mathew ingram headshot
Every week we ask a leading figure in digital news about their work, their career and what it takes to be a journalist in the 21st century.     

This week we hear from Mathew Ingram, senior writer at Fortune, who gives us an insight into how he got started in the industry and what skills young journalists should focus on today.

What is your job title and what does that mean?

My title is senior writer, which I think mostly means that I am really old. But seriously, at Fortune we have a number of different levels when it comes to writing and reporting, as a lot of places do, and senior writer just means that I have been around long enough to know a few things.

So I tend to focus on longer, more analytical writing and less short news-brief style coverage for the magazine, although I do cover breaking news from time to time as well.

And I should note that I couldn't do what I do if it wasn't for my colleagues who cover breaking news all the time.

How did you get started in the industry?

Like a lot of people, I got an English degree and wasn't really sure what to do with it. But I wrote music reviews and an opinion column for the student newspaper when I was at university and I liked it so much that I decided I should try journalism school.

So I got a degree in journalism, and thanks in part to a couple of summer internship programs, I got an entry-level reporting job at a major newspaper, and then I got a job writing for a weekly magazine in Western Canada, where I covered everything from business to city politics.

It was kind of a crazy experience and I got thrown in the deep end, which was a good training ground for a future in web journalism.

What do you most look forward to at the start of your day?

I look forward to seeing my wife and kids probably most of all, but in terms of work I think I look forward most to catching up with what everyone has been posting on Twitter while I was asleep.

That probably sounds obsessive (and probably is) but one of the things I love about following so many smart people on social media is that there is always something I missed that I should be reading, or a debate about something important that I should be paying attention to.

I have built up a series of Twitter lists over the years and one of the big benefits of doing that is that it allows me to quickly pick up on and follow what people are talking about. There's nothing like a good argument on Twitter to get your blood going in the morning.

What does a normal day look like for you? In emoji.

mathew emoji

What three tools or apps do you use the most for work?

Twitter, Slack and WordPress are the main ones, I think. Twitter for all of the reasons that I mentioned above – because it allows me to follow important conversations about issues I'm interested in, and to see instantly what people are sharing or talking about.

There is almost always something on Twitter that makes me reconsider a position I hold, or adds important information to something I'm writing, and that's incredibly valuable.

Slack is the default internal communications tool at Fortune, so it's the way I stay connected to my colleagues in New York and San Francisco. I work remotely, so I sort of feel disconnected a lot of the time, and using Slack helps me feel more in sync with what's going on.

And WordPress is the publishing tool we use for our posts at Fortune's website, so I am pretty much in it all day or at least looking at it. It is so much better than some of the internal content-management systems I've used at various publications.

What would you focus on if you were training as a journalist now?

I think I would try to develop as many broad technical skills as possible, whether it's programming or curation tools or video, because those things are becoming more and more important for journalists all the time, and having a few of those on your resume would make you more appealing to a lot of places.

But I think more than anything I would focus on developing a voice and a passion about a specific topic or area of interest – it doesn't really matter which one.

Obviously reporting and writing skills are important, but there are almost infinite numbers of people who can do that, and many of them are prepared to do it for nothing.

Reporting the facts is valuable, but it isn't going to set you apart in a business where facts have become a commodityMathew Ingram, Fortune
But there's still a shortage of smart people who know an area and are passionate about it, and can write intelligently and analytically about that topic, and that will always have value.

What skills do you think are important to your role?

For my role in particular, I think the most important skill is probably critical thinking. But also important is the ability to find information quickly and make sense of it, and then put it in a way that helps others understand it.

I like to say that we aren't in the news business any more, we're in the 'understanding' business – there are endless sources of news briefs and headlines, but not that many places to find smart thinking about what those headlines mean.

That will always be something people need and want, and in many ways I think it's more in demand now than it has ever been, because the number of information sources has expanded so dramatically.

Reporting the facts is valuable, but it isn't going to set you apart in a business where facts have become a commodity.

What has your current job taught you about the industry?

I think my current job has reinforced the fact that traditional brand names like Fortune still have value, and there are a lot of people out there who are fans of outlets like ours, but at the same time it is harder than ever to broaden that audience because there is so much noise and competition out there.

There are so many media outlets chasing the same half a dozen stories every day, and desperately trying to get everyone to click on them using whatever methods they can, and many of them have bigger Twitter followings or Facebook networks or whatever it might be, and that's hard to compete with when you are coming from behind.

But I think the kind of thoughtful analysis and context that we provide at Fortune does have value and that people will recognise that.

What would you say to someone applying to work at your organisation?

I would advise anyone who is thinking of applying to Fortune or Time Inc. to make sure that they have a broad range of experience under their belts, whether it's general news or business or entertainment, and hopefully a range of skills that make sense for the web.

Engaging with our readers as journalists is as much a part of the job as the actual journalism itselfMathew Ingram, Fortune
And I would also hope that they have a social following of some kind, something that shows they understand how to build a social network around their writing.

Writers can no longer rely on the organisation they work for to develop that following, they have to be prepared to do that themselves, and that requires a little extra effort.

Anyone who can show that they have done that already on their own would probably get a close look at Fortune I would think, over and above their other skills.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

I think the best piece of advice I got was when someone told me that engaging with our readers as journalists is as much a part of the job as the actual journalism itself.

Jeff Jarvis has said that we need to think about the work we do more as a service than just a product, and try to devote as much time to the service part as the content-production part.

I think a lot of media outlets are just pumping out as much content as they possibly can, hoping to get people to click on it so they can generate some advertising revenue.

Obviously the business side has its own requirements, but when it comes to journalism or the news, I think we need to spend more time thinking about how (or if) we are serving our readers more than just expecting them to click so we can pay the bills.

Join us next week for a new look inside the industry – in the meantime, check out our previous Q&As with digital media experts.

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