“Any confidence in myself is only really confidence in who I’m going to be, not what I currently am.“ – Daniel Victor
Please enjoy the transcript of Episode 017 with Daniel Victor (Daniel Victor Found an Opportunity in Social Journalism) in its entirety:
Dan Feld: Episode 17 of “Prologue Profiles”. I’m your host Dan Feld. My guest today is Daniel Victor (@bydanielvictor).
Daniel likes to do is his own thing. As a journalist this meant being one of the first to use social media to enhance his stories back in 2008. As he hopped from 4 jobs in 6 years, his unique skills and interest crossed paths with the needs of The New York Times who hired Daniel as a social media producer earlier this year.
You’ll hear Daniel discuss his desire to break off from the pack, his tricky relationship with confidence and how a big idea is closer than you think.
Daniel Victor: Hi, this is Daniel Victor. I’m a social media producer. And you are listening to “Prologue Profiles”.
Victor: A cute girl. It was strictly to impress a girl. I took 9th grade journalism class and I wasn’t really that interested in it but I was interested in her and she wanted me to spend stay in the newspaper staff, so what choice do you have?
Feld: How’d that play out?
Victor: We dated for one week and then she dumped me for my best friend.
Feld: [Laughs] But you still…
Victor: I have gotten over it and she’s actually still a good friend so everything worked out.
That year I ended up getting much more into the newspaper and I realized that I actually enjoy this thing and independently of her.
Feld: So Dan how would you describe what you do?
Victor: I am a social media producer for The New York Times and that consists largely of producing our daily Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest whatever accounts are hot at the moment. We also work with reporters, editors in the newsroom to instruct them how we can bet use social media and social techniques and tools in the reporting process.
Part of it is working with those reporters and editors but part of it also staying on top of in the industry what best practices are, coming up with memos, whatever it might be to figure out just in general how we can best use social media in the journalism process.
Feld: How long have you been in this role?
Victor: About 2 months now.
Victor: Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it.
Feld: It looks good on you.
Victor: Thank you [Laughs].
Feld: Back when you were starting out, did you know that social media would place such a big role in your journalism career?
Victor: When I graduated from college the jobs were in reporting. Of course there’s copy editing, eventually you become an editor, those jobs existed. But the idea of a social media producer did not exist in 2006 when I graduated. Social media barely existed at that point. Facebook was still a relatively new phenomenon. The idea that you could go into data as a journalism career didn’t exist back then.
Back then, you thought “Where I’m I going to be reporter? How can I move up within these print organizations that have for so long been the only employers for journalists like me?” And that was the only way that you could see it.
So for me to predict 4 years ago that my last 3 employers would be websites and that I would be incredibly proud of those websites and that that wouldn’t be in any way a mark against me but actually a great thing to say, there’s no way I could have imagined that.
Feld: So give us the rundown of where you worked after college.
Feld: Did you have a strategy when it came to managing your career at that time?
Victor: Not really. I never said “I need to be here for 5 years, I need to be here for…” because if I had anything like that it would have been blown to smithereens a long time ago [Laughter].
In fact I think when I first started my career I thought “I’m going to be at the Harrisburg Patriot News for 2 years. Then I’m going to move up to the Philadelphia Enquirer, be there for 2 to 4 years, and then I’m finally going to make it to the Washington Post and that’s where I’m going to spend my career.” I remember having that thought in college and now that career path just doesn’t exist anymore—maybe for a very small amount of people—but even the position that I would be in, to be a print reporter through all those years is something that changed dramatically in a very fast amount of time.
Feld: Was you move into a digital matter of I see where the industry is headed so I’m going to go there as well?
Victor: If I had one focus that has carried me, that has been consistent through this entire time, it’s that I wanted to continue to develop as a better journalist. Initially I saw getting experience as a print reporter as the best way to do that and it did—those 4 years as a print reporter still carry with me to everything I’m doing now—but as time has gone on, I realize that a social media role can really develop me as a journalist, coming to The New York Times can develop me as a journalist.So in that sense it’s not really a web vs. print thing. It’s what can make me better at the core skills that I need?
