Portraits by Andrew Colin Beck

Survival Guide

Advice for navigating digital media’s upheaval

October 16, 2023

Digital media has had a rough year—its worst to date, when measured in job cuts. But at this difficult time for the journalism business, it may be helpful to remember that nothing is inevitable. Choices were made that led us where we are, and we can decide what step we take at a crossroads. We spoke to fifteen people with expertise in different facets of media, collecting navigational guidance. Brian Hioe—a cofounder of New Bloom, an online magazine based in Taiwan—believes that success is “about being adaptable” in terms of where and how we present our work. Taylor Lorenz, a technology journalist for the Washington Post, advised, “You really need to be listening to people and engaging with people.” Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and codirector of the Media, Inequality & Change Center, argued for a “paradigm shift” in the way Americans fund journalism, such that “we’re seeing it as an essential public service”—regardless of whether the market can support the press. Whatever comes next, as Lauren Williams, a cofounder of Capital B, put it, “This moment calls for bold ideas.” Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Tap into your basest instincts.
Kelsey Weekman
Journalist focused on internet culture with a Substack called Okay Zoomer

There’s a lot to rethink about how companies promote themselves on social media. I think the days of hiring someone fresh out of college to do a whole bunch of posts every day are gone. The burnout rate is so high because there’s so much rote scheduling going on. Scheduling—and the actual act of posting—could be and should be automated so that people can spend more time thinking about what exactly they’re saying because, you know, a story can go viral for all sorts of reasons on social media that have nothing to do with what the outlet intended. I hesitate to say that some things can be automated, because I don’t want to get rid of jobs, but I also know that—speaking as someone who started their career as a social media manager—I kind of felt like my brain was melting out of my ears every day when I had to schedule a hundred Twitter posts, or seventy-five Facebook posts.

I feel like media outlets have to do a service by sometimes posting things that don’t perform super well. That can be tough on how you evaluate strategy going forward because everything is so goals- and traffic-based. But you have to take into account trying to create well-rounded news consumers. I think of Pop Crave, and also rap blogs like World Star Hip Hop. I follow World Star on Instagram. These blogs are just doing a really good job of getting information out, packaging it in a way that people are interested in. Even though it’s not always good journalism—it’s always curated, and they’re not using original sources—there’s just something there. And if I were a social media manager right now, I would be copying and building off that like crazy.

Some of what works is just tapping into your basest instincts, the horrible part. Some of it is truly disgusting stuff or UFO stuff. Some of it’s, like, a congressional hearing, it’s quoting a guy. It’s not clickbait-y, it’s literally just a crazy headline. I would love to see more of that. And individual journalists being spotlighted by an outlet’s official accounts, to create figures that you can trust or know what to expect from—that transcends the kind of relationship you can have with a media outlet.

Get on the messaging platforms where your target audience hangs out. Art by Andrew Colin Beck
Nicolás Ríos
Audience and community director at Documented 

At Documented, one of our main flagship products is a messaging platform we have on WhatsApp. Before coming up with that product, we considered what a large Spanish-speaking immigrant audience would need in terms of content, and where they needed it.

The product that we have on WhatsApp now is working amazingly. We wanted to continue this idea, this methodology, and move toward new communities. Public data showed that the second and third largest communities in New York are Chinese and Caribbean immigrants. So we decided to launch an audience research initiative in which we interviewed over a thousand people from these communities. Only after understanding them did we come up with a strategy. We found evidence that the service we wanted to provide would be better received if we launched something on Nextdoor and WeChat.

We do not only use research as a way of distributing our content. We also include responses that we get in content creation.

Improve your hiring practices.
Emma Carew Grovum
Director of careers and culture at The Marshall Project

One of the things that folks should be doing is writing job descriptions that really do a good job of telling somebody what the job actually is. We see a lot of job descriptions that are just copied and pasted over and over again and over and over again. And they’re not really reflecting what the person needs to do in that role to succeed. Some places are still, for some reason, requiring a college education, a four-year degree, in order to be qualified to be a journalist, which makes no sense. I encourage folks to use a rubric when scoring people: Was their technical ability poor, fair, good? Grade their storytelling. Have explicit language in your job description, saying, “Our job description is a wish list, and the perfect candidate may not exist.” We know—there’s science to back it up—that men will apply for jobs if they see themselves reflected in like two-thirds of the skills or half of the skills. It’s a really low number. But women won’t apply for jobs unless they see themselves reflected in every single skill and qualification listed. They remove themselves from that process, whereas men will just be like, “I could figure that out.”

