Today’s young and upcoming journalists have uniquely advantageous qualities and experiences. They interact widely and frequently through social media. They are resourceful and accustomed to getting immediate answers. They prolifically produce their own media through YouTube, TikTok, VSCO and other media sharing apps.
They are creative and thought-provoking, and yet, now, disadvantaged.
As I write this, high school and college student journalists find themselves in virtual classrooms, taught by educators through Zoom and other similar platforms. In spite of the strong efforts by their teachers, online classroom instruction is light on engagement beyond the chat or Q&A functions. It’s a difficult platform for students to gain genuine interpersonal communication and collaboration skills, and it’s a challenge to hone both critical and creative thinking skills while staring at a bunch of static squares of faces online. You think you have Zoom fatigue? Imagine a full course load of it.
Making matters even more challenging, there’s limited access to traditional hands-on education. Professional development and networking activities, considered key to career progression, have been reduced to the impersonal and flat via LinkedIn and other social media. Lost are the opportunities to informally meet other journalists face-to-face for career advice and connection.
So where does that leave mentorship?
Mentors, powerful influencers at any age, can push, prod, encourage and challenge. They can give us resources and feedback to strengthen us as professionals. Mentors can provide support for a specific purpose, a unique period, or a lifetime.
When I was in college, I was jealous of the students who knew exactly what they wanted to do after graduation. Some knew from childhood that they wanted to be veterinarians because they loved animals and showed them in 4-H. Some knew, with the gift of gab, that they loved to win people over, so marketing and sales were going to be their professional paths.
I, on the other hand, changed my major three times. Nothing seemed to fit. My eventual major was public communication and human relations (with two minors, because I had changed so often). “What would I do with that?” I asked a campus activities advisor, lamenting that everyone else was “finding their way.”
Patiently, she talked me through the classes I enjoyed most. She shared how she saw me enjoy leading meetings, public speaking and growing younger leaders in the student organizations I led. “What if you kept doing what you’re doing?” she asked, suggesting a master’s degree in college student personnel and gaining hands-on experience with an assistantship. With the right kick in the rear, and collaborative reflection of my experiences, I started a career developing young adults, association volunteers and staff and leaders in their college and professional chapters.
Even outside of a pandemic, it was difficult to find direction. So I get how young journalists are frustrated as they look for jobs without a clear career path. And the gig economy makes it even harder to design a career when you’re just trying to keep up with projects and working without a long-view.
So how to help them?
Long gone is the old model of a mentor as the single person who has all the answers, aka the wise sage. Because of technology, mentors can meet with a small number of mentees for group or team coaching through Zoom or another virtual connectivity tool. Some experienced professionals are finding Gig Mentoring (a shorter-term mentoring relationship) works well, with a specific start and end date. That keeps both mentor and mentee focused and highly engaged with each other, even though it’s a shorter amount of time.
Mid-career and longtime journalists can provide help to the upcoming generation in various ways, including:
- Coach — Using the sports model, coaches can focus on specifi c skills and help a younger person refi ne them with specifi c and ongoing feedback. For example, one mentor observed and gave pointed feedback to a nervous colleague who needed help erasing multiple uses of “um” and “like” from his presentation habits.
- Connector — Some people are widely connected to individuals, organizations and opportunities SPJ veterans can facilitate introductions and expose others to job and volunteer opportunities. During the pandemic, professionals found themselves having to look for jobs. They reached out to a select handful of experienced and highly networked colleagues and asked to be introduced to others through LinkedIn and short phone appointments.
- Agent — Think like a talent agent. They promote people to others. “Hey, you need Amal on this committee. Amal is great at both big ideas and detail execution.” Your mentees may not even know that they are being helped.
- Career Champion — This is where some of our retired and veteran journalists can be particularly helpful. They have seen decades of changes in journalism and can help younger professionals think about their careers for the long-term. During SPJ annual conferences, regional meetings, chapter meetings and other events (even virtual networking events), longtime members could lead educational sessions on professional development. Then, they could offer specific steps to enhance one’s career path and an opportunity for follow-up mentoring and advice sharing, one-on-one with attendees.
- Resource Partner — You can be a mentor by sharing books, articles, podcasts, webinars, workshops, and more. A handful of my colleagues and I used to co-present a workshop called, “You’ve Gotta Read This!” At an annual meeting, we presented (in a fun book-report style) on our two or three favorite books. Then, in between conferences, we met on a monthly all have a mentor who is 10 years older than us and one 10 years younger. By doing that, we gain fresh perspectives as we learn new skills, gain new resources, shake our prejudices and broaden our perspectives — all beneficial to our own careers. But it goes even beyond that. In this challenging environment where the roadblocks to a journalism career are many, mentoring helps journalists shore up the industry’s future. It reminds those considering traveling down this thorny path that journalists matter, that they have each other’s backs, and they are committed to the future of the field. , basis to share favorite podcasts, websites, fun educational tools and other resources. These information partners gave me recommendations on resources I may never have found on my own.
Not only are mentees gaining from this relationship: seasoned journalists are benefitting, as well. By being a mentor, you’re developing your own coaching and leadership skills. You’re giving back to the field of journalism. Helping others can give you a stronger sense of purpose and engagement in the industry.
And there’s more.
A colleague once shared that we should all have a mentor who is 10 years older than us and one 10 years younger. By doing that, we gain fresh perspectives as we learn new skills, gain new resources, shake our prejudices and broaden our perspectives — all beneficial to our own careers.
But it goes even beyond that. In this challenging environment where the roadblocks to a journalism career are many, mentoring helps journalists shore up the industry’s future. It reminds those considering traveling down this thorny path that journalists matter, that they have each other’s backs, and they are committed to the future of the field.
Karyn Nishimura Sneath is director of education for the Society of Professional Journalists. She has spent 24 years as an association-focused consultant, designing and facilitating leadership programs, board and staff training sessions and emerging leaders’ professional development workshops. She also led strategic planning initiatives with a variety of colleges and association clients.