Our guest speaker today is...

erasers on chalkboard

By Greg

One of the odd things about my job is that sometimes I get asked to speak in college classes about it -- often journalism classes, but sometimes classes in other disciplines, too. And sometimes Mary and I get asked to appear together, which is fun.

I usually say yes when asked because I enjoy talking with students and hearing their thoughts on things. It's also a prompt to think critically about what we do at AOA and the media business in general.

The last class talk was just a few weeks ago. And given the interest people have had in the past when meta-media stuff has come up here on AOA, I figured I'd pull together some of the topics that usually come up during these conversations.

Despite the rambling below, this isn't a comprehensive list of topics that come up. A lot of the direction of the conversation depends on the type of class. For example: The last class was a writing class and we ended up talking a lot about how people view the Albany area and why they view it that way.

Media as a product

Like a lot of jobs, being a journalist/media producer/content person can be a lot of the same day after day. Sure, the names and events and details change, but essentially you're just turning out a widget (an article, a TV package, a post) that fits into a larger collection of widgets (a newspaper, a newscast, a website). You focus on making your widget and you go home. Wake up the next day and repeat.

So one of the ways the experience of working on AOA has been interesting is that it's been opportunity to think about creating not just a daily media widget but the overall media product. What shape should it take? What should it look like? What should it sound like? In what ways can it be useful to people? How do we want people to feel after using it?

Working through those questions -- and trying to execute the answers to them -- has provided all sorts of interesting challenges. And there have also been a fair amount of frustrations as we've bumped up against our limitations.

Know how the money is made

Many media orgs are struggling to survive. So, find out: How does the organization I work for (or potentially work for) make money right now? Will it be able make money like that five or ten years from now? If not, then how?

Media businesses are two (or more) businesses

One of the weird things about most media businesses is that they're actually two businesses. One of the businesses makes media products and draws an audience to them. The other side sells ads to other businesses that hope to reach that audience.

When we started AOA we were pretty sure we could be that first business -- we had done it before in radio. That second business has taken some time to learn.

J school

My take on the evergreen debate about the value of a getting a journalism degree: It depends.

Journalism does involve a set of skills, and if you have your heart set on becoming a journalist, J school can be a good place to learn those skills. This is especially true now that so many resource-strapped media outlets expect you to pretty much be able to do the job the minute you walk in the door. Another benefit of J school is that it puts you into the pool with a bunch of other people who have similar goals and aspirations -- learning alongside them, competing with each other, will help you get better. And it's good to have a network of people in the field.

That said, there are a plenty of people who are good journalists who didn't go to J school. Some of them are good at the job in part because they have some other sort of training. Some were lucky to find a place where they could learn on the job. Some are just naturally talented. It depends.

The flip side: I think media outlets should be open to considering people without traditional journalism backgrounds, in part because I think it could help us attract a wider variety of people.

For the record: Yep, I got a journalism degree from Syracuse.

Liberal arts

One of the good things about pursuing a journalism degree is that it usually allows you to also take a wide range of courses in other topics. That's important because knowing a little bit about a lot can a be big help in journalism. And exposing yourself to a range of disciplines can help you to start to see common concepts.

An example: One of the classes I think about from my time at Syracuse is a programming class for non-computer science majors. I can barely scratch out rudimentary Javascript now, but the class helped me see parallels between writing and coding, how both are forms of expression. (Also: The professor told some great stories about the early days of computers.)

Take more math

You should take more math. Journalists are infamous for being math averse. But skipping out on the math -- especially courses such as probability and statistics -- is ultimately going to hurt you because you'll encounter a lot of numbers as a journalist. And being able to understand them, pick them apart, and critique them is an advantage.

Also: Learn how to use spreadsheet programs because they're one of the easiest ways to work through the numbers you'll encounter.

Also also: Be skeptical of numbers. They're often based on assumptions that can push them way one or another based on the interests of who's behind them. And sometimes they're just plain wrong.

Learning how to learn

If you get anything out of school, I hope it's that you learn how to learn. Because the ability to teach yourself something is a skill in itself -- and it's one you're going to need.

At its core, being a journalist is about learning something new and then figuring out the best way to explain it to a bunch of other people, often in a very short span of time. And beyond the day-to-day, there's the other stuff you need to keep up with: taking on a new beat, learning new equipment, figuring out new media platforms.

Things change all the time. The faster you're able to teach yourself stuff, the easier it will be to keep up.

