career talk / hope for the future / ICM Classics / industry news

ICM classics: Last words of a journalist: not my job

photo by Flickr user <a rel="cc:attributionURL" href=

photo by Flickr user dlewis5 / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Editor’s note: This is a re-post of something I wrote in 2007. I was following some referral logs yesterday, and came across a post by Len Witt about students who want to be great writers. We’ve had a lot of readers come and go in the past three years, so I wanted to repost this for our new readers. As far as I can tell, this is still reality. And be sure to follow the conversation in Len Witt’s subsequent post. The comments are actually civil and thought-provoking.

Meranda Watling posted a comment on an earlier post that I wanted to highlight:

I’ve heard peers say they didn’t get into journalism to blog, to take pictures, to come up with multimedia, to do whatever. They want to write. The other stuff “isn’t that someone else’s job?” or today, another reporter (23-yo recent grad) commented, “why don’t they just hire TV reporter to do the video?” *sigh* Me? I want to hand them a white towel and tell them to surrender now and get out before they get left behind.

I have a confession to make: I was one of those kids. When I was in college – John Tisdale, journalism professor at TCU can attest – I didn’t learn photography because “I want to be a writer.” I focused on editing, writing and gathering information. I neglected the business aspects of the news media. I diligently sent photo requests to the photo department in my first job.

But after I got out of college, I spent time working at a small-town newspaper, where I had to learn how to lay out pages using QuarkXpress. I learned how to take and develop photographs in a darkroom (back when we had to use film). I delivered the papers and collected the change from the racks, and drove the pages to the printer in another town 40 minutes away.

I didn’t do this because I was some kind of “new media guy,” but because it kept me employed. It paid the bills, and made the paper successful. I learned a valuable lesson then – the most versatile journalist has the most job security. It’s served me well over the ensuing years. When the FW Star-Telegram special sections manager wanted volunteers to learn HTML, I was the only one who signed up. When photography was transitioning from film to digital, I was learning all I could. When they needed someone to run the offset press during grad school, I raised my hand.

A wise professor in my Ph.D. program once remarked that the last words he would hear from an employee was “that’s not my job.” I think that’s the right mindset for journalists in the 21st century. It is your job, damnit. Stop acting like a prima donna. If you’re going to be part of the solution to the challenges facing journalism, then you’re going to have to learn to do some “extra” things. Is that going to suck at times? Sure. But you can either buck up and help save journalism or you can whine and join the ranks of the unemployed.

Print (or broadcast, for that matter) isn’t always the best way to tell a story. And that’s what it all boils down to: telling stories.

Updated content: Based on the subsequent discussion, I should qualify that being willing to expand your “toolkit” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t focus on one aspect of your skills. Be the best writer/photographer/designer you can be. But don’t be defined by your unwillingness to try and learn new skills.