Let’s face it. In our industry, we are surround by haters. From our newsrooms to the classroom to nearly any room, there are people that have been claiming journalism is over.
In all that noise, I find it refreshing to hear the voices – strong voices – that are committed to our calling. For this week’s post, allow me to introduce you to two voices that are committed to what we do.
They are not spokespeople for the industry or an emerging trend or an oddity; they are just two different people who can’t deny their calling.
Liana Aghajanian I also “met” through Twitter. Even though we both live in Los Angeles, we have yet to meet.
Both of their stories inspired and reminded me why I am a journalist. Here is our Q&A conversation from a few weeks ago:
What is your current job/relationship with journalism?
LA: I am currently a full-time freelance journalist writing for a number of online and print publications, including Los Angeles Times Community News and Spot.us. I’ve also written for New America Media, Paste magazine and most recently, EurasiaNet. I also run my own news magazine (www.ianyanmag.com) which focuses on issues related to Armenians and the South Caucasus, and occasionally the Middle East.
KB: I am founder, CEO & Executive Director of BetterBio.org, biotech news in the public interest. My relationship with journalism is a bit more complicated, in that I am concurrently applying for fellowships and freelance reporting jobs so I can pursue my own investigative reporting, which at times goes outside of the realm of biotech into human rights journalism. It is also more complicated in that I am not only a “hack” but a “hacker” and am developing Web and mobile tools to support a new and better journalism world. One of the tools I am working on is called “TipTapestry” – my team applied for the Knight News Challenge to fund it, and it can be seen at the Knight News Challenge site.
What were you doing before this stage of your journalistic career?
LA: I was an editor for a new media company where I worked with freelance writers and collaborated with publications like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a few Hearst newspapers and online publications.
KB: I was at law school, studying at Boston University. My focus was on biotechnology patents – the complexities involved with patenting life. I mostly went, however, to improve my writing! Law school teaches you to write tersely under a deadline like little other training. I’m still wordy, but much less so, now.
In one way or another, it seems like you “stepped away” from journalism. Can you tell me what first lead to you “stepping away?”
LA: Well, I don’t know if I necessarily ever stepped away in the real sense, but you could say that I was in a segment of the media industry that I did not want to be in, and that wasn’t because I changed, but because the industry did. I graduated out of journalism school right when the industry fell apart and began bleeding reporters. I had to adapt and so I was offered a position that while still was in the media industry, was also far removed from the long-term goals I had planned for myself, chiefly that of working in news.
KB: I stepped away from journalism before I ever began, in a way. I purposefully never went to J-school and never engaged with mainstream publications because I did not respect what the establishment media had become. I helped found four publications in my 20s, and co-founded two film companies, so I never stopped doing the work of journalism. But I definitely made a conscious choice not to do traditional journalism as far back as when I was twenty. I then re-committed to doing things differently after I took a job at what I thought was a health and life sciences publication that was really just an advertorial source for mid-cap medical device companies to promote their discoveries to larger companies. That experience left me sickened – I learned so much about this industry and could report none of what I learned. I felt like I was choking. So I moved into the field broadly known as “human rights” or “advocacy” reporting – acting as a media [liaison], researcher and report writer for nonprofits and advocacy organizations such as Healthcare for All and Human Rights Watch. My work in this field led me to law school, where I thought I could learn how to better investigate the corruption to which I bore witness. I was right, it did teach me that – but it also taught me how to think and act with greater discipline. Law school gave me the confidence that I could succeed if I forged my own path. That, and there was nothing else to do – there were no jobs! So I thank the fates for the recession’s impact on my career.
Can you tell me what “got you back” into journalism?
LA: Around two years ago, I decided that I wasn’t going to let my full-time job necessarily limit me from doing what I really wanted, which was reporting, so I began devoting all my energy after work and on weekends to pitching publications, establishing relationships with editors in an effort to get myself out of my (stable) comfort zone and on the ground running again. I also started to run my own online publication that has grown by leaps and bounds in just a few short years.
I did all of this because I have known since adolescence that my role in life was to be a journalist. It was all I wanted, all I dreamt about and all I imagined for my future, and I wasn’t interested in letting the economy, or a change in industry change who I wanted to be. My 40-hour work weeks turned into 80-hour work weeks. When I wasn’t reporting and writing well into the hours of the night, I was developing story ideas, blogging, taking photos and video as well as coordinating with freelance writers who were interested in contributing to my site.
KM: Last September, I got a call I did not expect – it was my supervising partner, and he sounded terrible. When I asked what was wrong, he said he couldn’t believe what he had to tell me – that he felt nauseous – but the firm where I had worked could not afford to offer me my position. I sulked for a few weeks – if I was to work at any law firm in the country, it would have been that one – but then I started to get excited. My future was unwritten and was now mine to write! I began brainstorming my future with a close friend, David Thompson, who was at a similar point in his life, while volunteering at various organizations that worked on improving access to medicines and helping indigenous people with intellectual property issues. Some of the nonprofit work I was doing was written up in Bloomberg – quite poorly – and it sparked a fire of rage in my belly: I wrote a letter to the poor author deriding his lack of journalistic rigor and integrity and lecturing him on best practices. He was surprisingly gracious in accepting my feedback. One hour later, my friend David Thompson shared another story on Bloomberg – the Pfizer feature by David Evans – and I had the dramatically opposite reaction: this time, my heart raced not out of anger but of excitement – this, THIS! was investigative reporting! I wrote him a fan letter – and, for the second time that day, received a shockingly gracious response. He somehow figured out I used to cover medical devices, got me chatting, and I was immediately hooked. It was the strangest thing – seeing the best and worst in journalism within an afternoon, and realizing how goddamn much I cared, was all it took to pull me back in. I was finally ready to do something about it. To make my mark.
