I recently spoke at the local high school career day. These teens, chomping at the bit to end their mandatory education and embark in earnest upon the journey to real life, reminded me that the end of something good often marks the beginning of something great. An impressive event, this career day hosted 150 speakers in careers ranging from FBI and DEA to massage therapist, artist, and judge. I had the pleasure of discussing some paths that might lead to a career in journalism as well as an opportunity to expound my views on the future of publishing in the digital age. My audience doesn't remember the pre-Web world, whereas my world was pre-PC until college. I was introduced to LexisNexis on my first job fact checking for the Village Voice just after graduation, and came to wonder how anyone was ever able to do the job without it. But even with such a powerful tool at my disposal, I still needed to scour books and microfiche to confirm that authors had done their homework.
Not surprisingly, with this particular audience, the fact that I've met Metallica rated much higher than my experience with LexisNexis as precursor to Web info-searches. The students were also interested in whether or not I believed paper magazines would continue to exist. We all agreed that reading on a computer monitor currently held little appeal, but when I showed them my Sony Clie, with its high-resolution TFT color display for mobile content viewing, they seemed convinced that more conducive methods for non-paper publishing will quickly emerge. Technology will rapidly evolve to meet their needs. And to succeed in life, they will evolve as rapidly as technology.
But we were there to discuss journalism as a career, so I steered our discussion back to the pros and cons of the backgrounds most successful journalists have: liberal arts, English, communications, and yes, even journalism. While some of my editorial colleagues came out of more specialized programs and ended up journalists through a given specialty, the majority have degrees that they earned by learning to write and communicate effectively, but also included a wealth of other subjects to prepare them for the constant informational flux of a journalistic career. A journalist, for the most part, will be a generalist, someone who enjoys learning and writing about new subjects all the time. Yes, we specialize, but we must maintain flexibility even in these areas of emphasis to continually serve our role as communicators of the latest and greatest information.
So, I said, be flexible. Be receptive to learning at any given moment and to translating what you have observed into meaningful work. Oh, and if it works out, you could end up in journalism—whatever that might eventually mean—as a career. But your most important preparation will happen outside any specific vocational training. I went on to extol the job's virtues, depending on the publication—free concert tickets, free gadgets, and meeting powerful and influential people—that in some ways offset the limited remunerative potential. But mostly, I said, you have to love to learn and roll with the punches.
One way I follow my own advice is to attend industry conferences and events. I learn a lot of valuable information from conference sessions, vendors, and attendees...but sometimes, tradeshows teach other lessons. Like most trade shows these days, floor traffic was down at the recent Information Today Show, though the conference sessions seemed as popular as ever. Not surprisingly, hundreds of librarians of one sort or another were in attendance. But what was interesting, in terms of careers for attendees, was that thousands were not librarians at all.
This show has been perceived as a library- and information professional-only show, but in fact as many VP and higher-level executives were in attendance as librarians. A few held the nouveau chic CIO title, but most were presidents, CEOs, owners, and principals. Even more interesting were the number of marketing professionals and newfangled information specialties in attendance.
What this signals to me—other than perhaps a decline in the number of librarians or at least the number of librarians with discretionary travel budgets—is that the show appeals to a much wider audience than I had anticipated. Information Today, it appears, is for everyone from the top of an organization through the information professionals and right on to the marketing assistants scrambling to issue an accurate and timely press release. I might also speculate that many of those who held library-related titles in past years have morphed into other types of information- and knowledge-related professionals, armed with their mastery of data.
But what about that under-populated show floor? Perhaps the exhibits aspect of this show (and others like it) has not been as flexible as the librarians—or the growing number of information-empowered employees—and has something to learn from them.