This article originally ran in Local Edition, our newsletter dedicated to mapping the future of local news, together. Want to be part of the conversation? You can sign up here.
One of the hardest things for me when I started at Poynter was aggregation. Also Twitter. And writing breaking news as it happened instead of hours after.
(OK, a lot of things were hard for me when I first started at Poynter.)
Learning those new things was difficult mostly because they conflicted with other things I'd already learned. Among them: The idea that original reporting was the only kind of real journalism, that Twitter was embarrassingly self-promotional and that you don't report a story until you have all the pieces.
This week, I'd like to introduce you to two Philadelphia journalists who have learned and unlearned a lot in their careers.
(And I promise not to say "unlearn" too much after this.)
Anna, will you start by telling us about yourself and what you do?
Anna: I’m one of the reporter/curators at billypenn.com. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s a local news organization that launched in 2014 here in Philly. Basically, my role is I’m part reporter in a traditional digital reporting sense where I file a number of stories a week, and I’m also, along with a couple of other reporter/curators, in charge of curating content not written by us for our social channels and our homepage.
How about you Alex?
Alex: I call myself an independent radio producer. I work on an array of projects, audio documentaries, public radio stories and, these days more and more, various audio-related storytelling projects with various nonprofits and companies, and of course podcasts. And I come to this from public radio.
So far in Local Edition, we’ve talked about why we’re still in journalism and what skills we need to stay in journalism. This week starts a new conversation about what we need to unlearn. Alex, you’re doing so many things now. What have you had to stop doing in order to get where you are now?
Alex: That’s a really good question. Long story short, when I was in college, I studied music. And like many people who got into radio, I discovered the college radio station, and from there I got my first internship at WNYC in New York. Being a public radio reporter seemed great, and it became my goal, and that was over 10 years ago now.
I followed that path for a long time. I lived in Portland, Oregon, and worked at Oregon Public Broadcasting, and then I moved to Philly and first worked at WXPN for the show "World Cafe" as an assistant producer. I was also making stories for shows like "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered."
I’m fortunate that I got into this field, as it turns out, because when I moved to Philly is when podcasts started taking off, and all of these opportunities started sprouting up.
...Previously when I looked ahead, I saw this long career in public radio. But all of the sudden, there were all these other options. At a certain point, I decided to go independent, to stop working at WXPN, to stop trying to nestle my way into WHYY.
Unlearning’s an interesting way to put it, and this may sound like a sad way to put it, but I had to let go of that public radio dream to open myself up to other kinds of opportunities to doing similar kinds of work.
How about you, Anna? You worked at a local newspaper before moving to Billy Penn, right?
Anna: I did. I worked for the Harrisburg-Patriot News right out of college, but by the time I got there they had officially moved over to being PennLive fully. It’s an Advance paper, and it was interesting being there while they were just embarking on that transition. There were so many people I was learning from in terms of this traditional newspaper way of looking at local news, but I was fresh out of college and working with their digital team on how we could bring that into the future.
I thought it was interesting when Alex said he had to unlearn this dream of working in public radio. I think I had to unlearn this perception of what I thought digital media was. When I was in school, I worked for a storied college newspaper, and I really thought newspapers were the only place where you could really do serious journalism. Anything that digital-only was a blog to me.
For me, coming out of college and working in a digital-first environment, the biggest thing I had to unlearn was thinking that a website was just somebody sitting in their basement journaling.
When you moved from Harrisburg to Billy Penn, were there things that your coworkers were like, "No, we don’t do that here?"
Anna: For sure. The biggest thing with Billy Penn was this idea of voice. We try so hard to make what we’re writing interesting to read and to really appeal to our core audience, which is young people in Philadelphia.
When I was in Harrisburg, we had this vision of expanding geographically and expanding our audience always. And in Philly, the difference is we’re super-hyper-focused on our audience.
I had to unlearn the inverted pyramid in a lot of ways, and that was really weird because I’d been writing in that fashion for so long. But it was oddly freeing as well. I see journalism trending that way, for sure.
Was it easier to unlearn some of the things you mentioned because you started in a new place with a new culture at Billy Penn?
Anna: Absolutely. It helped that we were able to try new things and throw everything we wanted to at the wall and see what stuck. When you’re at a legacy news organization, it’s great in a lot of ways because everybody in the community knows who you are, but the problem is they also have certain expectations because of this reputation you’ve built up.
We didn’t have that. We were able to try, and if it worked, great, and if it didn’t, try again next time. It’s much harder to find that culture at legacy news organizations, and for good reason. They’ve built up that reputation for doing things in a certain way, so it’s harder to make change.
It’s also harder to make change at bigger news organizations. When I started at Billy Penn, it was me, another reporter and two web editors in a conference room. It was easy for us to throw around ideas and put up something we thought might do well because we didn’t have the bureaucracy to deal with.
