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Finding your “intellectual home”

Posted by on Sep 20, 2012 in Uncategorized | One Comment

Greetings! This post is coming to you just off of a panel I gave with Dan Victor during the Career Summit portion of the Online News Association’s conference in 2012. I’m writing this beforehand, so not sure what I actually rambled about, but I have notes, and I thought I’d write a short piece on what I mean to say, because it won’t be what I actually say.

Being asked to be on a panel because I’ve moved around a lot, that’s yet another thing I never thought would happen to me. My name’s Michelle, I wear a blue hat to conferences, and I’m fiercely loyal. In high school, I was never the sports fan, but I’d be one of the loudest cheerers at the pep rallys (I always thought the real cool team was the Scholastic Bowl team I was a part of, but I don’t think that’s who most people were cheering for.) And when I discovered journalism, I just hoped someone would give me an editorial job doing something, and I’d be grateful to them, so grateful I’d never leave.

So, you see, I didn’t wake up one day and say, “This company I love, I’m going to smash it on the floor and find another one.” It’s not some sick love I have for job hunting (Receiving an offer is fun, the rest is nervewracking. My least favorite part is that horrible waiting-for-the-phone-to-ring period. Like a bad teen romance.)

But all I wanted was a place to learn and grow, to do the good work I love. Ira Glass says taste gets you into the business, but practice makes your work hit the level of the taste. Give me a place to make my work, slowly but surely, match my taste. All I wanted was a place with resources to which I could apply my fierce loyalty.

Well, the LA Times was an AMAZING experience, and the summer internship lasted six months in the end. But there was not a full-time job to be had, so I could not stay.

And PBS hired me to a site that never truly got off the ground, and it was no longer the right place for me.

Here’s the thing about when to move: Don’t move because everyone will congratulate you on Twitter, or you like the smell of new notebooks from the supply closet, or you like the bigger name. Move because you seek to grow, and you can’t make it work at your organization. Recognize that you have the right and responsibility to move if you need to, but you should try everything you can to avoid it.

In a conversation with The Associated Press’ global interactive editor Paul Cheung, we discussed how a job is like a relationship, it needs to be a good match, AP needs to love me as much as I love it. Like a relationship, just because you live together doesn’t mean you die together, and you can get divorced. Have a good reason, though.

The more times you’re divorced, the more it can start to look like a pattern. Why should I think about marrying you when you’ve divorced five people by the age of 26? What precedent does that set?

So, to determine when something isn’t working, what does work? What do I long for?

I work in a technical area, and I have many technical mentors and colleagues, who are essential. Troy Thibodeaux has stepped up to the plate as mentor, friend, confidante, reassurer and code reviewer in a significant way. Thanks! Many others, though. Sometimes, I talk about them on this blog. Or just look at some AP Interactives, and you’ll see their work. Interactives is my department.

But DC is where I live, where I go every day. I work with both the DC editorial staff and the Interactive department. And the environment in DC is a big part of what makes me feel…satisfied. So, I’d like to talk about that.

I like to learn, and while I love so many of my interactive colleagues around the globe, it’s Kevin Vineys, a true DC content expert, who has to/gets to deal with me every day, so we have a special bond. He also knows the newsroom backward and forward. Sometimes I can help him with tech, sometimes he helps me. He’s my conscience: “Did you want to do that?” or “That’s a good idea” or “What about this?” It’s a true partnership.

The reporters and editors I partner with have been working in Washington content for a while, with great experience. But they don’t hold it over me. They’re open to my ideas, and happy to answer my questions about what I don’t know. They don’t look down on me, but we operate as partners. When I get the courage to speak up, I’m rewarded by having every eye in the meeting focused on me with an intensity the likes of which I had never seen. My vision and knowledge matters. C.S. Lewis calls this the “inner circle”, where one is acknowledged on the merits of his or her work. That’s what I was searching for.

I’ve had a hard time putting this (what I’m searching for) into words. So, now it’s time to tell you about one other person who makes the DC bureau a great place for me.

Sally Buzbee, our bureau chief at the AP in Washington, DC — is the editorial leadership you want in your corner. I felt it from the second I walked in for the interview.

If you want to learn more about what I consider to be an ideal editorial role model, read this profile of her in the American Journalism Review. Serious respect.

She knows the newsroom backward and forward. She’s no stranger to new experiences having worked for the AP in multiple roles, on multiple continents. The phrase “when I was in Cairo” is dropped as cooly as “I had a turkey sandwich for lunch.” And she is all about the work and the content, and respects me for where I am in my journey. She makes me the best me I can be, at this point in my career.

She understands the importance of digital and interactive, and gives me the advice and knowledge I need and crave. She makes me believe my ideas could become reality.

This is the crux of it: When it comes to my crazy 26-year-old newsroom vision, and I start to talk about it, Buzbee will say, “We share this vision. The difference is, you have the technical skills to make it happen.” Well, I’m working on it.

So, what am I looking for? What did I want from my job searches? Well, to borrow a Buzbee phrase, my “intellectual home.” Let your brain sink into that phrase for a moment. Where you learn more about your craft, in multiple facets every day. A place you’re comfortabe enough to speak your mind, but not comfortable enough to stagnate.

Put another way, an ideal environment is…well, I’ll let Buzbee describe it again. What sort of environment does this news leader, who I work so closely with, seek to foster? Do we understand each other?

“Nothing gives me more satisfaction —  and downright thrill — than working with talented people who care passionately about the work they do. It’s the one critical thing that gives a place energy and purpose,” wrote Buzbee in an email to me.

Darn straight.

So, what was I searching for, even though I never knew it? That.

Maybe that’s helpful to you, maybe it’s not, but it’s all I know right now, and I thought I’d share.

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    Check out @michelleminkoff’s blog post on her jagged career moves. http://t.co/TYgDYUZr #ona12career #ona12