Reporting the news isn’t for the faint of heart. Three innovators in the media industry dish on how they’ve carved out their own space and survived in an ever-changing landscape.
It wasn’t too long ago that the future was all about social media and consequently, video. But then it became clear that the pivot to video was a giant failure. Now Facebook, once the content distribution tool to conquer all others, has been rendered more or less useless.
For all the forecasting and speculation that abounds, it appears that we know precisely one thing for sure: the media landscape will continue to evolve rapidly. In order to go the distance, reporters will need rigorous standards and the ability to be fleet-footed.
These three women have what it takes. They’re on the media front lines carving out an identity for themselves and the stories they care about, while prioritizing accuracy and working with integrity.
For a number of years, it seemed that no matter how hard Natasha Alford tried to shake the journalism bug, the journalism bug refused to be shaken. The college application essay she wrote about wanting to be a journalist clearly killed it so hard that she got into Harvard. But Harvard didn’t have a journalism program at the time, so Alford enlisted in the social sciences. After college, she landed at an investment management firm with plans to eventually attend business school.
But it didn’t take long for Alford to realize she wasn’t connected to her work. In the subsequent years, she transitioned to teaching, working for a New York City charter school and then Teach For America in Washington D.C., where she fell in love with her ability to make a hands-on impact. This led her to work in education policy in California. In the process of handling press outreach for her boss’ book, she was in constant contact with reporters.
It was then that the journalism bug resurfaced: “I wanted to be on the other side, telling the story,” Alford says. She wasn’t ready to fully admit it though; Alford “quietly applied” to journalism school in the middle of prepping her business school application. But when she was offered a scholarship to the program at Northwestern, she could no longer deny it: “I’d really wanted to be a journalist all along.”
After that, Alford went all in. Her first beat was covering local news in Rochester, New York, which meant being on crime scenes, covering gargantuan snow storms, and generally digging into the nitty gritty of a city with a high poverty rate. “I started to really understand life across the board there, adaptively, through the eyes of storyteller,” she says.
After taking a few months’ break, Alford began to follow digital media personalities who were creating their own video content for emerging platforms. “Millennials were using their voices and having personalities and perspective within their storytelling and I realized that’s what I want to be doing,” she says.
At a convention in 2013, Alford met the managing editor of theGrio, Todd Johnson, a fellow Northwestern alum, and followed up with him two years later as she was hunting for jobs in NYC. She started out on a trial basis with the digital media platform that focuses on stories and perspectives for and by the African American community that are often underrepresented in mainstream media, and was eventually named deputy editor. She now produces and edits her own web series covering the news and entertainment, in addition to writing and editing video content for other sections of the site.
“We tell the stories we know best. We are relentless about finding the answer and keeping the story alive,” she says. This is especially necessary in a 24-7 media culture where important stories too often get dropped; for instance, Alford notes the lack of sustained mainstream coverage of news stories like the Austin bombings and the fact that the first two victims were black. She’s also excited about the freedom that a flexible media outlet creates: “We’re funny, we’re sarcastic. We’re proud of our black heritage and I love that it comes through.”
Be obsessed with the news
That might seem obvious, Alford acknowledges, but it bears repeating (and repeating). “A lot of times, the temptation is to establish yourself, get visibility and get a platform. But you have to have a wide range of news sources and a very balanced news diet. You need a mix of the old school and new school, because both have something very special to offer in terms of delivery,” she says.
Understand what you’re passionate about
Once you’ve identified what you really want to write about, the stories start to find you. “I’m able to find stories and build connections with people on a deeper level just because I understand [the topic at hand] and I’ve studied those faces so well,” she says, of her passion for reporting on social justice, civil rights, and women’s issues. “You don’t have to be a master of everything,” she adds. “It’s OK to focus on the thing that means the most to you.”
Practice, practice, practice
“You have to be ‘shooting in the gym every day,’ to steal a Drake lyric,” she says, laughing. “Even if it feels like you’re not making progress, you should be writing, you should be making a new connection, building your sources.”
If Beatriz Acevedo’s father had his way, she’d be the President of Mexico right now. When her mother went into labor in San Diego, her father rushed her over the border to a hospital in Tijuana so she would be a Mexican national and thus eligible for the presidency.
“That’s where I get my confidence,” she says, laughing. “Before I was born, he was already positioning me to be president.”
Instead, Acevedo grew up to be a boundary-breaking, three-time Emmy award-winning media mogul. She currently works as the founding partner and president of Mitú, a millennial-facing digital media company that describes its audience as “200% youths who are 100% American and 100% Latino.”
This focus makes perfect sense as Acevedo’s career has long straddled the Mexican-American border. Her work focuses on how each country’s culture affects the other and what gets lost in translation.
After an early introduction to media as an child actress in a Toys R Us commercial, Acevedo got into radio at the age of 15. “I had a crush on Ricky Martin [when he was in the boy band Menudo] and thought that if I got a job at the radio station, I would get to meet them and then I’d marry him,” she says.
