What measures success in journalism these days?

As part of our effort to be open about the ongoing development of TBD.com, the Community Engagement staff has been writing a series of posts as to why and how we ended up here. It’s always the first question I get asked when I meet someone here in DC (can you tell by the accent?), so it’s a good assignment for getting to know us.

The story of how I ended up here is relatively well known (thanks to this and this), so I wrote about why I made the move.

In putting it together, I was thinking back to when I first announced (in mid-April) that I was leaving the Enquirer to come to TBD. A young journalist I know asked me, “Why in the world are you doing this? You have a good job. You’ve made it.”

I guess, in some ways, she was right. I had a voice at the table at a decent sized newspaper (and  had made it through several layoffs). That used to be a major milestone in my planned career goal – but a few months ago, I had an epiphany: My goals are outdated – and they really weren’t mine to begin with.

From Day 1 of journalism school, we were taught that to work at a Known Media Source is the biggest of big deals. Our ultimate goal would be to work at the New York Times’, Washington Posts and CNNs of the world – because that’s what many generations of eager journalists before us wanted. We were led to believe if we, like them, were to do good work at several smaller newspapers, we’d someday get brought up to the Majors of journalism to do the important kind of news that matters.

It’s kind of laughable in hindsight.

The big newspaper as the end-all-be-all is a throwback to a state of journalism that doesn’t really exist anymore. The culture of today’s big newsrooms are more “Stepford Wives” than “His Girl Friday”, employing journalists from a certain kind of background from a certain group of universities to tell a certain kind of story in the same way they’ve always told stories. Some are willing to stretch out of that box, but most haven’t. As an individual, you have to be quiet and fit in or you leave.

You don’t have to be in the Majors of newspapering to do important news that matters to people anymore. You don’t even have to be at a mainstream media source or have gone to journalism school. You don’t even have to call yourself a journalist at all. Getting recognition from big newspapers or major awards, while still nice, isn’t really the bar we have to measure ourselves by anymore. Exposure, originality and branding is the key – and you can do that on your own blog.

And that’s where TBD came in for me. I wanted the chance to do something new – and it was becoming obvious that I’d have to leave that Stepford Journalist career path to do it. Who knows? It might have been too large a risk – time will tell – but I bet I learn more from my time at TBD than I would have at a newspaper.

Am I saying I might not go back sometime or that I wouldn’t still want to work at one of those bastions of journalism someday? Of course not. I’m just saying I don’t think the old measures of success apply anymore. My success, for now, is TBD (har har).

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  • http://alexisgrant.wordpress.com Alexis Grant

    You're so on-point with this. I think a lot of journalists will relate, especially those of us re-evaluating our career or thinking about which direction to go in next.

    What I'd add is that success is measured by self-fulfillment and satisfaction. Do I feel challenged by my job? Am I learning new things? Am I part of the future of this industry? Am I making a difference (and you can measure that in lots of ways, too)? Am I enjoying my job?

    A lot of us got into this industry because journalism gave us a YES to all of those questions. But that's changing — and Stepford journalism isn't always as fulfilling as it once was. That's why my goals have changed… and are still evolving. I think it's healthy to be able to look your dreams in the eye and say, you're not what I aspire to anymore. I want something different. And then go for it.

    • http://manjamedia.com Mandy Jenkins

      Those are great questions to ask yourself in any field, I think, but especially in journalism (where it's getting tougher and tougher to even get a job, let alone be happy with one).

  • http://smudgedtext.wordpress.com/ Susan Chun

    Great post. I couldn't agree more. The staid “We're the Fourth Estate” mentality and “Stepford Wife” newsroom culture increasingly don't work — not for journalists. Or readers. All the hand-wringing over how to retain a dying generation of subscribers — what about the next generation they'll need to replace the one that's dying? if they can't figure out how to hook a new generation of readers, they're toast.

    Twitter handle: @shc347