Hey, journalist, time to start acting like the movie star everyone else thinks you are

By on February 5, 2013

You may not think so from your vantage point, but your life has “action” and “excitement” written all over it. Really.

Journalism has always been a favorite theme of cinema and literature. Make a lead a journalist and you can launch a rom-com, a murder investigation, a political cover-up, a third-world trade expose, a homeless prodigy drama, more murder — you get the idea.

Journalists make characters acceptably curious and therefore perfect for pushing the plot forward. The career is up there with police and emergency room personnel as a romanticized method of getting characters out of a stuffy cubicle and into the grittiness of life.

While an undergraduate in journalism school, I distinctly remember being able to tell which of my peers was in the broadcast track. They were always in dress shoes and suits, forever camera-ready. The rest of us looked like we just rolled out of bed. Much to my mother’s horror, I always took a certain pride in the old-school dress code. It made me approachable. I could interview anyone anywhere. I was a part of my community, and that came through in the stories I related about it.

I took that aesthetic with me after graduation, even as I began to notice that the communal aspect of journalism was changing. When you spend 40, 50, 60 or more hours a week with a group of people, you truly see their love of their profession, and their determined sense of humanity to cover the stories they know matter. It is easy to become insulated, and forget that outside of those walls we sell a different message to the public: one of individualism.

We live in world where papers named Rocky Mountain News and Ann Arbor News close while eponymous sites like The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post thrive online. Food magazine staple Gourmet was shuttered under competition from the specific branding of “Everyday with Rachel Ray” and other magazines with Food Network tie-ins. We put glossy photos of TV anchors on huge billboards in the same spaces used to promote movies.

This doesn’t feel all that good to me, but it’s hard to argue with the results. We gravitate in earnest to the media personalities who become almost like friends to us. The distanced, impartial approach can seem stale. The scuffed shoes and tweed jacket can seem a bit too familiar, too ordinary, and too much like someone who doesn’t have the answers.

Our challenge is striking the balance between trust and authority. It comes down to the fact that in this climate, you absolutely must brand yourself. The good news is you don’t have to tack your Photoshopped face on a billboard. That kind of power is short-lived if there is no expertise to back it up.

Instead, find a beat about which you are passionate. Become an expert in something. Have a blog. Start a website. Make a logo. Sit in the front row of every single council meeting and ask the hard questions. Let go of the tweed jacket. Whatever you need to do to scout out your niche, go do it. The public needs you to stand out somehow. It’s impossible to find the ally in the media glut otherwise.

This is the second in a series of blog posts from the first ONA class of AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholars describing their experiences, projects and sharing their knowledge with the ONA community.

Rebecca Rolfe is a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, working on an online interactive data visualization that depicts an evolution of Oscar acceptance speeches over the years.


Irving Washington

Irving Washington is the Executive Director/CEO for the Online News Association (ONA), the world’s largest membership organization of digital journalists. As a media diversity advocate, Irving has led programming and fundraising initiatives for journalists, media professionals, and students worldwide.