Sean McMinn’s Advice for Aspiring Journalists

In addition to being enrolled as a full time student at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo Sean McMinn is the editor of Mustang Media Group and a contributor to USA Today. During his off hours, Sean offers insights and lessons learned on his personal blog.

Below, Sean shares his thoughts on the future of journalism, the manner in which both small and established media organizations are adapting to the ever-evolving digital media landscape, and tactics one can adopt to prepare for a career in journalism- both independently and through established journalism programs.

What is the most significant manner in which you think the journalism world will shift over the next five years?

Sean McMinnMore and more, successful journalists are going to be looking for — and finding, I think — ways to monetize journalism. Newspapers’ loss of advertising, increased online readership, etc., caught the industry off guard, and now that free is the expectation for online content, it’s difficult to see how we can begin making a profit on the web. Some paywalls, obviously, have been successful, but more and more I’m hearing about ways journalists use alternative business models to sustain themselves. Some are marketing themselves as “name-brand” reporters, who can charge for their content, and others are creating non-profits to fund quality reporting. Everyone is watching Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post to see what creative ideas he might bring to the industry, and I believe others will take cues from what he does there.

What are the biggest differences (regarding content, function, work environment, and/or purpose) between small, new digital media groups like Mustang and more-established brands like USA Today?

More than differences, I actually see a lot of similarities between small, student-run media groups like Mustang News and established brands like USA TODAY. What we’re doing at Mustang Media Group is trying to transform the way Cal Poly students see their role as journalists, and we have freedom to experiment with ideas about how to do that. At USA TODAY, their digital-first newsroom shift in the past couple years also involved some exploration into ideas that no one was 100 percent sure were going to work, and the folks there have been fine tuning since.

Obviously, resource differences between the two means that organizations like USA TODAY can research and more precisely target how they want to go about making changes, whereas at Mustang News we’re mostly going off what we think is going to work without a whole lot of quantitative measurements to back it up. When it comes to workflow, everyone is trying to figure out how to optimize their content for the web. And while Mustang News is just beginning and still trying to figure it out, working at a small organization means we can be more nimble and make changes quicker.

What role do you think big brands will play in the future of journalism? What about smaller, independent publications, journalists, and blogs?

There’s no doubt that independent and citizen journalists have already become a huge factor in how our country gets its information, but I believe consumers are starting to return to a news digest of quality over quantity. An increase in long form journalism and the success of some paywalls are evidence of this. Some blogs — the objective, thorough, credible ones — will continue to do well, but I expect national and regional publications that people trust will begin seeing a resurgence in the next couple years.

Under what circumstances do you think our generation will be willing to pay for access to news and information?

This is really the million-dollar question. I would expect if access to news is tied to a larger package — something like an online news subscription bundled in with the latest iPhone service plan — Millennials might bite. But it is no doubt a challenge to change this all-for-free attitude among younger people like myself who grew up with the expectation that news is available 24/7 online at no cost.

Should someone want to become a journalist but not be able to afford journalism school, what tactics or approaches would you recommend?

It’s never been easier to become a journalist today, and I don’t just mean a blogger or CNN iReport contributor. The endorsement that J-school used to give reporters is now second to the work you’ve done and your passion for the craft — two things I believe employers are looking for today. Start by researching journalism ethics and writing styles, then launch a website and keep it updated with original reporting. Tell sources you’re a freelance reporter to give yourself some air of credibility. Your first articles probably won’t get noticed, but through social media marketing and by improving your writing, this will become invaluable when applying for a job. By also keeping up-to-date on journalism trends on Twitter, and by Tweeting yourself, you can show employers you know what’s happening in the industry and that you’re enthusiastic about telling important stories.

What advice (re: time management, making strategic decisions with job and employer choices, etc.) would you give to other full time students who are also balancing part-time or full-time jobs?

For me, not doing journalism was never an option. I had other 20+ hour/week jobs during my first couple years as a reporter at my college paper, and I took full class loads every quarter, but the key to being a journalist is just doing it. If you’re passionate enough about journalism to the point where you’re willing to enter an industry that is undergoing radical change and most likely won’t pay you very well, you’ll find a way to prioritize it and make it work.

On the more practical end, though, it makes sense to me that journalism students really maximize the time they have in school. That means being involved in student media, taking advantage of the mentorship professors can provide and looking online to see what skills you’re missing in the classroom. You can easily coast by a journalism program and get good grades, but just a degree isn’t going to do it when you’re applying for jobs. Now is the time to grab every opportunity you can get your hands on.

What sorts of journalism-related jobs do your colleagues at school hope to land after graduation? Where are the most job opportunities to be found?

Something I’ve recently been hearing more about, and it’s a very interesting field today, is data journalism. With the amount of data out there, it doesn’t makes sense to me that you could write any trend story with just anecdotes — everything needs numbers to back it up. So for people who can work a spreadsheet, I think jobs will open up.

Many of the people I go to school with are interested in social media jobs after graduating. It’s funny because those jobs barely existed when I started at Cal Poly three years ago, and now it’s a hot market for someone trying to get into media.

Overall, employers today are looking for people who are comfortable with new technology, but ultimately the most in-demand skills come back to a journalist’s curiosity, I believe. Whether you’re tweeting or designing a parallax scrolling story like Snowfall or whatever today’s technology might be, you still need to have that disposition of wanting to know more to get content that your audience wants/needs. And when Twitter and parallax become irrelevant and something else pops up, a new-media journalist needs to be curious enough to figure it out.