Reinventing Yourself in Journalism

Several months ago I participated on a panel discussion at the Press Club in Washington DC, the topic was reinventing yourself in the constantly evolving world of journalism. Sponsored by the American University's School of Communication, Office of Alumni Relations, my panel colleagues and I all had experienced reaching out to embrace ways of adopting our respective journalism skills, applying them in ways we did not envision while building our careers.

Moderator Wendy Reiger, WRC's longtime local anchor for News4 at 5 in DC (and stunning as ever), described learning to "do it all" for her green initiatives segment -- not only reporting and writing, but learning to shoot and edit her own video, and by the way, happy to do it (tough lugging a tripod in high heels though). That's the reality of TV news; budget cuts are dictating not only pay cuts, but shorter term contract extensions, so now even anchors and producers are doing the jobs of two and three support people. Reiger emphasized "reimagining what you have done and currently do, figuring out how you bring added value to the table to an employer. Not every anchor could or would reimagine themselves to incorporate shooting and editing, but knowing Reiger as I do (I spent many years producing for NBC News in the DC bureau) she wisely chose to join in, learning new skills to make herself employable -- very smart move on her part.

And speaking of reinventing yourself, panelist Jackie Judd figured this out 7 years ago (very visionary), way before online technology changed journalism. Judd is Vice President and Senior Advisor for the Kaiser Family Foundation, formerly a correspondent in the DC bureau of ABC News. I remember when Judd left ABC (I also worked for ABC News Nightline in DC) and some colleagues seriously questioned her move to Kaiser. "Many people told me I was crazy for leaving," said Judd. "Now they are all calling me for jobs." Kaiser now has its own news department and like many other non-profits, it is replacing shrinking traditional news outlets.

"Good thing we get a lot of cross training as journalists," said panelist Kate Heffley, former Communications Director at Educational Options, now Senior Consultant at Booz Allen, strategy and technology consulting firm. "It's the nature of the news business, changing day to day, so it is natural to take it on and have fun with it."

Certainly in my own career path, my news background and Washington experience brought professional opportunities I had never envisioned, including Senior Vice President for Corporate Communications at MGM Studios and now my own consulting business. And what brought those opportunities for me and my AU alum colleagues on our panel, in part, was the skill set developed at American University. More than many other journalism/communications programs offered around the country, American is uniquely positioned to align their cutting edge programs with major Washington media, government, tech and business organizations offering unparalleled career potential.

Larry Kirkman, Dean of American University's School of Communication, has encouraged and cultivated a broad spectrum of professors, alums and students attracting new talent and exciting educational programs and opportunities. If I sound like a poster child for the school, it's because I am. As a scholarship recipient to graduate school, I was an intern at NBC News at the bureau up the street, that led to my first job and spending many years there. Yes, the AU experience did change my life and my career in news -- mine and many others.

But what most of us did not anticipate was being forced to reinvent that career to survive while print and broadcast has been overtaken by online technology. But content has never been more important, solid journalism skills and credibility have never been more important. If you know how to package that content, you are marketable in a variety of ways. Just because you catch a former president having a temper tantrum on your cell phone, that does not make you a journalist, it makes you someone with a cell phone catching his rant.

In her remarks at the annual Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism at the New York Public Library, Daily Beast Editor (and now Editor of the Newsweek-Daily Beast marriage) Tina Brown described what is happening in journalism as being "in the middle of a volcanic social change like the media version of the industrial revolution." While calling this particular time period, "unsettling", Brown also praised the need for great quality investigative journalism, saying it has never been more important, when presenting David Finkel, author of The Good Soldier with the book award. (The Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism was established by Joe Bernstein, Helen's former husband, to celebrate writers, honor Helen's writing career and comes with a $15,000 prize.) Now in her early 80's, still writing and getting published, Helen has also reinvented herself and is blogging.

While major newspapers like the Washington Post, New York Times and LA Times are struggling and closing bureaus, bright smart replacements like Politico, Pro Publica, and the Center for Public Integrity are filling the void. And certainly cable news has spawned many more jobs than the three networks ever dreamed. But no one has put together the marriage of content and technology better than Arianna Huffington here at the Huffington Post, giving writers, reporters and editors a platform while creating a successful business model. And it is the reinventing of these professional skills journalists have spent a lifetime building that will take them through this unsettling period. If the delivery of content is changing to a cell phone, iPad, Blackberry, Kindle, blog or online site, someone is going to have to create the content to fill it, and no one is better at that than journalists.

This all reminds me of a great scene in the 1950 Billy Wilder movie Sunset Boulevard, where the struggling writer Joe Gillis recognizes the aging screen star Norma Desmond." You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big" says Gillis to Desmond. "I am big," says Desmond. "It's the pictures that got small." Little did she know.