My career has actually been extremely fortunately timed and that I have come in as all this is new and as people are experimenting as nobody really know what the heck they’re doing yet. So it’s been exciting to me being able to be the one to experiment, to try to figure out where we’re going with this.
Feld: So now you are at The New York Times. How did you get on their radar in the first place?
Victor: I knew of an opening based on Twitter, Facebook, my normal networks and I’d heard of it for a long time but didn’t really think of it for a while because I had just arrived at ProPublica. I decided later on that it was worth at least having a conversation with the people at The Times. And when I applied, I applied to somebody who I did know from prior conferences, from Meetups here in town and we had followed each other on Twitter so she was very familiar with my work and the process moved very fast from there.
Feld: And when you found out you would be joining The New York Times, what was that like?
Victor: I had to allow myself a little bit of time to say “Holy crap, The New York Times thinks I’m worthy of working for them.” And that was electrifying thought and I will admit to that. But I really had to kind of push that down as soon as I could. You allow yourself that celebration and then you move on and you get to work.
I think some people expect to hear news like that and think that it’s like you’ve reached the summit but I really considered it a basic camp. I have gotten to a place where yes, I know I can do great work from here but I’m 28 years old, there’s so much left to do, there’s so much growth, that I can still do, there’s so much more that I can accomplish so it’s hard to really celebrate in any way. Just getting to this point it’s really just the beginning for me.
Feld: So how would you describe a typical day?
Victor: I’m actually still learning. I have only been on the team for a week and a half now. I did a full 5 weeks of training and that consisted of doing general web production which basically means preparing the stories to appear as they do on the site. Making sure that the photo that runs in print also appears online. Making sure that any related stories are linked within that article so that you are able to find out if you are reading about the Yankees then you can find everything else out about the Yankees that you need to.
Even though that’s not directly what I’m going to be doing, I really learned a lot about how the website works. How stories get from point A to point B. Really kind of got to know the newsroom better.
The idea that I was spending the first 5 weeks doing something that really doesn’t directly relate to my job was pretty inspiring actually. It showed that they really cared about the larger picture here and they are not going to force me into a small silo at my desk.
Feld: What’s been the focus of late?
Victor: So at the time of this podcast, the Olympics is going strong. We have a Olympics-only Twitter account called LondonLive which has been very successful so far. Myself and the other people on the team have been taking turns live-tweeting big events. We have been doing a couple of night shifts lately where—and this is one of those moments where I realize how lucky I am—I have been paid to sit on my couch, watch the Olympics and tweet about it.
Feld: You like saying that.
Victor: Yes I do. [Laughter] I love saying that.
Feld: What do you love about working in social media?
Victor: I love the ability it has to make our reporting better. I think it’s the strongest reporting tool that has come to reporters since the telephone. Never before could anybody have access to reporter in quite the way that they do now. If anybody in the world has a piece of information, they now have the ability to get that information out there. And sometimes that’s through self publishing and then that one tweet gets re-tweeted over and over and over and a journalist can look at that and say “Okay, I can verify that. That is true. I’ll pass it on to my people as well.” Sometimes that just means that hey, all of a sudden I feel like I know that New York Times social media producer who tweets about Penn State football on the weekends. [Laughter] I become more of a person to that user and then he or she is much more likely to actually tip me off to a story.
Feld: Is there anything you dislike about working in social media?
Victor: There can be a tendency within social media professionals to focus a little bit too much on the distribution end of it. How do I get the most re-tweets, how do I get the most Facebook shares? To me—those are valuable skills, don’t get me wrong—but when we focus too much on that we tend to leave behind the idea of how does this make our reporting better? I love getting eyeballs on our stories, it’s a great thing to do but I think the bluer waters are in how we make our reporting better.
Feld: What character traits would you say have helped you get to this point?
Victor: As a writer I always had a hatred of the cliché. When I would have a story that I was going to write, I would think of the first 3 leads that came to my mind and then I would cross them out because I always want to look for something that was a little more unexpected. If I was taking the easy pun, making the easy joke then that means I’m not doing a good enough job, I’m not trying hard enough.
I’ve kind of tried to take that approach with my overall career path.
