An editor’s guide to creating an online portfolio
The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.
It’s a common challenge for many journalists. There are many roles in journalism that don’t lend themselves to traditional clips packages — editors, strategists, engagement producers, product managers.
Describe your approach to problem-solving
Crafting an online portfolio for these behind-the-scenes roles is all about showing the way you think. Tracy Grant, the Washington Post’s managing editor for staff development and standards, said she wants to know how you look at the world.
“Ultimately, that’s what I’m buying — your perspective,” said Grant, who has been doing hiring and training work for the last five years.
But it can be difficult to stare at a blank page and write about how you do your job. Millie Tran, the global growth editor at the New York Times, frames this challenge by looking at her work as consulting.
“If you’re not a content creator, you are essentially pitching (yourself) as a service or a consultant or thinker. To do that, you have to distill down what you are obsessed with or what problems you like solving,” Tran said.
Here are some recommended prompts from journalists to get you thinking:
What is your unique value?
What are your skills that are unique to your experiences?
If you were a consultant, what services would you provide?
What is your thinking when you are directing and coaching someone through a story?
How did this project span platforms, and what did those conversations look like?
What is exciting about your job?
What problems do you like solving?
What are you obsessed with?
You won’t find a traditional résumé on Tran’s site.
“It wasn’t intentional at the time, but I’ve always thought a reverse chron list of what I’ve done wasn’t useful in showing the skills I have, or the skills I developed, or how I contextualized those experiences,” she said.
Narrowing in on these questions is ultimately an exercise in editing yourself.
“We want to just throw a laundry list to show how we are so qualified,” Tran said. “That’s actually not useful for a future employer or someone who would want to hire you. When you are a hiring manager, you have a very specific problem you want to solve. You want to help that person see how you can solve that problem.”
Tell stories about key projects
In addition to describing how you approach your work, it can be helpful to pick three or four projects to showcase. When Wise thought about what she wanted her revamped site to be, she picked projects that would highlight her impact.
“You can’t just give a link,” she said. “You have to really say, ‘This is the purpose of this project. Here were my goals and here’s how we met them or didn’t and here’s what happened.’”
She recommends keeping these descriptions short, providing just enough information for someone to understand the project and understand what you did. Wise saves screenshots of meaningful conversations on social media, metrics reports, results from A/B tests and more in a folder that she can reference to help her show her work.
A screenshot from Hannah Wise’s portfolio.
Samantha Ragland, the manager for digital content strategy at the Palm Beach Post, said she believes this is all about a skill journalists already possess: storytelling. She encourages journalists to think about these questions when telling the story of their work:
Why did this succeed?
Why was this worth doing?
What did you struggle with in order to get this out?
What would you do differently?
Breaking projects down into these nuggets makes your work conversational.
“We can do this in a way that shows our skills and strengths, but also makes us incredibly human and memorable. It all comes down to the stories we tell that illustrate who we are,” said Ragland, whose work can be found at samantharagland.com. You can learn more in her recorded webinar for ONA on how to get hired.
Describing the way you think and highlighting how you’ve applied that thinking to newsroom problems gives others a view into what you do, and what you could do next.
“We think that we probably have something to teach most people who get hired (at the Washington Post), but you will not get hired here unless we believe you have something to teach us,” Grant said. “That is something that you will have to show me. Surprise me. Dissect a problem. Think about an issue in a way that is new and fresh and different.”
Get honest feedback
Once you come up with your first draft of who you are, how you think and what projects you’re proud of, Tran encourages you to get feedback from both people who know your work and people who know you as a person.
“I talked with people to get the self awareness of what I’m good at and what I want to do more of. Then I wrote what felt best,” she said.
Don’t be afraid to include blogs, awards and collaborations
One way to showcase your thinking is by writing about your work as it happens, whether that’s on your organization’s site, on an industry publication or on your own blog. Then you have tangible work to link to from your portfolio.
“Even if you aren’t writing stories or clips, you still have this artifact of the way you thought at a certain moment in time,” Tran said. “When you point back to a product or something that you contributed to in an invisible way, you have that as an artifact to support that.”