Acevedo’s family lived in San Diego, but she often commuted to Tijuana or LA for work, a cross-cultural experience that was formative for her. “I was a very proud Mexican, but I was also taking in a lot of American culture every single day by going to school in San Diego,” she says. “That double identity helped shape a very different perspective.”
After years of working in media and constantly hearing that the lack of Latinos in the industry was because executives and producers couldn’t find them, Acevedo realized it was time to publicly call bullshit. She knew there were tons of talented individuals of Latino heritage out there. “I came to the realization that there was a very big broken bridge between Hollywood and the Latino creative community,” she says.
Initially, she set out to develop a community of independent producers that she could bring on to projects in her own production company. But it wasn’t until digital media began democratizing the industry landscape that Acevedo’s vision really found its legs.
When she was tapped by Warner Brothers and Bryan Singer to develop a web series calledH+ in 2012, she initially felt skeptical about shifting from TV to YouTube. But she soon realized the potential. “I saw how easy it was. And what a great entry point it could be for all these amazingly talented Latinos who never had gotten a chance,” she says. “We were able to tap into this really young, hungry, digital native community of creators and it just blew my mind.”
She launched the Mitú Network in 2012. Acevedo’s community-driven platform was perfectly positioned for social media sharing. It now reaches 100 million people in the US each month.
And despite recent distribution changes on social media platforms, Acevedo couldn’t be more confident in Mitú’s ability to adapt and thrive. They’re starting to experiment with more long-form storytelling and forming video content partnerships with Netflix and Comcast.
“We are experts in pivoting,” she says. “The future is very exciting.”
Find your niche and lean all the way in
“The only thing I learned in going to school for four years was the power of finding a niche,” she says. “Find an underserved audience that you are passionate about and that you can super-serve.”
Don’t overestimate the importance of talent and don’t underestimate the importance of hard work
“Talent is secondary, to be honest. People who are passionate and are great hustlers can do anything they want. And if you’re talented too, well, that’s amazing,” she says.
Use what makes you different as a strength
Acevedo wholly embraces her identity as a woman and as a Latina. “Nobody else has your point of view. Think about it as a huge opportunity to have a lot of swagger,” she says.
Liz Plank never intended to be a journalist. In 2012, she was working as a research assistant in behavioral science at the London School of Economics when she came across some big news about the upcoming summer Olympics in London: For the first time, women’s boxing was going to be an official discipline. As an amateur boxer herself, Plank was thrilled. But then she found out that a dress code requiring the athletes to wear skirts was on the table.
“I got really angry about that. So I started a petition, thinking that a few people would sign it—maybe my mom and her friends. In the end it went completely viral,” Plank says. The Independentand the BBCinterviewed her and she wrote about the issue for the Huffington Post. The initiative to have Olympic boxers wear skirts was abandoned.
Plank realized that she could drive conversation and change around women’s rights through the media. And despite her initial skepticism about her writing abilities—her male college professors had admonished her for being too “bloggy” and offered commentary like “This isn’t a romance novel”—Plank’s intuition paid off. She continued to hone her writing skills and eventually landed in New York for in internship at Mic(then called PolicyMic), a digital media company.
“I already had personality in my writing, so I was lucky to be able to use that at a place like Mic, where they were fine with me using my opinions,” Plank says.
But with her new-school tendencies and lack of formal journalism training, she quickly began to notice a rub. “I would be in rooms at conferences where I would become aware that more traditional outlets were critical of Mic, like we weren’t respecting what they believed journalism to be,” Plank says.
But Plank thinks the tension between digital media upstarts and traditional media behemoths has been a net positive for both sides, with outlets like The New York Times working to “find their audience where they are” and new media stepping up its reporting methods.
Her storytelling skills are currently evidenced in her current Vox-Comcast multimedia platform Divided States of Women. The heralded project launched in the wake of the 2016 election with the intention to drive nuanced conversations about the diverse experiences of women in America right now. Plank hosts the videos series and podcast, in addition to overseeing a masthead and production crew comprised entirely of women.
Divided States of Women is rigorous, diverse, educational, inclusive, entertaining, and human; it serves as a testament to the potential of the current media landscape.
Give more help than you’re asking for in exchange
When it comes to getting your foot in the door or seeking mentorship, Plank advises: “Always offer three times what you’re asking for.” Plank received that advice from the first woman she ever had a cold meeting with. “You might feel like you have nothing to offer, but that’s not true. If you’re going to speak to a very, very busy woman who has a lot on her plate, you can bet there’s a lot she needs help with,” she says.
Write, write, write. And then write some more
“I know this is the last thing anyone wants to hear, but write—even if you’re not getting paid for it,” she says. Plank worked on her bylines on weekends and at nights while she was working her day job as a research assistant. “If you really are passionate about this, you’re going to need to prove yourself first,” she says.
Develop your own voice and grow into yourself
“This feels so generic,” she says, “but don’t try and be someone else. Being yourself is what makes you valuable.” Having role models and writing heroes is part of it, of course, but “we already have an Elaine Welteroth, so your goal should be to really discover the uniqueness you bring to the world,” Plank says.