I’ve been thinking about the things I’ve seen newsrooms let go of, and it seems like they fall into three basic categories. One is stagnant culture. Two is a sense of confusion about our audiences and what they want, and three is just practices — how we do our jobs now. Am I missing anything, or does that encapsulate it?
Anna: I think that does a good job of encapsulating it. The day-to-day process has changed so much, too, especially for very traditional newspaper writers. There was such a long time where we would report a story, write it and turn it into our editor, and unless the editor had questions or more reporting for you to do, you’re done.
Now, I’m loading my own posts into WordPress. I’m putting YouTube embeds in it. I’m scheduling out tweets for it. I’m thinking about the social strategy for it. I’m writing a blurb for the newsletter about it. And then I’m engaging with people who are asking questions about it on Facebook and Twitter.
There’s no longer this sense of, I’m filing my story, and I’m done with it, I may never have to think about it again.
Alex: Yeah, I do think those three categories encapsulate this unlearning process well. And, along with what Anna’s saying, it’s practice and process.
Audience is something I’ve thought about a lot. I think you reached out to me in part because of my Every Zip Philadelphia project last year.
It was part of this big national initiative called Localore, which was funded by the Association for Independents in Radio (I feel like I have to put this all in there really quick), and there were 15 of these projects being incubated across the country with collaborations between independent producers, like me, with public radio stations. We had a broad mandate to experiment with public radio stations to reach new audiences or to do a better job of reaching audiences in the coverage areas.
I'm seeing more opportunities to connect to different community groups and to connect to cities better.
What do you think journalists in local newsrooms need to stop doing?
Anna: One of the things I think Billy Penn is really good at is holding events and really connecting with our community and our readers and doing that in real life. I think that if more legacy organizations took on that model, that could be really productive and help their reporters feel more ownership.
Alex: It’s so funny that Anna does that, because that’s really the big lesson from Every Zip Philadelphia and Localore, these community-driven events to put stations or outlets in touch with our audience, with the community.
It’s become, to me, a no brainer. I think that makes so much sense.
I think about public radio a lot, I think about our local station a lot and what they can do better, and again it goes back to audience. I know there are reasons for this, and perhaps they’re good reasons, but don’t be so beholden to the legacy audience.
For journalists reading this, do either of you have thoughts on how to go about stopping something that no longer works? It sounds easy enough, but so many of these things are really ingrained from j-school on. Do you have any tips on how to stop doing something?
Anna: Oh my gosh, I wish. As much as you want to be digital-first, a print deadline is so unforgiving. If you still have to produce a newspaper the next day, you gotta have your content by 4 p.m. or whatever that deadline is. Those deadlines are so difficult to deal with.
I think what some publications have done, and I think PennLive did a really good job at this, is separating writers and reporters from that. It was very much the editors and managers concerned about the print deadline, whereas the actual people producing the content were rarely bugged about it. I think that’s a good culture to cultivate.
Alex: I think you can ask the question more: Does this feel good? Does this work that I’m doing day-to-day feel good? Do I feel like I’m doing the work I want to do? Because there are so many other opportunities out there now, if you’re sitting in a newsroom filing for the newscast day after day and you feel like no one’s listening or you feel like you’re not making the kinds of stories you want to make, I don’t feel like you have to be stuck to that necessarily.
So once you’ve stopped doing something, how do you get your colleagues to adopt that same practice? Is that too big of a hill for us to climb today?
Anna: It’s tough, it depends on who your colleagues are. I’m sure you feel the same way, Alex, but I’ve had a lot of really great colleagues who were really interested in the digital thing and really wanted to embrace it, and a lot of people who were just not interested.
For me, it comes down to having these discussions where we’re talking about what’s best for the reader. So often, we hear from people who have been in the business for so long, these great reporters I look up to, they don’t want to make the switch because they don’t think it’s what’s best for their journalism. They don’t want to be seen as a blogger. They don’t want to be seen as someone who’s not taken seriously among their sources.
And that comes from a good place. That comes from a place of wanting to be trusted and to really own that legacy reputation, but we have to have these discussions in our newsrooms. Is that really serving the people we want it to serve?
I don’t know if it is.
Alex: I agree with Anna. I think one way to get people to climb the hill or continue the conversation is making an effort to form local communities around things. In Philly, there are a lot of journalists, and we have the Pen and Pencil Club here, but it feels hard to bring everyone together and to share best practices.
I think just making people aware of different things going on around the world and nationally in our field and just to have ongoing conversations and have a forum for people to talk about this stuff is maybe one of the best ways to get people to unlearn and move forward.
Thank you, Anna and Alex!
In the meantime, apply for The GroundTruth Project's cross-country reporting fellowship. The Collaborative Journalism Conference is May 4 and 5. Mike Wilson, the editor of The Dallas Morning News (and a past guest here), is doing a Reddit AMA this week. And Poynter has a webinar coming up on the latest in digital audience and revenue.
See you next week! Between now and then, I'll try to learn a new word or phrase for unlearn.