Tran, who links to some of her writing at millietran.com, said writing about the work can be easier than writing about yourself, especially if you are writing about the work a team did.
“There’s a bit of emotional distance in that way. You’re not really talking about who you are, but you are showing the thing you did, and more importantly, showing how you did it,” she said. “I don’t pretend to have done things by myself. Obsessively giving credit or highlighting other people’s work that you think is smart is totally valid… I think that’s something that has been really helpful because it allows me to shout others out while showing how I think,” Tran said.
Writer Ann Friedman has a page on her website to recognize her friends, mentors and collaborators.
Wise encourages journalists to include their awards and contextualize them. If you think you need to win a Pulitzer for your awards to matter, think again.
“Regional awards and things like that are good to highlight, even for those where you are part of a team. The Morning News was a Pulitzer finalist, and I state that. I’m really proud of my contribution to that work. Don’t discredit the work you’ve done or that someone is recognizing you for it,” she said, adding if you are able to get a copy of the judges’ comments on your work, you can include that, too.
Infuse your portfolio with personality
Many journalists are conflicted about how much personality to show in their portfolio. Tran believes one smaller way to bring your whole self to your site is sharing photos of yourself, and that doesn’t always mean your official work photo.
“Get someone you love to take photos of you,” Tran said. “I really believe that having someone you love take a photo of you will turn out differently. I do believe in having a photo of yourself somewhere. Letting people see your whole self is important.”
A screenshot from Millie Tran’s portfolio.
This can be risky territory for women and people of color. Everyone brings their own biases when evaluating a portfolio, said Kainaz Amaria, the visuals editor at Vox.
“It's rare these days to not have any web presence, but if you don't want your likeness online or your potential employer to see what you look like, it's totally fine to have words describe who you are instead of an image,” she said. “And if you are concerned about privacy, you can go the illustration route or create an avatar. It's a likeness of you, but not actually you.”
If you do choose to include a photo, Amaria encourages journalists to think about the three things that make a good portrait — the eyes, the background and the expression. The eyes are what the audience connects with, so stay away from portraits with sunglasses. Make sure there isn’t anything in the background that is distracting and takes the focus away from you.
The expression of the photo is the tone of your brand as a journalist. Are you serious, smart, contemplative, curious, kind? Amaria said you can convey a lot of emotions through the image you choose, so make sure it’s the feel you want, and then do some user testing.
“Ask your friends, ‘Does this look like me?’ They have your best interest at heart and will probably be real with you,” she said. “And if you have a friend that is into photography and you ask them to make one for you, offer to pay them for their time or buy them a meal.”
Kainaz Amaria’s portfolio features a selfie. “I liked it because it felt mysterious, inquisitive and curious, maybe even a little dreamlike. Also my eyebrows look on point,” she said.
Remember to save your work along the way
A lot of the newsroom roles that benefit from this type of portfolio work on long-term projects. Wise, Tran and Ragland all suggested keeping a document of links and thoughts that you can reference when you are ready to update your site.
But don’t wait until you are job searching to sift through everything. Gathering the documentation as it happens also ensures that you have access to the files and metrics should you change jobs.
“I think it’s important to have those conversations with ourselves now so we’re confident in our answers down the line when we are looking for another position,” Ragland said.
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Do your homework
Focus on the work
A few months ago, Shira Stein started her first full-time journalism job as the Medicare reporter for Bloomberg Law. She’s written two enterprise stories about health coverage for LGBT+ people. The first was about how the aging population of people with HIV/AIDS will affect Medicare, and the second was about the uncertainty around whether Medicare will pay for gender reassignment surgery.
“Since even before I started covering health care, I've noticed a lack of LGBT health coverage, and I wanted to try to change that,” Stein said. “I'm proud of this work because I'm helping to bring these issues to light for people who can actually affect change. It's not something my editors expected our readers would care about, but my story about Medicare's coverage of gender reassignment surgery was actually the most-read story of all of our health care stories for two days. I'm helping to show that these stories may not be what we traditionally think our readers want, but that it's something in which they're interested.”