Using a social network for my beat in Harrisburg was something that very few people had done before. The blog that I created after that was something that nobody had done before. Using Twitter early on in the days at Harrisburg was something that very few people were experimenting with. I always tried to kind of look for these, anything that would kind of keep me personally intellectually stimulated but I did also know that career-wise that that is something that employers do want to see.
I’ve always felt that anytime I’m in a pack I need to get the hell out of there. [Laughter] And I think that’s why I gravitated towards social journalism as opposed to print journalism because I realized that there is just an opportunity here.
Feld: And Dan, what’s your idea of success?
Victor: I think success is fulfillment. Success isn’t reaching a certain plateau, it’s not getting a certain award. I think success is knowing that you’re getting the most out of yourself that you are in a place where you will continue to get the most out of yourself and doing work that you can be proud of.
Feld: What would you say inspires you?
Victor: Other people in the industry who I really respect inspire me quite a bit. I remember being in a boardroom with Jim Brady who was in charge of TBD and we were talking to a potential partner of our site and just marveling at how he just was charming, how he very clearly explained his ideas and thinking that I am totally not capable of that but I need to get to that. I don’t know how long it’s going to take but I’m going to get to that. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have access to those kind of people and keeping a close eye on what they do and more importantly, how they do it, is what inspires me.
Feld: What fears do you have?
Victor: I fear that I don’t get my own way.
Feld: What do you mean by that?
Victor: I just fear that maybe my work ethic won’t match my ambition or maybe a mistake will overshadow the good work that I’ve done or the journalism industry will collapse upon itself. [Laughs] There are all sorts of things outside of my control that could happen. And I guess there are all sorts of things within my control that could happen. But honestly I don’t waste too much time on fear—I try not to at least. I tend to be a pretty hopeful person and I tend to be fairly confident in my own abilities.
Feld: Where does your confidence come from?
Victor: I have a complicated relationship with confidence because I have always been very, very confident in my own abilities and I try to match that with constant recognition that I am (a)Nothing and (b) That I have so much left to learn and so far to go and so any confidence in myself is only really confidence in whom I am going to be, not what I currently am.
To put that in another way, I think it’s very, very helpful to be confident that you are going to be something great and very damaging to think that you are great. Because if you think you are great, then you can kick your feet up. You’re done, you’ve done what you need to do. But if you are going to be great then you know that you have the ability to do so, so that keeps you moving but you also realize that there’s something ahead of you so you continue to work towards it.
Feld: And how do you keep that belief?
Victor: I think it’s forcing yourself to not doubt yourself too much. Knowing that when you’re surrounded by in a room of journalists who have won Pulitzers who have done so much with their 40 years in their career that you do belong in that room, that you shouldn’t cower in the corner [Laughs]. It means having confidence that when you have an idea that you can present that to people. Not questioning yourself, double questioning yourself, triple questioning yourself every time you write something. Being able to trust yourself, having that confidence in yourself I think frees you up to do your best work. And you’re not going to be able to do your best work without it.
Feld: So Dan, what advice would you give to someone who wants to get more out of their career but isn’t sure what to do?
Victor: One of my big inspirations was MoneyBall, the book, well before it became a movie. Because the book is all about finding inefficiencies in a market. For me, I saw an opportunity in social media, I saw it as an undervalued asset in journalism and so that’s why I thought if I go into this, I’m going to be able to carve a career path that maybe I wouldn’t get to do where all these other people are. So I always encourage people to look for those inefficiencies, look for opportunities where people aren’t. If there’s a pack, go the other way.
I like to think in terms of some of the ideas that I’ve gotten that have kind of launched my career, ideas don’t come from a kind of a 90° turn from where everybody else is going, they tend to go for more of a 10° turn from where everybody is going. Facebook was a 10° turn from Myspace. Apple was a 10° turn from Microsoft. So it’s not that you need to just suddenly be driving along the road or in the shower and suddenly have the idea that is going to launch your career. It’s more about just really, really knowing your industry—knowing what you do, knowing what you are good at—and then just thinking, how can we slightly shift this in a way that nobody’s done? In a way that you’re still performing your core duties, you’re still doing what you want to be doing. But you found this thing that you’ve made it your own. I think that’s the big thing that I’ve tried to do.
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