A journalist with much to be thankful for

As an American, Thanksgiving is one of my favourite holidays. In my family, we took the day quite literally as a time to pause and reflect on the things that we were thankful for over the last year. In 2008, I had an especially memorable Thanksgiving, taking Suw back to my home in the US to celebrate our marriage with my family. Early in the year, Suw and I committed to taking this day off to reflect back on all that we have had this year to be thankful for.

When I took voluntary redundancy (a buyout) from The Guardian at the end of March 2010, it was the first time since my first job out of university that I had left a job without another bigger, better job offer. I had a lot of options to explore, and the buyout gave me the chance to explore some of those options. It also gave me some time to recharge, which I needed. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there were times I was anxious and times I was absolutely terrified.

I can’t say that things have gone according to plan, but fortunately, I couldn’t have planned it any better. Colleagues asked me as I left The Guardian what I planned on doing, and I joked that I was taking a global journalism tour. That was a reference to several speaking and training gigs that I had lined up immediately after I left, but I didn’t know how prescient that comment would be. Suw and I have worked with clients on five continents this year: Australia, Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. Just a few things that we’ve done this year:

  • We helped launch a new news website in India, Firstpost.com. It was an amazing experience with a great team at Network18, and we continue to work with them. Suw is consulting tech editor, and I’m writer-at-large.
  • Suw helped author a report for Chatham House high-impact, low-probability events. She looked specifically at the media’s response to the travel and transportation chaos caused by the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.
  • I’ve conducted training in digital and mobile journalism and social media for more than 400 Al Jazeera journalists across Al Jazeera English, Arabic, Balkans and Turk. It’s been great to work with Al Jazeera, especially during all of their excellent work covering the Arab Spring.
  • I spoke at a number of events including Digital Directions 2011 in Sydney hosted by Fairfax Media and organised by X Media Lab and News Rewired here in London.
  • I’ve done data journalism training with journalists from the BBC, CNN and other organisations through Journalism.co.uk as well as doing data journalism training for RBI in the UK and the US.
  • One of the most satisfying jobs, in a very satisfying year, was when I went to Tunisia and worked with journalists there ahead of their historic elections.

I’ve done training for the Norwegian institute of Journalism and also for Transitions Online, with journalists mostly in the former Soviet Republics. All told, I’ve probably done training with more than 800 journalists around the world this year. Thanks to everyone we worked with this year.

When people ask me what I’m up to now, I often joke that I do things to support my journalism habit. If I had to rely on freelance journalism, Suw and I would be eating pretty thin gruel, but I’ve had increasing opportunities not just to train people what I know but to get back to doing journalism. That has been satisfying as well. I still have that itch to scratch.

As I’ve travelled this year and seen the economic uncertainty build first hand, we feel very fortunate to be able to do such satisfying work. I just got back from Vilnius Lithuania where I worked with Belorussian journalists for Transitions Online. The journalists told me of the increasing repression they are facing, and it was great to work with them to use mobile tools that would allow them to continue to do their job despite threats from the authorities. It was especially satisfying to work with journalists covering the Arab Spring. I did some training for the Al Jazeera Training Centre with journalists from across the Middle East and north Africa. One Egyptian journalist told me of how people there had overcome their fear. It was something that I heard repeatedly from people enjoying their first taste of self-determination. Speaking with Tunisian journalists grappling with how to cover an election with 10,000 candidates, an election where the outcome wasn’t predetermined, was fascinating and inspiring.

It’s been a year of growth for me. It’s felt like getting a practical master’s degree. I’ve had to work hard to keep pace with all of the most recent developments in social media, mobile journalism tools and data journalism. I started doing data journalism in the mid-1990s in the US, but I hadn’t had much call to use it since then. I’ve really enjoyed not only dusting off those skills but building on them. I’ve learned more in the last year than I did in the previous five.

This has been a huge transition for me from stable, full-time work to working with Suw on our own. As I said, it was terrifying at times. It challenged my sense of professional confidence. When I left The Guardian last year, it was the first time since 1998 that I didn’t have a big international news organisation behind me. It was just me. When I started working for the BBC in 1998, it still seemed possible to find a job and keep that job for the rest of one’s life. However, since then, journalism has suffered the same disruption that most 20th Century industries did. There isn’t such a thing as a job for life. Journalism is going through a major disruption, and journalists’ lives are being disrupted by it.  Despite that, for the first time since I came to Britain in 2005, I feel like instead of dealing with disruption, Suw and I have actually been able to work towards our dreams. That indeed is something to be thankful for.