Taking the Lead

ConradWilson.jpgAcross the media landscape, SJMC grads are finding jobs in what once were considered the unlikeliest of places.

The lesson? Good journalism is good journalism. Only the medium changes.

One ran a tiny public-radio newsroom and just parlayed it into a job with Minnesota Public Radio. One wrote for a journalism technology website and recently got hired by Facebook. Another turned his sports blog into a job with NBCsports.com. Others are shooting video for mainstream news sites.
The common thread is that they are all former SJMC students who learned that great stories never go out of style.
They are stories of success in an era of bankruptcies, layoffs and general handwringing in the so-called traditional media industry. Introduce yourself as a journalism professor, and the first question is inevitable: How do you explain to students that there are no jobs out there?

The answer is best told through people like Conrad Wilson, an SJMC student who graduated in 2007, when job prospects were as gloomy as ever. He found a way to do great journalism and have a ball -- in a job he didn't even know he was preparing for.

Wilson was a pure print guy. He spent his time at the University preparing to be a newspaper man, excelling in all of the reporting courses, getting internships and earning his way to the SJMC's Star Tribune Practicum, where he managed to get eight stories published in the country's 14th largest daily newspaper. He wrote for the Minnesota Daily's projects team doing what he loved -- long-form enterprise and investigative stories.

With internships at the Star Tribune's Washington, D.C., bureau and Business Week in New York, Wilson's résumé sparkled with print credentials that would get many journalism grads salivating. The problem, of course, was there weren't many print jobs out there. But like the best of today's young journalists, Wilson had learned to define his craft without the constraints of a particular medium, not as a print reporter or broadcaster or social-media expert, but as a journalist.

That realization came from a Minnesota farmer. Wilson was interviewing him by telephone for an agriculture-policy story during his Star Tribune internship in Washington, D.C. "He was in the field on his tractor . . . and you just couldn't say that he chuckled softly, or he cursed under his breath. And I just thought it was a waste of an interview . . . I thought there was no way to work this great voice into my story. And that was frustrating.

"The idea of radio kind of came into my mind. I wouldn't have to say he was riding in his combine. You could just picture him on the tractor." The story ran as a print piece, but Wilson didn't forget how the medium had defined the story, rather than the other way around.

So Wilson took a chance. Back in the Twin Cities, he pitched a story to Minnesota Public Radio about the U.S. State Department putting a hold on the visas of Somalian refugees. "It just created a nightmare for these families who were trying to be reunited," Wilson said. "It was a subject that was really great, but I wrote it for radio, and it really wasn't very good." And MPR didn't run it, either.

Undaunted, Wilson applied for a job with a small, public-radio station in Carbondale, Colo., just outside Aspen. He didn't have a real radio clip to offer, but they were desperate, and so was he.

Wilson, 27, spent his next three years as the news director at tiny KDNK radio in Carbondale, managing four employees and an intern, and, as it turns out, breaking the kinds of hard news stories that became his passion as a student at SJMC. Wilson's staff generated pieces on government policy, energy, the environment and crime. And they let the story define the medium they used, whether it was on the radio, in print on the website, through Twitter or partnering with a local television station.

"I consider myself a journalist, whatever that means," Wilson said. "What you've got to ask yourself is, 'What's the best way to tell the story?' And that's kind of the aha! moment."

Wilson's experience in Colorado got him back home, too. In November, he was hired to report for MPR from its bureau in Collegeville, Minn., covering central Minnesota and middle America.

He'll have an SJMC classmate nearby in Anna Weggel, who works for MPR parent company American Public Media. In one of her journalism classes, Weggel learned about APM's Public Insight Network, a database of more than 100,000 sources that MPR and other stations use to develop stories. She was intrigued enough to cold call an editor to learn more, even though there was no job. After continuing to hone her news chops at several internships, she interviewed and landed with APM in 2008.

Today, Weggel produces video for MPR news and the Public Insight Network website. She spends much of her time training other newsrooms that partner with the network.

"When the slide came up in the journalism class I had, it put the words to the problems I'd been struggling with: How do you find people . . . the sources for stories? For the [story] I'm working on now, I have 345 sources answering all of the questions I have. I get to cherry pick the best ones and go out and interview them . . . It's a dream come true, and I never thought it would become a career for me."

While Wilson's break came by way of desperation, Vadim Lavrusik began narrowing his sights early in his academic career. As a student and in his work at the Minnesota Daily, Lavrusik began to recognize that news organizations could leverage social media to not only attract readers, but also to gather news.

