Look at any journalism job board today, and you’ll see a vastly different landscape from a decade ago. Gone, of course, are most of the print writing and editing jobs that were once the industry’s mainstay. In their place are enigmatic new job titles, such as interactive engagement specialist and social content strategist, that the communicators of yesteryear could never have imagined.
Yvonne Leow, Vox Media‘s senior Snapchat editor, is one of a whole new generation of communicators who are re-inventing the world of journalism and media in real time. At 27, Leow has become a master and an innovator in many of the newest forms of journalism, from interactive visual storytelling at the digital startup Project Thunderdome to data journalism as a Knight Journalism Fellow to social media content creation at Vox.
Leow came to the University of Oregon on Friday, May 20, to talk to School of Journalism and Communication’s (SOJC) students about her unique career path and what it’s like to be a Snapchat editor. Her presentation was part of the SOJC’s Demystifying Media seminar series, which is hosting its final talk of the term, “Journalism and Silicon Valley” with Clair Wardle, director of research for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, on Friday, May 27, 12-1 p.m., in Allen 140.
If you missed Leow’s seminar, don’t despair. We sat down with her to find out how she got to where she is today and her advice to new graduates just entering the media and communication field.
What’s your background?
My background is in visual storytelling. I started out doing online videos and then migrated to direct video at Project Thunderdome, a digital news startup in New York City. I was doing interactive storytelling there, working with data and graphics to tell an immersive story.
I was interested in broadening that scope, so when the Knight Fellowship came around, I thought archive data was worth digging into. I was accepted to the Knight Fellowship with a local news archive project in mind, but midway through decided to pivot to how people are generally communicating. That led me to messaging and how we use it for all facets of life, like online dating or making reservations.
A lot of the communication we do with our friends is messaging, but the news isn’t delivered that way. Our news happens through notifications, which feel — compared to a message — strict, formal and not as colloquial as they could be. When this Snapchat position came about, it seemed like an interesting confluence between visual storytelling and messaging that was also in the midst of journalism.
Do you use any of the skills you learned while studying journalism at UCLA in your current job?
At UCLA’s student newspaper, the Daily Bruin, there were many analogies to how the journalism industry is evolving. The paper merged with the school’s defunct broadcast television station and started creating online video, and we had to figure out how that was different from broadcast. That laid the foundation for me for visual storytelling. How do you sequence different images and audio? How do you create a narrative visually? Those were the guiding principles I’ve applied since, through many different iterations.
Do you feel like your age gives you an advantage in the social media field?
I think it has more to do with how interested and connected you are, especially when it comes to pop culture. Young people are often more attuned to it because their friends are communicating that culture to them.
I actually felt I was a little old for Snapchat, because it wasn’t one of my friends’ primary means of communication. It’s almost like you’re learning a language, and I feel my younger team members speak that language more fluently. I lean on them to decide the most captivating or engaging ways to tell a story that would resonate with Snapchat’s audience.
We want to be able to talk to that audience. That’s a key thing we’ve found: The way we talk to our audience on the website is very different from how we talk to our audiences on Snapchat or Facebook or Twitter. Figuring out what that tone is goes hand in hand with how often you’re immersing yourself in it.
How would you describe the language of Snapchat?
The way Snapchat works is through visual communication, unlike Twitter. I think Twitter’s evolving, but Snapchat is inherently visual and always has been. Visual communication has very unique traits. There’s also an element of fun to Snapchat, especially the filters and lenses, and selfies are also inherent. Those types of features shape the “language.”
How does Snapchat support Vox’s revenue goals and strategies?
Vox is a growing news organization that wants to reach as broad an audience as possible, like many digital media companies. Snapchat gives us a touchpoint to that and teaches us how to tell stories visually in a short-form way. We do amazing YouTube videos, but breaking those down into Snapchat-sized pieces is a different workflow, and there’s been a high learning curve. We’re getting a lot of takeaways editorially. We’re also getting this younger audience familiar with Vox as a source of news.
What role does social media play in journalism now?
We hear people talking about social media as democratized communication for the masses. Before, we were living in walled gardens, where if you didn’t know someone’s email address, you couldn’t get in touch with them. Now you can publicly shame someone on Twitter by just searching for their handle. So there are a lot of pros and cons to this new ecosystem, but it’s also given people a voice.
What we need to do now is figure out what role journalists play in filtering, clarifying and fact-checking that voice. People still crave quality news information. It’s harder to find sometimes when the masses are yelling, but I think the fact that everyone has the ability to contribute is empowering.
Vox’s M.O. is explaining the news. When people come to our stories, they walk away feeling smarter about a topic. We want people to understand the breadth of the situation and the history of particular topics, because that context is valuable.
It seems like Snapchat’s short-form platform would make offering that type of context challenging.
You’re right. We had to evaluate early on the tradeoffs — what we can explain and what we can’t. There are some legal issues we’re not even going to bother with. It’s similar to how you would make decisions about what would make a good photo versus a good video. Not everything falls under that umbrella, and why should it? The internet has made everything so widely available that if you’re not getting it on Snapchat, you can easily find it elsewhere.
What we’re doing with Snapchat is complementary but also independent. We’re taking Vox stories and reshaping and repackaging them to live on that platform.
What’s your advice to journalism students who are about to enter the media industry?
I’ve learned a lot over the course of my journalism career. One takeaway is always putting people and relationships first — valuing your team and who you meet in the industry, especially young people. Their generation of peers will eventually be the leaders. Working with a collaborative spirit has taken me a long way in journalism, so I believe in paying it forward.
Also, be prepared to embrace uncertainty. Question everything you know or “hold to be true” about journalism, because that is up in the air. The opportunity and power our generation of journalists has to define it is what makes it so exciting right now.
Finally, failure isn’t personal. People will list their achievements and milestones in a certain way, but that journey is never perfect. It’s always riddled with ups and downs, which is a good thing, because that’s where you grow and learn the most. Rebounding from failure is probably the more important takeaway: This didn’t go the way I wanted. How do I get up the next day and do it again? That type of mentality is important for anything we do, but journalism especially because there are no concrete paths right now.
Story by Andra Brichacek
Video and photo by Nic Walcott, OR Media