One thing that we’re doing at The Marshall Project that I’m really proud of is, for a lot of our bigger roles—for which we have received hundreds of applications—we’ll offer “hiring hours” in a webinar style. We’ll make two editors available for an hour. People can come to the webinar, sign up in advance, and submit their questions anonymously. People can hear from editors what we’re looking for in the clips, what we’re looking for in the cover letter, what kinds of stuff the person will be doing, how will we manage—all that.

Show love to your homepage.
Hillary Frey
Editor of Slate

I definitely lived through that era when I would say, if you were starting something, the homepage was almost an afterthought. Because the idea was: find your audience at all costs, wherever they are. There was a phrase: serve audiences where they live. So if everybody was on Facebook, you get your work on Facebook, get it in front of people on Facebook. If you put up a post and it got a million impressions, then it sent you however many page views. But there was a lot of leaning on those numbers. “We got five million video views.” But did anybody know who made the video? Did people watch the whole video, or just three seconds? So counter to that is the idea of the homepage, which is where you get to show who you are—you get to control that place. We can’t control other platforms. You just can’t; you don’t run them.

The homepage is a meaningful place for discovery for people who love Slate the most. It’s wonderful if you encounter an advice column or a Mark Joseph Stern jurisprudence piece or something out there in the world. But what we really want to do is use those distribution opportunities to bring people back to Slate, show them via the homepage—and the different ways that we can recirculate things—all the work that we do, and then, ideally, funnel that into membership and become loyal paying readers and listeners. Also, from a creative perspective, I love the homepage because you get to tell a story there. That’s where we get to make decisions, not just about what the top news is of the day but what our best stories are. The most surprising things, our most unique angles.

Treat journalism as a public utility.
Victor Pickard
Media policy and political economy professor at the University of Pennsylvania and codirector of the Media, Inequality & Change Center Art by Andrew Colin Beck

We need a paradigm shift so we’re not just seeing journalism as a business, but we’re seeing it as an essential public service, which democracy absolutely requires regardless of whether the market will support it.

What I propose is an ambitious, even utopian model—a truly public model, where we can guarantee that all members of society have access to a baseline level of news and information. And that’s going to require much more public support than we currently have right now. It comes down to about $1.40 per person, per year, that we pay in the United States toward our public broadcasting system at the federal level. You compare that to the Brits—they’re at roughly around $100 per year that they’re paying toward the BBC. Nordic countries are getting even higher than that. So, you know, the US is kind of a global outlier.

The radical proposal that I advocate for is what I refer to as a Public Media Center. And this is loosely inspired by the Independent Media Center movement of the early 2000s. But that was a largely volunteer, self-organized network, whereas what I’m calling for with this program would be publicly funded Public Media Centers in every community across the country. Each could be housed within public libraries or within post offices. The idea would be that these would be locally owned and controlled—locally governed, but federally guaranteed. So there would be block grants that would be distributed, perhaps first to the states, but they would be devolved down to the local level.

Get your stories out to people who need them.
Ko Bragg
Editor at The Markup

You should always have a way to connect with people that doesn’t rely on platforms that are, frankly, run by a lot of white male billionaires who don’t have to care about the value of connection. You might have ten thousand followers or more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that represents the work of getting that information to the people who need it.

And so I think that means a few things. I’m getting increasingly interested in newsletters for the sheer fact that email is maybe one of our hardiest forms of technology that helps us reach people. I also just think that the digital sphere still requires journalists to gather and meet and create spaces where people can know that something like The Markup exists, for example—that this is what we’re covering, and this is what technology means to us, and this is what it means to investigate a big company, or even an algorithm that is monitoring you or people you care about.

For an outlet like The Markup, the localization and partnership model becomes really interesting to me. We reported a story in Los Angeles about this algorithm that scores unhoused people—and there’s no way, all of a sudden, overnight, we’re going to develop the type of audience base that the LA Times has, or that any local outlets have. So how can we bring what we do really well to an already established base of people who trust and read the LA Times? Or follow them, or whatever. How can we work together so that neither one of us is reinventing the wheel every time we want to get stories out in front of people? And so I think for a publication like ours, partnering works really well.