He led efforts at the Daily to create a group on Facebook and use Twitter to learn about and inform people of voting lines on election day. "I had an epiphany . . . The entire web is becoming social. Not only can anybody publish, but you can have a dialogue with the people who publish. This is an extension of when people would share news through word of mouth. Now they do it on the Internet."

Lavrusik was hooked on the possibilities of social media. After graduating in 2009, he went on to receive his Master of Science in digital media from Columbia University and won an internship on the social-media team at The New York Times. He also freelanced for Mashable, an online news site that covers digital culture, social media and technology. When his internship was up, Lavrusik found himself in a position few young journalists can relate to: weighing offers from the Times and Mashable.

As conventional wisdom has it, graduating journalism students are lucky just to land somewhere -- at the smallest newspapers or television stations, or stringing together freelance jobs until the economy turns in their favor. Newspaper jobs, for instance, continue to decline. The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism estimates that newspaper newsrooms shed 1,000 to 1,500 jobs last year and downsized 30 percent since 2000.

But the Web has created a plethora of successful niche sites, and jobs to go with them. "As news surges on the Web, giant ocean liners like AOL and Yahoo are being outmaneuvered by the speedboats zipping around them, relatively small sites that have passionate audiences and sharply focused information," David Carr, the SJMC grad who now writes "The Media Equation" for The New York Times, noted in a recent column. "Many of the news sites that are now having success on the Web -- Business Insider, Gawker and Mashable, to name a few -- are built on sensibility, which is generally a product of a small group of like minds."

Being one of the like-minded, Lavrusik declined the Times job and hooked up with Mashable. "I was employee number 16, and now they have 52." (One of those 52 is Associate Managing Editor and 2008 SJMC grad Emily Banks.) "I never dreamed I'd turn down a job at The New York Times," Lavrusik said. "But in this world [of the web], there are more opportunities out there."

Another opportunity arose in April, when Lavrusik was hired by Facebook to build relationships between the social-media giant and journalists and news organizations. "It's creating resources for journalists -- how do you use Facebook to find sources and to [enhance] your content? And internal stuff, taking feedback from journalists and developing better Facebook features."

Lavrusik's work may be less about producing news and more about managing, delivering and promoting it. But it serves journalism's ultimate goal of getting quality information to the public.

"Because anybody can publish, and that creates a lot of noise, you have to distinguish yourself," he said. "It's part of the journalist's obligation. It's important the real journalism gets out there and separates itself." But he adds quickly, "It's ultimately about the content. You still have to do journalism."

As a journalism student, Aaron Gleeman was one of those guys who wasn't sure he had the fire in the belly. He sat in the back row of his reporting class. He didn't like calling up strangers for interviews.

Most of his free time was spent blogging from his dorm room. It was 2003, a time when traditional journalists snickered about bloggers in pajamas writing all night. Gleeman was one of them, literally sitting on his bed writing for hours about baseball. Except he wasn't typical. He could really write, and he knew his subject well.

He spent hours each day mining newspaper sites and niche publications for nuggets of sports news. He knew most teams' starting rotations, the best minor league prospects, the teams with the best farm club systems. One of his first pieces, in August 2002, was a 1,043-word analysis of the Anaheim Angels' contract extension for Darin Erstad, with batting averages per season, on-base percentage, differences in hitting depending on whether he was playing first base or center field and his contribution to the Angels' No. 1 ranking in Baseball Prospectus' Defensive Efficiency. The piece included links to eight other web sites so readers could go deeper.

Mundane stuff for the average fan. But the hardcore fanatics and fantasy baseball addicts live on such minutiae. And Gleeman could pull it all together into coherent analyses. He wrote every day--opining on the American League MVP and Cy Young Award races, why the Twins would end the A's 20-game win streak and a personal piece about how talk of a baseball strike was breaking his heart.

His early core readers numbered two: his mom and his uncle Jon, also a big baseball fan. A few others would check in occasionally. But one day he emailed a blogger named David Pinto, a former researcher for ESPN whose blog is called baseballmusings.com. "I e-mailed him and said, 'Here's my site. Whaddya think of it?' And he linked to my site. He must have been the first one. I don't even know if he read it. But he linked to it."

Gleeman's hits jumped from about five readers a day to about 60. Soon it was 80, then 100. He installed a site meter to count readers. "I'd wake up and look at it and see 300 people and think, 'That can't be.' But then you'd see that some newspaper linked to you or something." One day he received an email from an assistant to the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. Gleeman had just written an article previewing the Jays. "To me, it was a big deal. It was a thrill." More importantly, it was a sign that aarongleeman.com had cache in the world of sports journalism. Gleeman's content stood out. A career was about to fall in his lap.

