Insights on Journalism from NPR’s Tech & Culture Reporter Elise Hu

Elise Hu is a technology and culture reporter at NPR, where she hosts the All Tech Considered blog and reports for All Things Considered and Morning Edition. Before joining NPR, Elise was a founding journalist at the Texas Tribune where she contributed coverage of state governments and politics to the Tribune as well as its partners at the New York Times. Elise also worked as a television reporter with several Texas-based news stations.

Below you will find Elise's insights on successful reporting across different formats, finding good work, the growth of self employment in journalism, the prospect of earning additional income through book sales and speaking engagements, utilizing social media, and balancing the demanding career of journalist with parenthood.

Having worked with radio, television, and print news, which medium would you say is your favorite? Is there any news format in which there are more professional opportunities these days?

Elise Hu Portrait by Jake HoltEach platform has its strengths and weaknesses. I am partial to video because it's my "home" platform — the medium in which I learned to be a reporter. Also, video marries moving images and sound, and I find that the most powerful way to tell stories, if done right. But no journalist is gonna make it today without being a strong writer, and I'm talking about the kind of writing quality that can run in print. It may work in broadcast writing to have a long exposition to set a scene or to write in short phrases instead of coherent sentences, but the reality of digital media is that your text, if it's gonna run online, must make sense out of its video or audio context. And that means writing well enough for a traditional magazine or newspaper.

From your personal experience, which method(s) (e.g. submitting job applications, building up a network and getting introduced by people on the inside, cold calling organizations with proposals and pitches, etc.) have been the most effective when it comes to landing jobs with news organizations?

I never think in terms of networking, because to me "networking" seems devoid of the most important part of connecting with one another — meaningful relationships. I did not work the job fair circuit or aggressively "market" myself at mixers and things to find jobs. I prefer to focus on keeping my head down and working hard, watching and learning journalists I admire, and forming actual friendships with mentors and sources of wisdom along the way. Those friends, who were kind enough to offer their time and energy, naturally reached out when they saw interesting job openings or had ideas for roles I might be interested in.

Are the majority of your journalist colleagues employed full time or working as freelancers?

My friends are a mix of full time journalists and freelancers. The majority right now are employed full time, but there's an overall trend toward working for yourself — not just in journalism, but across many industries. So I expect the ratio to change.

How common is it for a journalist to supplement his or her income with consulting jobs, freelance gigs, book deals, speaking engagements, or other work? Do you do any additional work on the side to bolster your income?

I think it's quite common for national journalists to supplement their income with books. Several of my peers are also book authors, and having that as part of your cache also leads to paid speaking engagements. I don't have paid freelance jobs, and NPR doesn't permit us to take fees for speaking engagements, but outside of work I do advise The Knight Foundation, a big funder of journalism and media innovation.

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists who don't quite know how to balance demanding careers with families and children?

I can only speak of my personal experience and how my family makes it work. My husband and I share domestic and childcare duties so that my career didn't have to slow down after I had a baby. Some women want to take it easier after starting a family, which is awesome, but I did not. And in order to balance that, my husband really stepped up to make sure I could work late when needed and travel for reporting as I did before. The other adjustment that works for me is about perspective: I do not view motherhood as a job, but rather, a relationship. And in viewing it this way, I don't put pressure on myself to do the "job" just right. My standards for motherhood aren't so high that it makes me feel guilty if I can't be "good" at the "job." I feel really confident about how strong my relationship with my husband and daughter are, and I don't spend time thinking about how we measure up.

Is having a robust digital identity a key element of a modern journalist's success? What online platforms, tools, or resources would you recommend an aspiring journalist definitely use?

I think modern journalists should at the very least communicate in the ways that large swaths of our sources and our audiences do. Which means I do think it's important to "get" Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, even if they aren't places you obsessively spend time. But we often get caught up in platforms rather than the most important tool for success, which is not a technological platform at all: it's intellectual curiosity. It's that persistent tug to want to know more, to ask questions, to seek answers. The best reporting comes from the best questions, and no matter what the platform, great journalists are asking them.


Photos by Jake Holt