Sound like yourself.
Max Read
Former Gawker editor with a Substack, Read Max

If people are coming to your website for something, give it to them not in an old-fashioned way—not in a way that you were taught when newspapers were actually typeset—but give it to them in a direct and immediate and updated way. Having a voice, style, and a recognizable tone is really important for building recognizability and loyalty among your readers. Beyond the aesthetic joy of finding a voice-y writer, I think there are important reasons for publications to develop voices among writers, to develop a voice for their publication. There are all these things about blogging that readers love and want and that suit the internet era and how people get their news—and how they want to get their news.

Understand the difference between journalism and gossip. Art by Andrew Colin Beck
Joan Summers
Host of a pop culture podcast, Eating for Free

I started around 2017–2018, and when I came in there was definitely a shift in the way of doing gossip. I think the turning point was: as TikTok allowed people to just kind of jump right in and get a fifteen-second download, and then an opinion to go out and parrot in the world, people just clicked less and less on news about Ariana Grande’s divorce. Like, what do we have to really say about it?

I think gossip has died on digital media—except for places like DeuxMoi, TikTok, Reddit, where it is more user-generated. The clickbait has moved to self-generation rather than media-generation. Content farms still exist, but I don’t think that those kinds of links are really getting clicked in the way that people are sharing TikTok videos. I think the higher-higher-ups are thinking that clickbait is still the way to go, and we’re watching all of these farms—as I would call them—fall one by one, or lose relevance.

The way that I always have approached it is: gossip itself is relatively uninteresting, but as a way of relating to the world it opens up a lot of exploration and possibility about the human condition, politics, whatever you want to project on top of it. Gossip needs to move back to the way that I think it sort of founded itself—in newspapers and what Vanity Fair was doing back in the day, where it was gossip as a way to think about big, longer issues. Like exploring a subculture or a deep Hollywood mystery. I think that’s really what people want now. I don’t think people want just breakup and divorce news.

Respond to your critics.
Taylor Lorenz
Technology journalist for the Washington Post

The more we engage our audience directly, and the more that we encourage people from our news organizations to have a two-way relationship with our audiences, the better for everyone. It helps with trust and it helps keep people better informed. I absolutely do not think that every journalist needs to be on TikTok, certainly not. It depends on the type of journalist and the type of beat and what you’re trying to achieve. However, I do think that if you aren’t doing that, then your news organization needs to be doing that—somebody needs to be doing the promotion, humanizing the work, and communicating it to younger readers. Giving more indication from journalists of how stories came to be—because people really don’t understand that, and a lot of people have a lot of questions—is really helpful, too. Talking about why certain editorial decisions were made, responding to criticism in a human way.

It’s really toxic, the way that we are all supposed to commodify ourselves; you know, I wish that we lived in a world where you could just do great journalism and come home and buy a house and have healthcare. But that’s not the world that we live in. You really need to be listening to people and engaging with people.

Tailor information for different demographics.
Brian Hioe
Writer, translator, and cofounder of New Bloom Art by Andrew Colin Beck

We were formed after the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in 2014. Facebook was pretty key to that. It was the age of the Arab Spring and so forth. Social media was not what it is now; eventually, you needed to pay for ads to get anything anywhere for anyone to see. And so we definitely had a decline after that. But there’s still a use for Facebook in Taiwan. People consume media in very different ways. When I talk to people who are younger—say, Gen Z—it does require, you know, retailoring the way you package information to different demographics. And I think there’s a kind of unwillingness among the press to do that sometimes.

I still think there’s a lot of potential to bring people together online—otherwise our publication, New Bloom, would not exist. It does require a lot of flexibility and openness to new forms. And I also feel like there will be new platforms that emerge or new ways that people consume information. It’s about being adaptable rather than rejecting something or trying to return to the sound of a simpler time.

Embrace the idea that AI isn’t always bad.
Jason Clampet
Chief product officer and cofounder of Skift

Internally, we’re just kind of thinking of AI as a steroid for the team, to help you do stuff faster. Like, “Can you suggest three alternate headlines for this?” Basically, it’s like having more people in the room than we could otherwise have. And for organizations such as ours, these are never things that we would hire a person for, even if we didn’t have this tool.

