Stop the Presses

On being an ex-journalist in a higher-ed web marketing world.

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk at Flickr

I came to work in higher-ed after three years in an online newsroom. I was on the job when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, when the statue of Saddam Hussein toppled in Baghdad, when the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl (hey, it was The Boston Globe), and when a nightclub fire in Rhode Island killed 100 people.

So when I first arrived at Tufts, with my hilltop office in a quaint brick building on the bucolic quad, to say I needed to adjust would be an understatement. I was used to the back-breaking, nerve-wracking pace of online news, constantly monitoring the wires, deciding coverage and updating content while radio, TV, and dozens of voices swirling in the background. The only reason I left mainstream media, in truth, was because I was tired of seeing good journalism diluted by profit motive. (Idealistic much? No wonder I fled to higher-ed.)

While it took me a while to get used to the quiet and the slower pace, over time I realized that my immersion in an online newsroom had uniquely prepared me for the challenges of higher-ed web communications. While the context, and what’s at stake, varies greatly between journalism and higher education, many of the same communication principles apply.

First, however, let me acknowledge some of the more difficult changes to overcome.

One of the biggest is the realization that it’s not about you anymore. Your byline doesn’t matter. You’re in it for a higher purpose—to support the goals of the institution. If you’re toting around an ego, it won’t do you much good in the hyper-collaborative environment of higher-ed.

Speaking of the institution, it can be tough adjusting to your content going through a multi-layered review and approval process. Yes, the faculty member you interviewed needs to review your story before it’s published. Plus, she will likely make edits to it, edits which may be largely nonsensical and/or extensive and inarguable. There may be a way around that, but it takes persistence and patience to figure it out.

Also, it’s slow. At most universities, the pace of content production is glacial compared to a web newsroom. Making, what you feel, is a minor decision may take from midterms until finals. You either win the slow race or run away trying.

Now, the advantages:

Nothing is more stressful than a newsroom. Which means that it’s pretty hard to freak out when the dean calls about that thing that we all know gets the dean’s britches in a bother. You can calmly listen, smooth things over and handle it. As Sayre’s Law states, “University politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” We’re not at war, and no one is dying. In higher-ed, we rarely deal with fast-breaking news—in fact, the biggest news items (gifts, discoveries, new leadership) usually take the longest to unfold behind the scenes. So, when crises do arise? For me, the kick of adrenaline is a welcomed flashback.

Journalists are scrappy. Newspapers are not rich. Far from it. Especially in recent years, budget cuts have hit the industry hard. But as technology and audience expectations have evolved, photographers and reporters alike have had to pick up new skills, like video editing, social media, and HTML to catch up and stay relevant. Like it or not, they’ve become generalists, which is what higher-ed communications staffers are often forced to become. We can’t afford a video guy, so guess what? You’re now the video guy. No problem for your average web journalist. That’s just a way of life.

glass of kool-aid by t-dot-s-dot

Photo credit: t-dot-s-dot at Flickr

Idealistic, but not naive. If you’re an ex-journalist working in higher-ed, God bless you. It likely means that you have high journalistic standards but are somehow disturbed by the way your craft is practiced in mainstream, for-profit media. If your higher-ed institution is doing good work and has a solid mission, it will likely be pretty easy for you to drink the Kool-Aid. I sure as heck did. But that doesn’t mean we’re yokels. Journalists bring a healthy skepticism and a penchant for asking good questions to any task. In the end, they help make better products.

We can smell a story a mile away. Higher-ed is cyclical—matriculation, midterms, winter break, spring break, commencement, summer, wash, rinse, repeat, not to mention all the school-specific annual events that fall in between. How can we tell the same story for the 87th time? Newspapers face the same challenge and somehow make it happen. Journalists can sniff out a fresh angle like fresh meat. Others may scoff, but I look forward to the challenge of finding a new twist on the annual President’s Marathon Challenge. Bring it on.

I won’t lie, I still miss the thrill of working in a newsroom. But like I said, I drank the Kool-Aid, and I honestly think higher-ed web communications provides a different kind of exhilaration: the ongoing challenge to communicate in a relevant and compelling fashion, through an ever-evolving medium, to a variety of audiences, each with varying needs and levels of investment. Lucky for us, universities are pretty damned interesting places to work, brimming with more stories than you can know what to do with. They may not be Super Bowl victories or the toppling of a dictatorial regime, but you know what? They don’t have to be. They just have to matter. And to our audiences, they matter a lot.