The year we look beyond The Story

“There’s something about the mission-driven nature of what we do that makes it easy — maybe too easy — to separate what we do into ‘the journalism’ vs. ‘everything else,’ with the latter often wrongly seen as a cost to the former.”

To this day, one of the most meaningful professional compliments I’ve ever received was when a renowned investigative reporter colleague of mine told me, back when I was a young reporter, that I could “really bring it.”

Thanks mostly to luck and privilege, I started my career almost 15 years ago working on investigative teams. In my own self-centered mythology, I was a Serious Journalist who wrote Serious Things. I was about The Story. The Story was all that mattered.

Like a lot of us, it’s taken a long time for me to accept that other things in our business matter just as much. But if anything good has come out of this mess of a year, it might be that all the upheaval is helping more of our industry come to that realization a whole lot faster than I did.

Long-overdue discussions about race and equity are showing newsroom leaders that developing fair and inclusive systems for recruiting, hiring, rewarding, and retaining their people can no longer take a backseat to the needs of the news report.

The growing demands of journalists for things like clear career paths, regular feedback, and consensus-driven leadership are creating more space for conversations about how newsrooms operate as professional workplaces.

The sudden Covid-driven shift to remote work has forced us to reconsider decades-old patterns of how we communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. Some of those things, in turn, are making us better, more efficient organizations.

The New York Times passed the key milestone of collecting the majority of its revenue from digital sources — in large part because their investments in product and technology reflect an understanding that the products we use to deliver the news are as important as the news itself.

And finally, the strain this year has placed on our physical and mental health has helped remind us that how we treat our colleagues matters most of all. It has helped to destigmatize open discussion of stress and mental health and has pierced the myth that showing up to work tired, sick, or overwhelmed is something to be celebrated.

For a long time, I think we’ve hidden behind the fiction that our jobs as journalists are simple: Show up, work hard, tell some good stories — some of which even make a difference — then rinse and repeat. Not a whole lot to it.

That, plus the relentless demands of the daily news cycle, has always made it easy to retreat to the familiar comfort of The Story rather than fully engage in the hard, unglamorous work of building resilient cultures, quality products, or well-managed teams.

I can see why. The fact that my former colleague’s compliment still means so much to me is a constant reminder that my ego will always be partly wrapped up in my identity as a reporter. There’s something about the mission-driven nature of what we do that makes it easy — maybe too easy — to separate what we do into “the journalism” vs. “everything else,” with the latter often wrongly seen as a cost to the former.

The other thing about journalists and mission, though, is that many of us got into this profession out of a desire to improve the world around us. Once we see a problem, it’s hard for us to unsee it.

2020 forced more of us to truly see some of these issues for the first time. That means that in 2021, there will be more of us than ever who will be motivated to do something about them.

Chase Davis is a senior digital editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

To this day, one of the most meaningful professional compliments I’ve ever received was when a renowned investigative reporter colleague of mine told me, back when I was a young reporter, that I could “really bring it.”

Thanks mostly to luck and privilege, I started my career almost 15 years ago working on investigative teams. In my own self-centered mythology, I was a Serious Journalist who wrote Serious Things. I was about The Story. The Story was all that mattered.

Like a lot of us, it’s taken a long time for me to accept that other things in our business matter just as much. But if anything good has come out of this mess of a year, it might be that all the upheaval is helping more of our industry come to that realization a whole lot faster than I did.

Long-overdue discussions about race and equity are showing newsroom leaders that developing fair and inclusive systems for recruiting, hiring, rewarding, and retaining their people can no longer take a backseat to the needs of the news report.

The growing demands of journalists for things like clear career paths, regular feedback, and consensus-driven leadership are creating more space for conversations about how newsrooms operate as professional workplaces.

The sudden Covid-driven shift to remote work has forced us to reconsider decades-old patterns of how we communicate, collaborate, and coordinate. Some of those things, in turn, are making us better, more efficient organizations.

The New York Times passed the key milestone of collecting the majority of its revenue from digital sources — in large part because their investments in product and technology reflect an understanding that the products we use to deliver the news are as important as the news itself.

And finally, the strain this year has placed on our physical and mental health has helped remind us that how we treat our colleagues matters most of all. It has helped to destigmatize open discussion of stress and mental health and has pierced the myth that showing up to work tired, sick, or overwhelmed is something to be celebrated.

For a long time, I think we’ve hidden behind the fiction that our jobs as journalists are simple: Show up, work hard, tell some good stories — some of which even make a difference — then rinse and repeat. Not a whole lot to it.

That, plus the relentless demands of the daily news cycle, has always made it easy to retreat to the familiar comfort of The Story rather than fully engage in the hard, unglamorous work of building resilient cultures, quality products, or well-managed teams.

I can see why. The fact that my former colleague’s compliment still means so much to me is a constant reminder that my ego will always be partly wrapped up in my identity as a reporter. There’s something about the mission-driven nature of what we do that makes it easy — maybe too easy — to separate what we do into “the journalism” vs. “everything else,” with the latter often wrongly seen as a cost to the former.

The other thing about journalists and mission, though, is that many of us got into this profession out of a desire to improve the world around us. Once we see a problem, it’s hard for us to unsee it.

2020 forced more of us to truly see some of these issues for the first time. That means that in 2021, there will be more of us than ever who will be motivated to do something about them.

Chase Davis is a senior digital editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

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