The Essential Art of Storytelling

Sure, a journalism degree opens doors in the exciting world of newsrooms. But it’s also a prized entrée to a wide range of vibrant fields, from tech startups to courtrooms to socially active nonprofits.

By Larissa Mavros

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Murphy Reporter.

Matt Graham didn’t have a background in medicine or a deep understanding of human anatomy when he joined medical device company Medtronic as a technical writer in 2012.

But the 2006 SJMC graduate uses the skills he honed at SJMC and in the newsroom of the Minnesota Daily to make sense of the highly specialized and regulated environment of medical technology. Now, just a few years later, Graham leads an international team that produces technical literature—the instruction booklets that accompany products or are published online—for peripheral catheters and cardiovascular devices that treat high blood pressure.

“I approach my work as a journalist and go in and learn about renal denervation technology or the anatomy of leg vasculature,” Graham said.  “I have to learn about both the technology and the anatomy. It brings with it all sorts of jargon and acronyms, and I have to synthesize that information to make it clear and readable.”

Like Graham, scores of SJMC graduates have applied their journalism degree to forge paths in all sorts of professions from the newsroom to courtroom. Certainly technology has brought its share of disruption to the workings of traditional newsrooms. The good news is that the foundations of journalism—asking critical questions, gathering and analyzing information and communicating it in a compelling way—remain as much in demand as ever, both in and outside the news profession.

“It’s about storytelling,” said Al Tims, director of the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “The proliferation of channels and modes of delivery are making opportunities for journalism graduates more vibrant than they have ever been.”

Key to those opportunities are digital technologies, which have brought exciting changes to how news is shared and consumed, not to mention told and presented. Whether the goal is working at a technology startup, a multinational corporation, a non-governmental organization or a socially active nonprofit, a journalism degree provides a solid foundation.

Keeping pace with industry changes has been a top priority of the SJMC professional journalism curriculum. The school has updated or added courses to include data visualization and across-the-board training in multimedia and social media. All students gain competencies in photography, audio and visual editing, and digital platforms. Much of this work has involved integrating new skills into core news writing and reporting courses—an effort that began early in the online game.

Blogs and Beyond

A decade ago, for example, before the printed newspaper took a back seat to online, Senior Lecturer Gayle Golden started requiring students to create news blogs in her Introduction to News Writing course. Each week, students posted summaries of news events, comparing coverage from different news organizations and using hyperlinks to connect the stories.

“It would be a no-big-deal thing to do today,” Golden said. “But back then it was a step into the new.” And it had immediate benefits, she said. Initially intended to encourage students to pay closer attention to the news, the exercise also gave them an edge as they entered a job market that would soon be transformed by blogging technology.

Students still create news blogs in Golden’s classes, although they’ve evolved from the early days of the platform. “Every year we’ve been able to build new technologies, such as Twitter or visualizations, into the blogs to immerse students in how news stories are told,” Golden said.

Today, SJMC courses routinely use digital publishing platforms or require basic multimedia skills for reporting assignments, encouraging students to adapt and learn technology on their own and from each other. SJMC has also created courses to address new directions in reporting, including data journalism, where students learn digital tools to collect and analyze data, such as public records, and turn that into powerful stories with strong visualizations.

The goal is not to isolate technology but rather to integrate it into teaching the fundamental writing and reporting skills news editors say they look for in hiring young journalists.

“Most of the jobs are still about fundamentals of reporting, writing and editing, like they always were,” Associate Professor Chris Ison said. “But newsrooms are trying to take advantage of newer skills that students are learning that veteran employees don’t have. So adding skills like data analysis and visual journalism skills really can help, and we’re teaching more of that than we ever have.”

Jeff Hargarten graduated with professional journalism degree in 2014 and stepped into a job as a data visualization designer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. There, he creates visual representations—charts, maps and other visualizations—to help audiences understand information quickly and easily. He said his journalism background has opened up a variety of projects and stories because reporters and editors trust his news judgment and decision-making.

“You need to be able to speak the language to understand the stories people are trying to tell and how to effectively tell them,” Hargarten said. “Without the ability to discern good information from bad or the ability to collect information in an unbiased and fair way, I feel like I wouldn’t be any different from the developers on the floor above us who manage the back end of the site. I would just be another tech person.”

Compelling Content

When Emma Nelson graduated in May 2014, she imagined starting out at a small town newspaper. Working in a media market the size of Minneapolis was in her five-year plan. But a combination of good timing and a strong internship landed Nelson a staff position at the Star Tribune, the 14th-largest newspaper in the country.

Nelson, who covers county and city government in the south metro, said it is easy for today’s journalists to get caught up in the latest innovations and technology. But in the end, it comes down to good storytelling.

“At its heart a story is a piece of information that is true and is compelling to people and hinges on something important,” Nelson said. “It’s always the fundamental idea that it’s about trying to inform people about their community. I don’t think that’s ever going to change.”

But a journalism degree can and does lead to jobs outside a newsroom. Kathleen Hansen, SJMC’s director of undergraduate studies, said employers large and small seek candidates who possess the critical thinking skills inherent to journalists, including the ability to ask interesting questions, seek answers, present information clearly and on multiple platforms.

“Every place on the planet is a publisher or has the opportunity to be a publisher,” Hansen said. “You don’t have to own a printing press or a broadcast tower. Everybody is creating content and everybody needs people who know how to create content.”

Shelby Rhodes, a 2010 SJMC graduate, moved from producing a morning television news program in San Luis Obispo, Calif., to the operations team at one of the largest tech companies in the world. Rhodes is a program manager at Google Express, the same-day delivery service from web search giant Google. Since its introduction in 2013, Google Express has expanded to almost a dozen markets.

Rhodes said interviewing skills have been integral in her role in managing employee and customer feedback. She figures out where issues arise—whether an operational matter, an engineering hiccup or experience problem—and works with internal teams to find solutions.

“The ability to communicate cross functionally and write well has been hugely beneficial,” Rhodes said. “As a program manager, you need to know how to talk to and communicate with engineers, with customers, and understand what the different communications look like.”

Communicating with a range of audiences is equally important to Holly Miller, a licensed attorney who oversees professional development for lawyers at Faegre Baker Daniels in Minneapolis. Miller said her journalism training prepared her to both practice law and train other lawyers.

“In litigation you are dealing with facts and writing for different audiences,” Miller said. “It could be a memo to a client, or writing to a supervising attorney, or speaking to a jury. You have to think about how you’re presenting the facts and what makes it interesting. Those are the same things you think about when you’re writing a news story.”

Miller, a 2010 SJMC graduate, said her journalism foundation also enabled a smooth transition to legal writing, a skill many of her law school peers struggled to master.

“My background has been so focused on ‘who’s a source’ and ‘where does this information come from,’ that when you’re asked to point to it in the facts, or record, or case law, it’s just like quoting a source,” Miller said. “It was easier for me to pick up those concepts.”

It’s clear the emerging technologies, modes of sharing messages and the ever-changing communication needs of organizations demand the skillsets SJMC students gain in Murphy Hall. Hansen, who has spent 35 years at SJMC, says journalism is not on the decline, but rather evolving to greater heights.

Hansen, who has spent 35 years at SJMC, said communication needs have changed dramatically and companies are seizing on the skillsets SJMC students gain in Murphy Hall.

“No matter what someone ends up doing, the core of what they have learned how to do is what an employer wants,” Hansen said. “Even 10 years ago, no one would have dreamed of the opportunities that are now open to our students. That’s what’s exciting to me: it’s not dying. It is exploding in every conceivable direction.”

Matt Graham