My 5 Biggest Takeaways from Journalism Graduate School
8 min read

My 5 Biggest Takeaways from Journalism Graduate School

"Try not to go during a global pandemic" was a close No. 6.
My 5 Biggest Takeaways from Journalism Graduate School

A song to read by: “It Takes a Muscle [To Fall in Love]” by Spectral Display

What I’m reading: “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi

Good morning, all you Lytes and Lyters, and welcome to another edition of the only newsletter that astronauts can see from outer space. The last few days have been an eventful few for yours truly, so let’s take care of some housekeeping before we dive into the task at hand.

First, as you might know, I graduated from Northwestern University on Friday, with a master’s in journalism, focusing on media innovation and entrepreneurship. Despite my overwhelming desire to be cool and cynical and detached about the whole endeavor, I must admit that Northwestern did a really great job with the remote graduation ceremony. Given that I had already experienced the pomp and circumstance in undergrad, I found myself enjoying the novelty of watching this graduation ceremony from my living room.

Second, I am happy to announce that next week I will be starting a six-month fellowship position with Business Insider, where I will be covering entrepreneurship, startups and small business. The position is remote because of Covid, and my lease here in Chicago ends on July 31, so I’ve decided to move back with my family in Seattle, at least for the foreseeable future. I’m beyond excited to begin writing full-time about a subject I’m so personally interested in, and I can’t wait to meet my new colleagues and see how the journalistic sausage gets made.

And finally, because of the two aforementioned life developments, I am asking for your patience as I figure out just how exactly Medialyte will fit into my new schedule. Rest assured: Your favorite newsletter (still talking about Medialyte) will continue, just with a few tweaks.

While the exact nature of those adjustments is yet to be determined, I will be making one change immediately, which is to reduce the frequency of the Q&A editions. Instead of doing one every week, I plan on doing one every other week and swapping in an essay piece in its place. This, too, is subject to change, but that’s the rough blueprint.

Sound okay? I’m very excited about what the next few months hold, but I have no plans of discontinuing this newsletter. So, as I return to the professional world and all its attendant scheduling and logistical challenges, all you have to do is enjoy your front-row seat as I invariably screw something up somewhere and make everything much harder than it has to be. C’est la vie!

While many of you likely know me as a handsome, charismatic young man whose cooking prowess is rivaled only by his encyclopedic knowledge of various cultural affairs, I am more than just some himbo. Indeed, I have spent the last year at one of the most pedigreed journalistic institutions in the country, and despite the best efforts of my chronic insomnia and inability to stay off of Twitter, I have managed to learn a thing or two in these last 12 months.

So, to spare you the tens of thousands of dollars in tuition I will be paying off until the reanimated corpse of Bernie Sanders abolishes student debt in 2050, I thought I might do a good turn daily and pass on some pearls of wisdom to my deserving and decidedly non-swinish readers.

Here, in pithy list fashion, are the top five things I learned in journalism graduate school.

1. Journalism is a tech product

The importance of quality journalism has in no way diminished in recent years, but it is now, as my philosopher brethren might say, “necessary but not sufficient.” In the internet era, every website is in open competition with every other website for a finite number of eyeballs. Geography, the once-great insulator of news media, has become a relic of the past, as mom-and-pop publishers must jockey with The New York Times for readership.

As a result, the technical chops of publishers are now as important as the stories they break. Site speed, stickiness, habit, bounce rate, user funnels, retention strategies: These metrics now determine a site’s likelihood to succeed just as much as Pulitzers, prestige or journalistic rigor.

Unfortunately, this new reality greatly favors well-financed, technologically robust sites, and that advantage only compounds with every passing day. Underfunded outlets and backward UIs turn even the most ardent supporters of local journalism away, and with them goes their critical revenue and data.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and there is little evidence to suggest that this trend will abate any time soon.

2. Subscriptions are gender-neutral aristocrat

If one trend dominated the media industry during my time at Medill, it was the pivot to digital subscriptions. When I first enrolled at Northwestern, I was brimming with vim and vinegar at the stranglehold Facebook and Google had come to have over the digital advertising ecosystem. I was convinced that the duopoly was the source of every ill in the industry.

I still know that to be true more than ever, but I and the rest of the industry have moved past fist-shaking and into problem-solving. If advertising is either wholly gone or inevitably on the way out, what could replace it? Digital subscriptions appear to be the answer, but it’s an answer that introduces its own set of unknowable variables.

Will readers pay for a product when free alternatives are ubiquitous? Will subscription fatigue cap the number of publishers the market can support? Will the entire concept just be a redux of the infamous pivot to video?

The data thus far is encouraging. One week ago, Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism released their findings from a massive study that surveyed more than 80,000 people in 40 countries.

According to the report, the percentage of people in the U.S. who pay for news is 20 percent (up from 16 percent last year); 88% of people in the U.S. who pay for news think they’re still likely to be paying a year from now; and 4% of Americans now say they donate money to a news organization.

