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The misfits become the bosses

“Our strength is that we see things in a different way, and the challenge is to not lose that perspective as we gain power. We may wear nicer suits now, but at heart, we’re still misfits.”

A long, long time ago, there were some young journalists. They remembered a time without cell phones, when beepers were a thing. But they also embraced the internet, seeing the potential and the possibility of it as a gathering place and unique way to spread stories and information.

I was one of those young journalists, though probably more of the “second wave.” And much like second-wave feminism (which is an entirely different debate), those in the second wave of misfit digital journalists were impatient. We knew journalism was behind. We could see the web passing us by. We wanted to try new things, weird things, crazy things. But the powers that be didn’t always see it the same way we did.

We found our corners. I was allowed to start a Twitter account at my second job because it was free. Others coded around their existing CMS. We often worked by the motto “Do what you need to, ask for forgiveness later.” We broke things. A lot of things. But we also created some pretty cool stuff.

This is where I get to my prediction: The misfits have started to take over. 2019 is the year the misfits become the bosses.

As with any industry shift, moving to digital was — and still is — painful, but most everyone eventually came around. We’ve been promoted. Some of us are now at the top of our organizations — or started new, inventive ones. The shift to this new generation of journalists is quite unlike many other generational shifts. We’ve lived through the bloated newsrooms of the ’90s and early 2000s, the massive layoffs and consolidation since 2008, and whichever version of the digital revolution that we’re going through now. Information overload is a thing. We’ve lived through and reported on silent wars and the rise of terrorist attacks. Any one of these would be a massive cultural shift. Together, they are a unique mix of chaos and transformation.

After the pivot-to-video apocalypse, we’re starting to see the growing pains. Some of us have failed; our ideas were solid, but maybe didn’t generate enough revenue. Companies like The Outline, Mic, and others are either struggling or simply don’t exist anymore. These are the kind of failures that hurt for employees and leaders who had hoped to build something great.

Misfits are looking around and realizing we are now The Man that we pushed against for so long. The kids who found camaraderie in places like the Online News Association, NICAR, and SRCCON are starting to run things. There are too many names to even try and list. And honestly, it scares us. Well, it scares me. No longer do we have people to rail against; it’s not us versus them anymore. With the ladder climb, there are hard lessons about what running things really means — both the perks and the difficult moments.

Our strength is that we see things in a different way, and the challenge is to not lose that perspective as we gain power. We may wear nicer suits now, but at heart, we’re still misfits. We’re the ones who care about audience first, who understand engagement is not just a tweet, who create pathways for people to follow them and grow. Often, we are journalists of color or women who have struggled on the pathway up and now have learned to utilize our new social capital wisely. The leaders who embody this and find ways to enable true innovation, the kind that breaks things open, will succeed.

We’ve waited our whole careers for this. 2019 is a time to remember where we came from and what we stood for. It’s a year to stretch our storytelling, our business acumen, and our leadership styles. So if you’re a misfit, keep growing, keep pushing. Push and ask what the line is between subscriptions and membership. Keep exploring new storytelling forms. Partner and find new ways to engage audiences. Embrace your new power and new social capital. Run the world. But never become The Man.

P. Kim Bui is director of audience innovation at The Arizona Republic.

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