Career Advancement, Career Spotlight, Leadership Interviews

Launching a journalism career in the nonprofit newsroom: Tips from an editor at ProPublica

Photo credit: Brian A Jackson, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Brian A Jackson, Shutterstock

If you search on Idealist.org, you’ll find nearly 1,000 organizations and opportunities that focus on journalism. Lately, in light of Brooklyn-based Inside Climate News’ Pulitzer Prize win this year, the kind of organization that’s been getting a lot of buzz is the nonprofit newsroom.

While nonprofit newsrooms aren’t new, they are expanding, with Pew Charitable Trust reporting that all but nine states have nonprofit journalism outlets. To get a sense of what it’s like to work in a nonprofit newsroom, we spoke with Blair Hickman, the community editor at ProPublica.

ProPublica, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. As community editor at ProPublica, Blair—who started at the organization over a year ago as a social media producer—is part of the team that manages ProPublica’s social media presence, helps journalists leverage social media in their reporting, and figures out ways to use community and online tools to involve readers in ProPublica’s investigations.

Blair talked to us about her work, career path, and why budding journalists should, “have a Twitter account and use it.”

Looking at your bio, it looks like you’ve been involved in journalism with an eye towards community and social change for a while. What got you interested in this work?

photo_9475 It really started in graduate school. The way my program was structured, we partnered with media organizations during our last semester to build something for them. My professor connected me with David Bornstein, who was working to promote solutions journalism and ran a news site focused on social change called Dowser. I helped them write a manifesto and chart editorial plans for Dowser. It was a startup at the time so it was me, him, an offsite editor and a couple interns.

What I liked most about this experience was that it was something different everyday. What David is trying shift the culture of journalism. We did a lot of study of media and how it traditionally operated: what they cover, why, does it help people change things, is there a new way of doing things. It was a lot of big ideas.

Part of your role at ProPublica is using technology to involve readers in ProPublica’s reporting. What does that look like?

A lot of newsrooms use social media as a way to drive traffic; they look at clicks and eyeballs. But we also want to use social tools to make our stories better. In May of 2012, we launched a Facebook group to go along with an investigation we were doing on patient harm. We hadn’t published any stories yet, but we decided to announce what we were doing, and create this place where patients, families, and doctors can share their stories and help us as we progress on this investigation. It had unique value and helped us build a database of people to strengthen our reporting.

Lately your work has focused on unpaid internships, in light of the Black Swan ruling which required Fox Searchlight to compensate their unpaid interns because of the work they performed. While we’re still watching how organizations respond, internships remain a key part of any budding journalist’s experience. What do you recommend they do to ensure they get the most out of an internship?

I’ve had three internships in journalism, so based on my experience, you have to understand who you are going to be working for and make sure they are going to have the time to pay attention to you and give you a good educational experience. Right now, we have people sharing their internship experiences through a form on our site and it’s clear many places do not have the editorial bandwith to support interns, so these interns are not getting the support they need to grow.

I would also look at where previous interns are and see what they’re doing now. Are they freelancing? Working? You’re trying to see if this place is a good fit for you.

You also recently completed a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay for an intern to help you with your coverage of internships. How do you think technology is changing how we find opportunities?

It’s making it much easier to get your voice heard and develop your brand. We’re hiring the Kickstarter intern now and I want to hear their voice. Even if you live in a small town and can’t intern at Harpers or the New York Times, social media is a vehicle to get yourself known, find people to interview, and produce good stories.

In general, what kind of opportunities do you see developing in your field and how can job seekers pursue them?

There’s definitely an emphasis on data work and having a computer programming skillset so you can sort through data and find stories. Also lots of opportunities in multimedia. But in general, you have to make yourself distinguishable. A lot of these apps [for the intern] sounded exactly the same. The ones who had some edge really stood out.

What’s one thing someone should know if they want a career in a newsroom?

Read the news! It sounds simple but it doesn’t always happen. And have a Twitter account and use it.

What is it about Twitter?!

It’s really popular in the journalism world. When we get an application, I am going to look at your Twitter. Twitter was a huge help in me getting my job at ProPublica, actually.

What resources have been helpful to you in your career?

Honestly, graduate school. I majored in nonfiction writing in undergrad. I became a headhunter for banking and finance and could tell within the first few weeks that it was a bad fit for me. Because of the recession, I ended up getting laid off five months into it and started freelancing and doing internships, while applying to grad school. You get really great connections and have time to focus on learning this stuff. For me, it was the best way to make a career shift.

Do you have an internship story to tell? ProPublica is collecting stories from current and former interns, those who couldn’t afford unpaid internships, as well as employers and internship coordinators.

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