Try new things

To go along with learning how to learn: Try new things. And let yourself be bad at them. So many media jobs (and, really, jobs of all sorts) now include skills that were once the job of many different people: writing, editing, photography, data analysis, design, maybe even coding.

So it's worth seeking out new skills and giving them a try. You'll probably be bad at first, but that's OK -- you'll get better with practice. And even if you never get good at something, knowing how to do something a little bit (even badly) will help you ask questions of, or work with, people who are good at it.

Get your reps

And one more thing about learning skills: You have to get your reps. That goes for writing articles, taking photos, interviewing, whatever. Because it's just like learning how to do anything else, whether it's baking bread or shooting a basketball. Practice. Review. Try to do better. Again and again and again and again. It's the only way to get better.

You've gotta be able to sell your stuff

It's not enough to make something good. You also have to be able to sell it other people. In some cases that means packaging a story in a way that will get people to click on it or take the time to watch it. In other cases, it means being able to pitch your idea for a story to an editor so she'll decide to give it the go-ahead. And sometimes it means figuring out a way to pitch your media product to new groups, whether they're audiences or advertisers.

You can write the greatest article ever, have the most genius idea for a video, produce the best website... but it won't matter if you can't get other people to buy it.

attention < influence < power

One of the economies we all participate in now is the attention economy. And given how media saturated so much of life is now, sometimes it seems like attention is the most valuable thing.

But attention is not necessarily influence, and influence is not necessarily power.

There could be other, better jobs for you

Working in the media can be interesting and fun. And there are some good, fulfilling jobs. But the industry's going through profound transformations because of the internet and mobile tech and world-eating services such as Facebook. A lot of old-school outlets have gone through round after round of cuts, and they're probably still not down to the sizes at which they'll eventually settle. Some probably won't make it at all.

It's true that there are new jobs being created, some that people never imagined -- like running a company's Snapchat channel. It's just that those jobs often include crushing, burnout-inducing workloads. And the pay -- whether at old-school media orgs or the shiny new ones -- is usually pretty bad, even if have you experience.

So, think hard about whether you really want to do this sort of job. Because even if you're good at it, it might be hard to make a good career of it.


This is an excellent and insightful post. I want to single out the point "Know how the money is made" for particular praise -- this is fantastic advice for anyone taking a job in any industry, especially the line, "Will it be able make money like that five or ten years from now?"

Enjoyed reading this.
As someone who was in journalism for years, I'd add that these jobs in Social Media that we never would have imagined 10 years ago are a good place to use journalism skills - writing, learning, getting across info in a succinct way, photos/video, being creative with information. I work for a PBS affiliate and there are social media professionals at PBS and other affiliates who have been doing this for years - and, like other media, it's always changing.
I work for a nonprofit and still make more than I was at the newspaper. And I still do freelance work.

@Joseph: Thank you.

@Danielle: I agree a lot of the skills that a person develops as a journalist can be useful/valuable in other contexts or jobs. Thank you for highlighting that.

I'm going to add on to Danielle's point, as it's not just good for tangentially related fields, but completely unrelated fields as well.

As someone who went to J-school (Oswego, for me) and then ultimately pursued a completely different career, I often recommend to college (or college-bound) students I encounter that they take a couple of journalism classes, if offered, and even consider it as a minor even if you don't intend to be a journalist.

Learning how to accurately report a story, ask open-ended questions to get to the bottom of something, research things that are not always easy or obvious to find, and write *concisely* and dispassionately are all great skills for the so-called "real world." I use the skills I learned in J-school, working for the school paper, and in my (albeit short-lived) newspaper jobs every single day in my current career. Being able to concisely summarize your point to a middle school reading level for an executive is a difficult skill to master, and it's one I had no problem with because it's *just like writing a news story*.

All good points and I don't disagree with any. I would expand "learning how to learn" to encompass two additional points.

1. Learn to find the story. Local, smaller-market papers often deliver a straight description of what happened in, for example, a city council meeting. This is hard to read and digest. Find the meaningful facts and then follow the thread to the core of the story, what it means and how it may affect the reader.

2. Learn to be objective. This doesn't apply to perspective pieces on AOA, but again more to mainstream reporting. Be able to distinguish between your preconceptions and what is actually happening and report the latter.

All great points. I spoke to a journalism class last week (tis the season?) and only one of the students in the class was an actual journalism major. I tried to stress the importance of some of the skills picked up in a journalism course that would lead to success in other fields, like critical thinking on a broad level about any number of topics. Journalism is often query-based, and the skills needed there would surely benefit the bio-chem major, the computer science major, or the literature major in the room.

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For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

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