She has a book, a brand and a journalism career that spans more than a decade, under her belt, but Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, 8) isn’t a traditional, “Just the facts, ma’am” reporter. Instead, the New York City native looks for innovative ways to spread information and organize people, whether planning events for the Hacks/Hackers NYC group or giving away money through the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge.
Lee has a knack for spotting trends. When Twitter went online, Lee says she called co-founder Biz Stone and told him that his product would change journalism. She knew blogs could become the new newspapers as early as 2002, she says.
For a tip-off on what Lee thinks is the next big thing, read on:
How did you get your start in journalism? Was there an incident or period of time during which you feel you officially became a journalist?
I was co-editor in chief of my high school newspaper at Hunter High School in New York City. The summer between high school and college, I did a summer program at Dow Jones. I interviewed a teenage boy who was 16 or 17, and he’d already tried to commit suicide twice. This was when coming out was still a big deal.
I was hearing him tell his story, and I thought, “I want to tell stories and give voice to the voiceless.” It’s a very cheesy statement now, but I felt it.
I pursued what was an established route back then in the mid-90s. You got an internship, and you climbed your way up. I did Newsday, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and then The New York Times. That’s not necessarily the way I would tell people to do it now.
It was sort of an established route back then in the mid 90s. One girl (said to me), “I want to be a film critic!” And I was like, “Oh, start a blog and start writing film reviews and if they’re good people will notice.” She seemed perplexed. That was 2002. It’s just so obvious now, but it wasn’t at that time.
You spent nine years as a reporter at The New York Times, during which you became well-known for writing trend stories. What was your most successful trend story, and why?
My most successful trend story was “Man Date” – this idea of two straight guys going out. Then, people would use that term in my presence and not even know that I created it. A movie was inspired by it! (Editor’s note: The movie’s producer has said that the screenplay was written years before Lee’s story was published.)
What should young journalists look for when they want to write a trend piece? What are some pitfalls?
Trend stories give a name to a phenomenon that everyone is experiencing but no one has put their finger on. The skill is in converting those things to a text story. It’s finding the cute, perfect example, the clever ending. I just did a story on how men are finding awkward how to hold an iPad. You need the kicker ending, which was a famous artist who wore his iPad in his jacket, because all his jackets were designed for sketch pads. So you have to ask the right questions.
Trend pieces do well on the internet, because they go viral.
You took a buyout from The New York Times in late 2009, during a wave of industry-wide lay-offs and buyouts. How has your career changed since then?
I spend a lot more time on conference calls! I was satisfied with what I’d done. I know how to write an article, I know how to write a book – done! Now, how to build an organization? It’s a different skill set. In the real world now, knowing how to organize events is a really important skill.
I spend a lot of time finding start-ups. I spend a lot of time thinking and talking to people, bringing ideas to people who want to fund them. I’m writing a screenplay. I’m also producing a documentary.
Companies have offered to pay me money, but I want to be a neutral player, so I’ve generally not taken money. (I say) “I’m helping you as a company anyway, because I believe in your product.”
Based on your own experience, how can a traditional journalism education and background fit into today’s new media/personality-driven/convergence world?
(For journalists,) the most important thing is your sense of holding power accountable. Yay for celebrity stuff and sports journalism, but in reality, journalism exists as the immune system of a functioning democracy. The white blood cells are the newspapers and radio stations and television stations – but that has changed. The white blood cell count has changed.
But now a generation of programmers will also have that (sense of) accountability. That’s the kind of people who are drawn to journalism. That sensibility is innate for me.
If I were to start things over again, I would learn user-interactivity. That’s one of the hugest demands.
You have written a book (The Fortune Cookie Chronicles), you appeared on The Colbert Report, and you seem to be involved in many different projects. People know your work, but some also recognize you as Jennifer 8. Lee, the brand. How important is branding to individual journalists? Do you have any tips for young journalists who want to create their own brands?
I’m not sure I knew I was a brand!
There was a point when branding was a dirty word, and that has receded a bit. A lot of people want to have a personal connection with a journalist. So on Twitter, or on Facebook…it’s easier for an individual journalist to create a sense of connection than it is for institutions. They can be more flexible with who they are. There was a time when journalists didn’t even have bylines!
I don’t think it’s necessary to have a brand. Some people are comfortable with it, and others are not. Life goes on.
You serve as a judge for the Knight Foundation’s “News Challenge,” which funds innovative news and community platforms and tools. In your opinion, what are some of the most innovative media projects happening now?
There’s a lot of potential in data visualization, and there’s a lot of potential in the idea of following people, giving them cred for being good traders of news. There’s one called Xydo, about finding (news), surfacing things, getting points.
There’s a company called Ezetop based out of Dublin. It’s a mobile company that processes payments between cell phone carriers. So many mobile phones (especially in the developing world) are pay as you go. So if you can move money to these devices, it’s the equivalent of currency. You can make micropayments in significant ways using this interface. So in mobile minutes, credit on your hone is as good as cash. Then you can assign and reward people for reporting (the news) in a way that is meaningful to them.
Many of the UPIU’s j-students are from India, China, Kenya and other countries. Do you have any thoughts on how these students can make a name for themselves globally?
I think crowdsourced, mobile reporting is very interesting (in the developing world) in a way that’s not as interesting here. (For example,) Ushahidi (a crowdsourcing platform designed after 2008 violence in Kenya) came from the developing world because they have different needs and different infrastructure.
In the United States, so much is in legacy media, and legacy media by its definition has to be conservative. Whereas developing nations, it’s much more of a wild west kid of world. The key thing for journalists, or people who aspire to be journalists, to remember is that public trust can take a lifetime to build and a second to destroy. So whatever you build, or the institution you join, the culture of it is really important.