We thought, “Okay, what are some ways that AI can help people engage with what we’ve written over the years?” And so we created this tool called Ask Skift that scraped eleven years of stories that we’ve written—thirty thousand–plus stories, or research reports, transcripts from events—so that somebody can ask questions about the business of travel that search might not be able to answer well. Questions like, “Tell me the difference between the Expedia and Booking.com business models.” We’ve also made that an editorial tool, where we might write a breaking news story and then it will provide additional context using Ask Skift. It just adds an element that we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Try something weird.
Priya Krishna
Food reporter at the New York Times

Social media has changed not only who gets to tell stories about food, but what form those stories take. It’s been really amazing for me to see not only how much wider the field of creators has gotten because of social media, but the diversity of content—and by diversity, I don’t just mean the diversity of cultures represented, I also mean the diversity of formats, of styles and approaches. You have videos that are hands in a pan, shot straight into a bowl. You have videos that are more host- and personality-driven. You have videos that are more weird and wacky, where you’re using a fondue maker to make something that is not fondue.

Meet people where they are.
Simon Allison
Editor of The Continent

At the very beginning of the pandemic, it was a time when everyone was scared and nervous and didn’t know what was going on. And at times like that, people often turn to journalists to act as sort of informal fact-checkers. So all of our friends and family were coming to us and saying, “Hey, I heard you know steam inhalation cures COVID. Is this true?” And we’d have to say, “No, it’s definitely not true.” And I always ask the question, “Where did you hear that?” And the answer was always exactly the same: “WhatsApp.” It was kind of a light-bulb moment, when we realized that, at least in our community—in South Africa, but more broadly on the African continent—WhatsApp is by far the dominant message or information-sharing platform. And yet there are very few media houses anywhere in the world that have created a product that is designed to work on WhatsApp.

We were very conscious in trying to re-create a print newspaper for the digital age. We wanted the look and feel of a print newspaper but also the usability of a print newspaper. When you go to a news website, you are confronted with fifty-plus decisions you have to make. Do I want to read that story or that story or that story? And when you click on one of those stories, you’re inevitably funneled into this silo. You know, if I click on a football story, I’ll read that story and then it will present me with a bunch of links to other football stories. And suddenly, you’re totally divorced from what else is in the paper. Whereas with a print newspaper, and we think our newspaper as well, you have to turn the pages. In our latest reader survey, 70 percent of readers said they read The Continent from cover to cover—not necessarily every word, but they see every page, and that means that we’re able to provide a much more rounded view of the news than we would be able to if we had a news website.

Fundraise on the basis of local impact. Art by Andrew Colin Beck
Lauren Williams
Cofounder of Capital B

I think one of the real things that big philanthropy needs to do is to start really thinking outside of the box of what news is, what reach really means when it comes to journalism. Think outside of just investigative journalism—funding the “big impact” sort of news that makes a lot of waves—and start thinking about the impact that local journalism has on everyday people’s lives, on elections. Local news helps communities be more civically engaged. That can have ripple effects for our elections, which can then have ripple effects for our federal government and our democracy.

One of the ways that Capital B came out of the gate and staked a claim to some of those resources is that we just tried. This moment calls for bold ideas, partnerships, small local outlets partnering with bigger organizations—those big organizations that have the resources.

Ask yourself: Why publish online at all?
Gutes Guterman
Cofounder of Byline

When we started Byline, we wanted to have a distinct playful voice in media and the reach felt important. Digital reach felt important. I think there’s a different kind of freedom in publishing online versus in print: the possibilities are endless, and the space it can take up is so much more vast. It’s cool to see the way things travel on the internet. Also, we exist on the internet, we live on the internet, and our lives are so intertwined with how we behave digitally that I felt it was important to create something that coexisted with that.

When you print something, you know, it’s going to last at least until, like, the paper biodegrades. But when you put something online, there’s this really interesting balance of wanting to create something and further dialogue. Content is turned out faster than ever before. And so the shelf life of online content expires faster than ever before. So how do you create something that is still long-lasting—while it almost automatically disappears when you press publish? I think that that is something we started to explore with having monthly themes. It gives us a bit of a bookend; it’s not just perpetual content scrolling. We will eventually expand to print—I mean, that’s where my heart lies.

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.