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By Carl Brooks

Nieman Lab’s Joseph Litcherman Shares Industry   Wisdom

Joseph Lichterman, staff writer at Harvard’s Nieman Lab, is a Twitter savant who has managed to stand out in a crowded and growing community of media professionals and journalists. If he isn’t on your radar (or timeline), he should be. A recent graduate, he is at the perfect intersection in his life and career to offer applicable advice to students hoping to enter the field of media. His writing covers topics that range from detailing the latest tools for media professionals to how to best utilize social media as a medium for telling compelling stories. 

In our conversation we touch on everything from what it takes to make it in the media business, how media and journalism are changing, the ability to get a job through your personal tweets, and his personal journey from undergrad student to a full-time writer. Plus, find out why Facebook groups are the best kept secret in journalism. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

Q: What made you want to get into media?

A: I had always wanted to work as a reporter. I have memories of me as a kid laying sections of the newspaper out because I couldn’t hold the whole thing up. Storytelling has always been a passion of mine.

Q: What were some important experiences early on in your journey?

A: I went to the University of Michigan and I worked for the student newspaper during my four years there. By my senior year, I was working 50 or 60 hours a week, to the detriment of my grades [laughs], but that experience was definitely formative. There was no faculty advisor, so I really learned by doing and from other students as well. We had a staff of about 150 with varying roles, and some, like me, were crazy and spent way too much time there, and then there were people who wrote one article a week for four years. This is where I fell in love with it.

Q: Can you talk about your transition from a student writer to the application process for landing your position as a staff writer?

A: My process to get here was interesting. I graduated in May 2013 and that summer I got an internship with Reuters in their Detroit bureau since I’m from Michigan. I had interned previously covering the auto industry and they hired me knowing I had some background in the auto industry and that’s primarily what I hired to focus on. Then in July of 2013, Detroit filed for bankruptcy, which was a massive story and I was moved to that beat for the rest of 2013.

I spent a lot of time on Twitter, as I always do, and in June of that summer, I saw a tweet that the Nieman Lab sent out saying: “We’re hiring a staff writer.” I filled out the application and here I am two years later.

Q: Do you think that finding positions on social media is going to become more common?

A: Yeah, it [already is]. I realized, there are countless stories of people getting noticed on social media or within the comment sections. My favorite story like that is the editor of The Atlantic’s political section, Yoni Appelbaum, got noticed by The Atlantic because he was an active participant in Ta-Nehisi Coates comment section. He and Ta-Nehisi would talk often and that ultimately turned into him writing for The Atlantic. Similarly, I was listening to [a recent] “Longform” podcast, where host Max Linsky was interviewing Tracy Clayton, host of BuzzFeed’s podcast “Another Round,” and she told the story of how she got her job at BuzzFeed from Twitter.

It’s awesome that you can do that from Twitter, but networking and having connections is still really important. In a sense, I think the industry needs to move beyond that in a lot of ways because it’s so circular. It’s important to get new people in and from more diverse backgrounds. Social media has been a great tool for that; giving people an opportunity whereas otherwise they might not have had it.

Q: What is something all aspiring media professionals need to be doing to stay current and in the loop?

A: It depends on what sort of job you’re looking for. It helps to know where the industry is going and what areas are primed for growth. Video is huge now and is only going to get bigger. Facebook has been prioritizing [video] and you see lots of outlets tailoring videos to Facebook or Snapchat. That’s an in-demand skill that will be really helpful as you move forward.

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Q: Are there other less visible places that students can go to stay on top of media and learn about new opportunities? 

A: There are a lot of private Slack groups and Facebook groups. I’m in a Facebook group called “Public Media Millennials” which is young people who are interested in public media. People post job listings or ask for advice. There’s also a Social Journalism Facebook group with a couple thousand people who are doing social media for journalism outlets, and it’s an ongoing conversation about online media. Finding places like that are really helpful.

Melody Kramer, who used to work for NPR, but now works for the Federal government and writes for Poynter, wrote a column a couple months ago highlighting some Facebook groups where people are having these conversations. One of the groups she highlighted is called “Binders Full of Women Writer” and it’s a place for writers who are women to network and talk. One of the rules of the group is that it’s very private. And people got upset that she even exposed the group, there was controversy surrounding that.

Q: That kind of brings me to one of my next questions: In terms of diversity in media, there have been comments that this is one of the least diverse fields to work in. Can you speak to how the old adage of “who you know is more important than what you know” and how that has worked in your case specifically? How does that impact matters of diversity in media?

A: I sort of built upon my previous work. I used to work at a place called Automotive News which was a trade publication covering autos. I’m sure it helped that I went to the same college as the editor and I was able to network through that connection and that helped me land my Reuters gig. That ultimately led to where I am now.