You’re not the spokesperson for journalism, but what is your response to people who are doom-and-gloom about our industry?
LA: I understand it. It’s a natural reaction to have I suppose.
I think it’s entirely OK to have negative feelings. It’s normal. When you let those negative feelings hinder you, is when the problems begin.
In the end, doom and gloom has never accomplished anything for anyone. The only way to learn, grow, recover and progress is through determination, focus and intrepidity. Our industry has not gone away. It is not doomed. It is changing. As journalists, we have to learn how to adapt to these changes. It’s not the vessel that’s important, it’s what inside, and from my experience, people still care a great deal about journalism – it is still a noble, worthy cause that will survive only if those entrusted with its powers can manage to become innovative. Call me an optimist, but I truly believe that.
KM: Doom and gloom are the reaction of those who are at once ashamed of their own culpability and unwilling to change. I pity the fools. Storytelling is what we do. We all find each other fascinating. We find the world fascinating. It’s one of the things I love about being human. Writing these words and knowing that you will read them gives me a rush. It’s the rush of connection – the possibility of a spark – of some new idea or empathy or delight being ignited by my words. We do not write just to dictate down what is happening – if that was all reporting was, we’d just install surveillance cameras everywhere like the cops do and choose a location to watch. Heck, even better – we’d have action buttons at those locations that citizens could push to tell others that SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. But no, that’s not what we want. We want context, interpretation, analysis, discussion, opinion, [vitriol], hyperbole – as humans we want a million journalisms depending on the type of story, depending on our levels of education – and, most importantly, depending on how much we trust the source. I know that I will accept much more jocularity, absurdity and emotion from someone I trust than I will from an unknown source. When I do not know or trust the source, then it’s just the facts, ma’am and here’s my footnotes. We are entering an era where both of these – “soft” and “hard” reporting – can finally coexist and nourish one another without driving us all batty. CNN’s scrolling drives me nearly mad (I tune it out), but if I can instead opt into getting more background on the story by clicking to a “background” section, or discuss it with my peers on a related discussion board, I will engage with that story so much more.
Are there any words of advice you’d like to share with people who are debating what to do with their journalism career?
LA: I find it difficult to give advice, because in many ways, I am still learning myself, but the advice I have is this: If you really believe in journalism, if you believe whole heartedly that it is pumps in your veins, then stop at nothing (and I mean nothing) to pursue your career. This industry is crazy, you will love it more than it will probably ever love you, but if you don’t stand up for yourself and actually try to do what you love in it, you will regret it.
Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” That’s pretty accurate and sound advice.
The most important element is not giving up, if you keep pushing forward, you can achieve [anything] you want to.
KM: I am biased, obviously, but I recommend that everyone get involved with a nonprofit news startup at some level. This moment – this exact moment – will never happen again. The promise and potential, the uncertainty, of the new journalism world is so exciting! And as a journalist, you’ve gotta be an adrenaline junkie (at least starting out!) so why not put all of that beautiful adrenaline to its best use? Figure out what story you want to tell and go help someone who wants to help tell it. Otherwise, in my opinion, you’re probably wooing a corpse.
What do you hope to achieve in your journalistic career? What is success for you?
LA: In a broader sense, I hope to be able to write stories that I am proud of. Stories that can have an impact, stories that fall under a category I like to call “chill-inducing journalism.” I am interesting in human rights, poverty, immigration, environmental and international issues of importance as well as culture and ethnicity and I hope I can produce amazing work with regard to all, some or a few of those categories, work that can be appreciated by those that journalists really serve: the public.
Success for me would mean being able to not only write, but write well in the publications that have for me, epitomized good journalism, and that list would include the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Mother Jones, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Guardian among others. It would also mean achieving success as a foreign correspondent in a few countries that are of particular interest to me. Success would mean having the career that the amazing Mr. Nicholas D. Kristof has had.
But I suppose, most of all, success would mean being a respected member of an industry that is and always will be at my core.
KM: Success to me would mean creating news about science and business that truly COMPELS low-income people without science or business educations (which is to say, most of us) to look under the hood of our life-sciences industries. To spark their INSATIABLE curiosity. And to get their voices into the policy conversation at the highest levels – to use journalism as a tool to empower the people impacted by the news to actually not only read but create the news. I hope to do this through creating and nurturing exceptional content, training teens and life-long learners in science media literacy and citizen science reporting, and creating awesome fora for online and offline engagement. If we can get an inner-city teen and a rural mom and a hospitalized elder to all join the conversation, I’ll consider my life and work a success.
Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.