includes non-profit organisations like The Marshall Project and ProPublica, NGO’s such as WITNESS— which is supporting people around the world to use video in their fight for human rights — start-ups like the VR/AR hothouse Empathetic Media, as well as the nonfiction visual storytelling produced by Blue Chalk Media.

These different business models are facilitating new forms of journalism, and having a real impact in the process.

We visited Empathetic on the day that they released an AR experience — in partnership with The Washington Post — which explored Freddie Gray’s murder; and teams at The Marshall Project and ProPublica not long after they won a Pulitzer for their joint reporting project, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” (The New Yorker, who we also met, had — a few weeks earlier — become the first magazine to win a Pulitzer. For the record, they won three.)

Against a daily diet about the dire straits our industry is in, seeing all of the great journalism being produced — and acknowledged — really was chicken soup for the soul.

Real time VR exercises in Brooklyn, at Empathetic Media

3. Journalists still work in newsrooms or go into the office

Of the 18 companies we met, each one had a distinctive vibe and atmosphere. As you’d expect, the working environment feels very different depending on where you are.

The Huffington Post has sleep pods, The New York Times, I suspect, does not. The New Yorker felt wonderfully bookish. The expanse of desks at the Wall Street Journal looked like they went on forever, whereas ZDNet and Tech Gadget had just one person, their Editor in Chief — Larry Dignan — in their New York Office; albeit surrounded by members of the wider CBS Interactive family (and a rather nice looking pool table).

In the age of the cloud, it’s surprising that more companies don’t deploy this distributed office model. Doing so might help offset some of the geographic challenges US journalism faces.

As The Washington Post recounted last year: “If you want a reporting job today, your best bet is to move to D.C., L.A. or New York. They were home to almost one in every five reporting jobs in 2014, up from one in eight in 2004.”

Image via The Washington Post

4. “Video is the new black”

Media companies are investing in video, but making it scale — and understanding what works for audiences (particularly in the thorny field of sponsored content) — are challenges that everyone is grappling with.

But despite these uncertainties, “video is the next frontier.” It offers great journalistic and creative possibilities, manifest in everything from BuzzFeed’s video app and tasty series, through to eyewitness captured media, and both short — and long form content — which packs a punch; like Blue Chalk’s Burned Girl and their documentary on Japanese War Brides.

As Blue Chalk’s co-founders Greg Moyer and Pam Huling reminded us, we live in an era of unprecedented opportunities for the distribution — and creation — of web video.

5. But writing still matters

Despite video’s ascendancy, strong writing remains an integral part of the journalist’s toolkit; irrespective of your specialism.

For The New York Times’ graphics desk, photos and captions have to “work as paragraphs,” even in the context of visual-led storytelling. Over at the CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, applicants for their M.A. in Journalism must submit at least two (out of three) samples of written work as part of the recruitment process, even if they intend to focus on audio and video.

CUNY’s entrance exam, meanwhile, also tests for grammar alongside an interest in current affairs, analytical and editing skills, as well as the “ability to write clearly and concisely in a timed environment.” (You can view the entrance papers from previous years here.)

6. Getting on

“Ensure your Editor is well-fed,” ProPublica’s Tom Detzel advised, noting the opportunities this can unlock for passion projects and exploring new avenues.

Ian Fisher, The New York Times’ Weekend Editor, emphasised the need to nurture relationships with Editors. You need “some to have your back and mentor you,” he said.

ZDNet’s Larry Dignan encouraged students to “be scrappy” and to understand the wider business landscape that they’re entering. “I think the future’s bright for content,” he told us, “but not for organisations.” As a result, he argued young journalists shouldn’t “worry about the cookie cutter career path.” “At the end of the day, we’re all freelancers,” he argued.

7. Journalists need to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset

Wherever you work, journalists need to keep developing new skills if they’re to stay on top of their game.

Nancy Gauss, deputy editor for video at The New York Times, highlighted that new platforms are emerging every 6–12 months. Given this pace of change, you need “to be willing to sink your teeth into things you find interesting and teach yourself,” she suggested.

The team at BuzzFeed felt their news team would be “all over” new platforms, even if it wasn’t part of their job. A love of new technology — and the potential it affords — isn’t just part of a mindset they adopt for work, it’s part of their journalists DNA.

8. Whoever said “never meet your heroes” was wrong

We went to many news organizations that are dream destinations for J-School students and working hacks alike. We talked to journalists whose work we have studied; and those with career paths that they seek to emulate.

This included incredible University of Oregon alum, such as the triple Emmy award winning Ann Curry, Karen Pensiero — the formidable Editor of Newsroom Standards at The Wall Street Journal, her husband Jim Pensiero (currently consulting at Gannett; and a former VP and Deputy Managing Editor at the WSJ) and many other Ducks (so called after the UO mascot) doing fabulous things.

And lest we forget, we also enjoyed an impromptu 20-minute sit down with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, after the Editor popped his head round a conference room door to see what was going on.

These experiences made for a truly memorable week. Everyone, without exception, was incredibly generous with their time and insights.

This — coupled with the great questions and professionalism exhibited throughout by our students — really made this a trip to remember.

I’m already looking forward to doing it all again in 2017.