In terms of diversity, people always say stuff like “oh yeah, we want more diversity,” but there’s a big difference between that and taking concrete steps. I think a lot of places that are hiring want people to fit into their culture and that culture is oftentimes white guys that are highly educated. They have to recognize that there are plenty of people beyond that and they need make extra steps to make sure you have a diverse set of applicants or that you’re reaching into other networks outside of your own to make sure that you’re aware of other talented people that might not be in the same circle as you. People are starting to do more of that. There’s obviously a long way to go, but I think that people talking about it and being aware that it’s an issue is a good place to start.

Q: You talked about video, what are some other essential tools or concrete skills media professionals should know and have?

A: There’s this whole debate about whether journalists should know how to code. I mean if you are a coder there are a lot of development and product development positions, but if you’re a writer [or budding publicist], then I don’t know if learning how to code will land you a job. Being really good at what you would like to focus on is of the utmost importance even as video and other formats become important. Stick to and hone your craft. Read a lot! I am constantly reading other people’s work and hopefully I’m getting better. I felt silly whenever people would say that to me when I was in college, like “oh just keep at it” or “make yourself indispensable.” But now that I’ve been working for a couple of years, it makes sense to me. 

Q: What are some things you would go back and tell a younger version of yourself about what you would need to succeed at the professional level?

A: A short answer would have to be more coding and video skills. A more articulate answer would be, understand how the business side works at media outlets and publications, which is super important for understanding where you are located in terms of the business structure.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception you had before landing a full-time job in media that has since been dispelled? 

A: I used to look at big places like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and marvel at all the cool stuff they were doing. And obviously, I still think they’re doing amazing things, but they’re dealing with a lot of the same issues most other media outlets are. It’s really interesting to see how they try and figure out how to best tell stories online. I assumed that before I started this, not that they were perfect, but I idolized them. Now that I get to talk to people that are a part of those big organizations and report for them, I get to see their flaws up close and they’re definitely dealing with a lot of the same issues many other places are.

I didn’t know how disruptive the internet is either. I knew it had negatively impacted business models and changed how people report the news, but I didn’t fully appreciate the scale of that and how that presents challenges to young and aspiring journalists. A whole tier of newspaper has disappeared, but conversely there are a lot of places that exist now, that didn’t two or three years ago.

Q: Can you talk about one class or experience during your undergrad you didn’t think would be helpful for your career but proved the opposite?

A: The most helpful thing I did in college was working at the newspaper. I only took one journalism class in college, a magazine writing class my senior year, which I think was useful. I learned to write narrative nonfiction, which I enjoyed. Working at the student newspaper, though, was where I got to hone my skills. My basic economics class helped as well. Having a basic understanding of how businesses and markets work is certainly helpful for my beat.

Q: What are some of the biggest changes you see in media and reporting, including technology and apps; and can you point to two or three of those changes and pieces of technology that emerging media professionals need to know?

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A: The biggest thing that will continue to change how we do everything is how important mobile-consumption is. Most news organizations get more than half of their traffic from mobile devices. So, how you write a story for a newspaper or a desktop with a big screen is also how you write for mobile devices. That is the biggest change and will probably continue to be the biggest change going forward.

Another thing is that most people are using Facebook, in particular, and social media in general to find their news. Learning how to optimize your content for those platforms and knowing how to best take advantage of those places is super important. Facebook is still massive. Some younger people and journalists, in particular, live on Twitter, but most people are on Facebook getting their news. BuzzFeed has something like 90 Facebook pages, and 75% of what BuzzFeed publishes is not on but elsewhere, like Facebook, Snapchat, etc.

Facebook has been prioritizing video in its algorithm. They are trying to get people to spend more and more time on Facebook so that’s why products like Instant Articles are emerging. Instant Articles is an interesting new tool that will be made available to the public in April, in that everyday users can utilize it as a distribution channel [for their content]. Publications are going to rely more and more on Facebook and these big platforms. Facebook, for example, doesn’t care so much about news as much as they care about keeping people engaged on Facebook and they see news as a way to do that. So, figuring out what it means to not publish so much on your platforms but on Facebook’s or another platform is going to be important and will lead to big questions.

Q: It’s hard to tell for some students, myself included, who do work on a smaller scale, in smaller internships or at a smaller school, and get met with a certain amount of praise, to really know what we’re good at or if we have what it takes to do well.

A: That’s the thing about my experience at Reuters, I was a part of a team and I was counted on and expected to produce. It was a lot of responsibility, but incredibly rewarding. Having my writing go out to a global audience was great, but also frightening. 

Q: Before I end things, can you give me a quick list of relevant people in the industry that aspiring media professionals need to know?

Q: There was a great panel on “product” my colleague Shan Wang wrote about that featured a handful of really smart people that I would recommend you check out: Stacy-Marie IshmaelAron Pilhofer, and Trei Brundett. Three other awesome people that just got the David Carr Fellowship at the New York Times are John HerrmanAmanda Hess, and Greg Howard


Want to swap stories or just network? Tweet me at @CarlBrooksJr and while you’re there, check out @cencom and more opportunities on their Facebook page.