In working on the second edition of the Dynamics of Media Writing book, I had the chance to catch up with a few folks who had been nice enough to do the “View from a Pro” segments. Things change quickly in this field, and I found that several of them had engaged in the mantra of this book: Transferable skills.
One such person is Jonathan Foerster, who now serves as the director of community affairs at Humane Society Naples, leading the fundraising, marketing/communications, events and volunteer efforts for the organization. When we last spoke, he was the communications director for Artis—Naples, a performing and visual arts organization in Southwest Florida. Foerster spent more than a decade as a news journalist, working for magazines (Gulfshore Life) and newspapers (Naples Daily News and Scranton Times-Tribune). Today, he reflects on the changes he’s seen over his career and things learned in college that he still uses today.
Of all the jobs you transitioned to, which one was the “sharpest turn” so to speak? In other words, was it this one or was it the one where you moved from the newspaper to your first marketing/PR gig? What was it about that job that made that turn so tough and how did you handle it?
“There have been three steep transitions in my career. First going from newspapers to magazines, but that was because I went from a mostly reporting and section planning role into a managerial role. There is nothing in journalism school that really teaches you how to be a good manager or leader. Being a teaching assistant at The Missourian was close to that, but it’s still different when actual jobs are at stake.
“Second, the transition from media to nonprofits. There were two big challenges there: adjusting to the pace of the real, non-media world and in knowing that your job now is always to put the organization in the best light, not necessarily the most correct light. Media has been speeding up to a breakneck pace in the Twitter age, even monthly magazines move quickly. The rest of the world does not move at that pace. Although that seems like an easy thing to deal with (better to wind down than ramp up) it takes a while for your metabolism to adjust to the new reality. It was also difficult to go from talking directly about a thing (either positively or negatively) and then switch to always finding the most positive light. I never had lie, but there were plenty of times where not telling the whole story was the order of the day. I think that was a tough thing for me at first, especially while I was trying to build trust with my new colleagues who had very different work experiences.
“Finally, this most recent change comes with revenue expectations and serious budgets. That’s another thing they never teach you in journalism school. There really should be more required course work for any college student in entrepreneurship and business acumen. It would have made my reporting life easier, because I would have known from the jump how to read a county budget or a nonprofit’s 990. Luckily, I’ve had patient bosses and great teachers along the way who gave me enough responsibility to feel ownership of things but with some training wheels for those first few spins around the block.”
One of the funniest things about talking to you now is that I just finished proofing the second edition of the media writing book, which goes to press this month and you’re in there at your old job. It also speaks volumes about the point I’m trying to make in the book: Transferable skills are crucial in this area of work. What media skills are crucial, regardless of the area of the field you worked in? In other words, what are things that some people dismiss as “Oh that’s only for newspaper people” that you rely on heavily in your various roles in your various jobs?
“There are tons of skills you learn in reporting and writing classes that are transferable to many other fields. First just the general soft skills you learn in terms of how to get information from people, how to read body language and how to know when to press forward and when to hold back. Those are things that reporting stories (even just for a class) teaches you in spades.
“But the most important thing is storytelling. This is something people in other educational disciplines don’t do as well at. Whether I was writing a Facebook post or a radio ad, the story is what actually sells your organization or product. In my limited (six weeks and counting) experience in the fundraising world, storytelling is still the most important skill.
“You have to convince people to buy what you are selling, whether that’s a mission statement or a tangible product. People need to relate on an emotional level to what you are talking about and learning how to tell a compelling story is the easiest way to make that happen.”
If Jon now could talk to Jon back (in his college days), what would you tell that version of yourself in regard to the skills that matter, the things that are important in the field and the general sense of how to get somewhere good in this wonderful world we call media?
“The best advice I could have given myself is to have a niche and to learn everything you can about it. The people in media who are the most successful today are rarely generalists unless they are incredibly skilled storytellers and reporters. It’s just so hard to have the time to immerse yourself in a new subject each time out so that you can be competent to write about it well.
“That’s why sports writers always seem more advanced as younger reporters. They know their subject matter inside and out, so they can look for the small things that really make a story sing. If you are worried about just keeping up, you will never see the nuances. It’s tough, though, because most young news reporters are given generalized beats. I would have double majored in something like economics or environmental sciences if I could do it over again, just to give myself an edge.
“I would also say not to have a set idea of your career trajectory so that you are willing to take the chances needed to get yourself into good situations. I graduated about 15 years ago, and I knew plenty of people who thought they would be copy editors or page designers for their entire careers. Sadly, especially for folks like me that need the second set of eyes on everything, those positions are pretty rare now. But none of us saw that coming. Not even the most prescient media thinker in 2002 would have imagined a world without a big copy desk at metro papers.”
Anything else you want to say or anything else you think I’ve missed?
“Be realistic about your skills and how far they can take you. Don’t give up on your dreams, but know that even the very best have limitations. It took me almost 10 years to admit to myself that I wasn’t going to ever write like Gary Smith or David Grann. No matter how hard I worked, there were going to be things that came naturally to some people that I would never be able to achieve.
“But I’m pretty damn good at generating new ideas (be it beat stories, front of book magazine sections or marketing campaigns). So, I learned to harness those gifts. When I worked for an arts organization, I asked our CEO how she got into arts administration. She was a musician by training. But in one of her first orchestras, someone took her aside and said, ‘the world has plenty of gifted violinists, but not enough people to run the organizations.’
“So, she started learning about the behind the scenes part of the business. By 35, she was running at $30 million a year arts organization.”