One of Gleeman's readers was a writer for the fantasy sports publication rotoworld.com. He offered Gleeman some freelance work, and it soon turned into a full-time job, with benefits. "Way more money than I thought I'd be getting -- ever," he recalls. When Rotoworld was bought by NBC, Gleeman got a bump in salary and an invitation to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. NBCsports.com wanted him to produce a video blog from New York.

Gleeman didn't want to move from the Twin Cities, so they sent him home with armloads of video equipment. From his mom's basement, he started producing video pieces, covering Major League Baseball's winter meetings, discussing trades and trends and baseball gossip.

Today, Gleeman still writes for NBCsports.com. He manages the baseball magazine for Rotoworld and is a frequent guest on radio sports shows. His little secret is that he still needs some classes to get his degree. But arrongleeman.com, the original Twins blog that he started in his dorm room, is still going. It gets more than 5,000 readers a day and is published by Minnpost.com in the Twin Cities.

"I'm making double what I ever thought I would make when I was 17 and signing up to go to the U," he said. "Things have changed, but the thing that gets someone to read you is the same -- knowing what you're talking about."

You hear the same story from SJMC grads around the country, whether they're working for a mainstream newspaper, a website, radio or magazines. It's about content and platform.

Because she understands both, Emma Carew Grovum, who graduated in 2009, has little fear about her future. Last year, after several internships and a job at the Chronicle of Philanthropy in Washington, D.C., she landed at the Star Tribune as a reporter in the newspaper's two-year apprenticeship program. The social-media skills she brought to the job were vital. Last December, the paper created a new, social-media position for startribune.com. Though she was still considered an "apprentice," editors recognized Carew Grovum's ability to lead the newsroom's social media effort, and moved her into the position. She took over the main Star Tribune Twitter account, training the newsroom and eventually taking over the paper's Facebook page.

"We're inviting our readers to discuss the news on our Facebook page, whereas before, our strategy was just kind of pushing them back to startribune.com," she said. "In six months we've raised our reader interaction on Facebook by 900 percent. And we interact with readers when they ask us questions . . . and we encourage our reporters to do the same."
Carew Grovum's apprenticeship ends in about nine months, but she believes the experience will keep her employed at the Star Tribune or somewhere else. "I feel I'm marketable as a reporter, but I'm much better versed in the production side now. I've run social media for a top media organization. I think that every news organization right now is struggling with this on some level . . . They need people who are early adopters."

People like Carew Grovum's Star Tribune colleague, McKenna Ewen, a 2009 grad who was hired at the paper for a job that didn't really exist. Five months out of school, Ewen pitched a multimedia job to Editor Nancy Barnes, boldly suggesting he was the only person for the job. His letter of application was a website that included a portfolio showing off his web design, photo, print and video skills. He already had newsroom contacts from his SJMC Star Tribune practicum, which had turned into an internship. His pitch to Barnes worked, and he got a temporary job that soon became permanent, shooting photos and producing video.

"I thought, the easiest way to present my multimedia skills is to send them a URL," Ewen recalled. "There's also a little bit of a wow factor . . . I think Nancy has an appreciation for people who will try new things."

Ewen had been combining his news reporting, multimedia and design skills for years. For his final project in the SJMC's advanced broadcast class, he produced a series of video stories documenting the effects of the recession on Minnesotans. He used his web-design class to create a website for the series, called timesofrecession.com. He freelanced and self-published much of his other work on the web while he was a student.

"I didn't really think of myself as a student, and I think that was helpful. I thought of myself as a freelance journalist who was taking journalism classes."

In September, the Star Tribune won a regional Emmy for a story that Ewen helped produce. It was his fourth regional Emmy in two years.

Ewen notes that his success isn't just about technical skills. "Sometimes I'll have a deadline of two hours, and it takes a lot of very critical reporting skills to filter out what you can use and what you can't," he said.
In other words, it's still about the story.

Chris Ison became an SJMC faculty member in 2007 after years of being a teaching specialist and visiting associate professor. He teaches Intermediate News Reporting, the Star Tribune Practicum and Mass Media Ethics: Moral Reasoning and Case Studies. Before coming to SJMC, Ison was a journalist for more than 20 years, mostly with the Star Tribune, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, as well as awards from the National Press Club, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Associated Press, among others.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by showard published on January 24, 2012 10:36 AM.

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