January 25, 2021

I was on a mentoring call with a student about to graduate from college when she shared that she had received some discouraging advice. She had been told not to pursue audience work as a career path.

She was told — by a member of a fairly large journalism organization — that she’d be better off working in a junior reporter role covering a random congressional committee, even if no one read her work. I found this to be absolutely shocking and completely untrue.

Pursue a career as a reporter, if that’s what you’re interested in doing. But it is not the only career path. This student told me her skills and passion fell mostly in the audience/social sector, alongside politics, and she was being made to feel as if there wasn’t opportunity or success to be had in the audience world.

She shared that this is why she sought out someone like me (and others, I’m sure) to discuss my path doing social and audience work and see if it is a viable career path. Over the course of my call she asked me questions like, “Are there jobs right now in social media?” (yes) and, “Is there opportunity for growth and success if I take this path?” (also yes).

Of course, I also disclaim all of my career conversations with students that my job trajectory and experience is only one of many, but it’s my two cents. I told her that in my experience, there is plenty of opportunity in the realms of social and audience. And there’s also opportunity to move into another area within journalism or pivot to something new in the future if interests change or it’s not working out.

Especially with her expressed interest in politics — someone needs to be there to live-tweet the State of the Union and press conferences. Someone needs to be the one getting eyes on breaking news and important floor votes. When we are at the tail end of a presidency that has involved Twitter so heavily, people are really going to say that social isn’t important? These archaic views of a journalist’s career path need to be dispelled. Audience is incredibly vital to digital media right now, more than ever I might argue.

Unfortunately, as someone who has done a decent amount of calls and mentorship meetings with college-aged students, this isn’t the first time I have heard concerns and misunderstandings such as this one.

It’s an issue I’ve seen and experienced firsthand in the newsrooms I’ve worked in: Social is an afterthought. Audience isn’t necessary. And clearly this kind of mentality is seeping into the advice that is being given to young journalists. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken.

I think part of the issue is that folks don’t always exactly understand what social editors and audiences editors do. And maybe that’s because we do a little bit of everything. We are copy writers and copy editors. We parse data. We are graphic designers. We pitch story ideas based on audience listening. We pull social levers, but we also ideate on high-level strategy. We optimize for search engines while brainstorming clever social packaging. We know what will make someone click on a piece of journalism. Audience editors are jacks of all trades and should be valued as such.

These are all important skills that make someone a better journalist. They may make you a great reporter someday, they may make you a great editor-in-chief someday, they may make you a great head of audience someday. Wherever it takes you, there is undoubtedly value in this skillset.

I’ve seen audience work open so many doors. It certainly has for me and many of my peers who I’ve seen move into different fields of interest. I started in news and now work in commerce. I’ve seen folks pursue tech, product, production, commerce, or even move into reporting. The skills that are cultivated doing audience work make for someone who is an incredibly well-rounded journalist. Even more so, I might argue, than someone who focuses solely on the writing part of their craft.

Audience work is important and a valid career path. If you’re someone in the industry, please think about this if you’re giving advice to students. There are certainly pros and cons to different career paths, but audience should not be counted out.

The content of this piece previously appeared in a thread on Twitter.

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Samantha Tomaszewski is currently the lead social media strategist for commerce at BuzzFeed. She previously worked as an audience editor at HuffPost. She attended Lehigh…
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