Covid, too, for all the ruin it’s wrought, has at least reminded Americans of the value of local news. In the early months of the pandemic, viewership and subscriptions spiked, and now publishers are working like the dickens to ensure they retain those new subscribers.

Tim Franklin, the senior associate dean at the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, put it plainly:

“There has been a massive reawakening about the critical role of trustworthy, timely local news and information. Is this the beginning of a transformational movement toward a sustainable, reader revenue-focused business model for local news? Or is it a blip? We’ll know the answer in the next few weeks and months.”

3. Keep an eye on email

Okay, yes, I might not be completely impartial on this one, but don’t take my word for it. Here is just a smattering of the press newsletters have received in the past few months, from Nieman Lab alone:

To keep readers around after COVID, publishers see hope in newsletters and podcasts,” by Nic Newman; “How Axios drives engagement with its email newsletters through user-level data,” by Aleks Smechov; “Take these email templates and go build a beautiful (monetized, useful, tested, efficient) newsletter,” by Christine Schmidt; “The Dispatch surpassed $1 million in revenue by being newsletters-and-podcasts first and taking it slow,” by Hanaa’ Tameez.

Publishers have been burnt again and again by social platforms. “Facebook giveth traffic and Facebook taketh away traffic” has become a macabre credo of the industry. Google and its holy of holies algorithm, subject to change at the drop of a hat, has built, sustained and then destroyed media companies with Ramsay Bolton-esque whimsy. Now, after one too many bait and switches, publishers have begun to opt for a new (or old, rather) strategy: return to email.

Email builds habit, the analytics are straightforward and it is not subject to the caprices of an algorithm. “Newsletter strategy,” in fact, has become the trendy new subject of debate.

Companies like Substack and Patreon give users a simple platform to reach their readers, one agnostic to the concerns of SEO or headline optimization. And as a result, entire ecosystems are blooming on their backs. Someone really smart recently just profiled one, called Discourse Blog. Someone even smarter writes one. One genius even compiled a list of them.

Take it from me: newsletters are the new newsletters.

4. The old guard is dying

This is, in most regards, a tragedy. Journalism is collapsing in on itself like a tired star. More than 25% of the industry has evaporated in the last decade. This is people losing jobs, people abandoning their passions and communities going dark. It is a crisis, beyond the shadow of a doubt.

And, as the industry doubles over, it has faced the concurrent challenge of having to deal with the racial, gender and class imbalances that have long distorted its coverage. A slew of prominent layoffs and resignations have marked the last several months, as companies face a reckoning they have dodged for too long. It is painful to witness in many ways, like watching an immunocompromised patient succumb to a curable illness, but they are the requisite growing pains that prefigure a rebirth.

Caught in these paroxysms are ideas, as well as people. “Objectivity,” long a dubious concept, has been seriously called into question. The relationship between publishers and their readers has been transformed by tectonic shifts in the business models of news media. Even basic tenets of journalism — who you use as a source, the language you use to describe a protest, the photos that accompany stories — have come under newfound scrutiny.

First the medium changed, and now the message is shifting. A new journalism, one adapted to the needs of the 21st century, could never arise without the death of its predecessor. It is painful, and all interested parties would do well to treat the subject with empathy and sensitivity, but it is long overdue.

5. Innovation is everywhere

Of course, we have to end on a positive note, and there is much to be positive about. The good news is: journalism is catching up. Many of the gains made by the industry may belong to its power players — The NYT, WaPo and The WSJ — but they are gains nonetheless. If they can survive, then survival is at least possible.

Plus, this newfound success is not the sole provenance of storied legacy institutions with deep pockets. Look at the scrappy Discourse Blog; the brilliant future of student media; non-profit, tech-savvy, women-centric political media; black publishers taking agency over their own narratives; bridge-building journalism; Swiss Army-knife journalism; and local, entrepreneurial newsrooms.

This might sound incredible, but after studying the grim state of news media for the last year, I am more optimistic about its future than ever.

Journalism has embraced its new identity as a technology product and is beginning to flourish. The loss of advertising has only facilitated a healthier relationship between publishers and readers.

Email and other back-to-the-land strategies have cut out the tech middlemen who dangled illusions of scale before publishers before yanking them away. Outdated ideas that hamstrung innovation have been cut loose. And journalists, ever the wily, inventive people that they are, have found entirely new ways to succeed.

Some good readin’

— New very, very short fiction from Franz Kafka. Yes you read that right. Story No. 3 is my favorite.

“Girlboss” feminism is now finally dead. That’s a good thing.

— I’ll say it again for the people in the back: “Objectivity” in journalism reinforces the status quo of white patriarchy. Finally, it’s being critically examined.

— AP Style now officially capitalizes Black and Indigenous.

— Okay I’ve been saying this but go off, The Verge? Spotify is taking steps to solve one of the biggest problems in monetizing podcasts.

— Much of the discourse that occurs on Twitter is vapid almost to a dangerous degree. The discourse surrounding “himbos” is no different, but it’s a lot of fun.