RYAN: Hello, everyone! Welcome back. We are here for our final afternoon together at SRCCON:WORK. I want to take a moment to exhale and I want to give you permission to all exhale along with me because we have done a lot of work together so far. We’ve spent a great amount of time digging into the three conference themes that we came to work on together, careers, mental health, team work and now we’re going to take some time to bring all those threads together, and start thinking about what comes next so we have all these ideas in our heads. This is Friday afternoon. So what are we gonna do with them on Monday morning, right?
We are really hopeful that SRCCON:WORK is a place where our work is gonna start and not end. And I think we all know that it is going to take a lot of work to turn our newsrooms to the places that we hope they can be but we’re all here because that’s the challenge that we’ve chosen. And together, as a group, we’re a community who can support each other in making that happen. So we want to spend the next few hours setting some goals and thinking what happens after we get home.
So we’re going to open up that piece of the conversation this afternoon with our first set of speakers, Nicole Zhu, David Yee, Nicole is a full-stack engineer, David is a senior director of engineering. Two other things to know, Nicole hosts a super cool podcast about the Asian-American experience. If you can find David’s Instagram, it will make you extremely food-jealous. So keep that in mind. They’re here together to do a talk as a team which I’m excited about. What it means to build a productive, professional relationship around advice that stays meaningful while our industry keeps changing underneath us. So we’re excited about — we’re excited to hear about the right ways to share both knowledge and experience, thank you, David and Nicole.
[ Applause ]
DAVID: Kay… just recapping. If you feel cool with it, close your eyes. Inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth. One!
[ Laughter ]
One, two! I got that backward! I almost got it there. No one did it!
[ Laughter ]
I could have so on we learned this this very morning. But I just wanted to get that out.
NICOLE: Can everyone hear us okay? Can you guys hear me?
SISI: Less so.
NICOLE: Now? If I just talk into the —
[ Laughter ]
DAVID: No, it really is. I got the patriarchy microphone.
NICOLE: And how about now? Is that better? Cool, I’ll talk loud and sort of.
DAVID: And I will speak very softly.
NICOLE: All right. So today we’re going to talk about media mentorship and what makes it different from other forms of mentorship.
DAVID: My name is David Yee, I am the director of publishing for the audience experience at Vox Media.
NICOLE: And David is my boss.
DAVID: Which is to say we have a managerial relationship but we also have a mentorship relationship that draws on the same lessons that we’re going to talk to you about today.
NICOLE: So a mentorship, as many of you may know, typically involves talking to someone more senior than you. Yyou ask for their advice, you bounce ideas off of them, and hopefully it empowers you to take charge of your own career and really be your own advocate. There are many types of mentorship that we won’t dive into in this talk today but we do hope that the things that we touch on will still apply to those conversations. So we’re going to talk from this mentorship model precisely because in media mentorship, you can’t necessarily lean on this last bullet point here, the efficacy speaking from their own experience. So we’re going to explore what this means: why it’s both good for mentors and mentees to keep an open mind throughout this whole process. And specifically what this talk hopes to answer, and more about what our conversation is about is the following questions. So from a mentee’s perspective, what does it mean to chart and develop a career with roles that feel ephemeral? And how can we as newsrooms help and support the roles and one another?
DAVID: Conversely, what does it mean when you’re not sure where your job is going to speak to an experience in an effective, meaningful mentorship model and how can you sort of start at square one?
NICOLE: So beginning mentorship is unique, which means it presents its own challenges. I think the root of all of this is the fact that our role as technologists and reporters over the years has fundamentally changed. For reporters nowadays, it’s not just the stories, it’s the what’s the Instagram caption that goes with this, how do you put this into video, SEO, all those other questions. So as a mentees, how do you get the answers to the questions that you don’t even know how to ask, this is doesn’t necessarily hold true in an industry like ours where, again, it changes so rapidly and the velocity of work is so different. We think that, however, presents an opportunity to bend this traditional Q&A framework of mentorship and instead build the conversation around more messy, and far-reaching questions rather than focusing on trying to get clean and concise answers.
DAVID: Conversely, how and if you can offer advice when you’re concerned that your experience has lost its context. That you don’t have the same job, your mentee, they have the same job that you thought you had ten years ago. That doesn’t hold water. One thing that we found useful in talking about this is probably everybody in this room is thinking about the same problems whether you’ve been in the industry for ten, 15, 20 years, or you’re just starting. As a mentor, leaning on those questions and exploring those questions together is probably a really useful tool.
NICOLE: And because your mentorship might not be with someone who’s in the same role, or maybe they’re in a different tangential industry, it means that you can’t speak to the same nitty-gritty details of the work. There’s also many roles today that didn’t even exist five or ten years ago, and this can both a pro and a con because we hope that the craft is different, or it changes, the mission is still the same. We think this actually introduces an interesting opportunity because it provides flexibility but not necessarily a road map. And while this is super daunting and we’ve all faced this, we also think it’s a bit of a welcomed challenge.
DAVID: This is a challenge that, by the way, has resulted into the room today. This is a news world that really, as an industry, is uncommonly open, and engaged, and as you might realize, pretty small. Take the opportunity in your mentorship to be expansive in your conversation. You have to be pragmatic, approaching sort of the day to day problems of the person you’re mentoring but also be imaginative and we’ll get into some of that in the strategies and tactics. Oh, I’m supposed to say this, too. It’s a conversation and not a transaction. This is because we can get a long view of where things are going. We can get a long view of what a career means here. You cannot do that transactionally. You cannot do that by saying, how can I deal with this problem or that problem. What you want to do, if you can and you trust each other, is build a relationship that lasts over time, and possibly between jobs. That’s the most useful way to approach it. So some common strategies overall approaches to this work. Before we get started on this, we make an assumption about good media mentorship that I think is reflective of good mentorship as a whole, or we hope it is, which is about making your mentorship about the person, about the whole person, making sure that their work supports them while trying to find a way to help that person succeed and the craft succeed. We wouldn’t be here today if we just all wanted us as individuals to succeed. We’re here today because we want to for both — we want to make that connect.
NICOLE: So first and foremost, we want to encourage and optimize flexibility whether that’s the role of the industry, or the role of the person. And also this means for mentors, honestly thinking about some rather uncomfortable questions. For example, if their mentee’s skill set actually lends itself better to a role that’s outside their company if they mentor within a company or possibly outside of the media industry entirely. And as we’ve discussed as a major theme of this conference, this concept of bringing your whole self to the work, to the workplace, into the relationships and that’s no different here in media mentorship. And as a mentor, you’re centering around a whole person, you’re actually going to encounter some situations that you won’t be necessarily equipped to counsel on or speak to. We touched on, yesterday, things like substance abuse and mental care, but what’s important is to acknowledge this, and make sure that at any opportunity you can, navigate your mentee for assistance whenever possible.
DAVID: That feeling when the wizard you knew is enthralled by the Dark Lord. You should always be aware of the wiz and the elder. Definitely be aware of the wiz and the elder. But as a mentor sort of tactically, as a mentor, you need to be really mindful about things you don’t know about, or that you used to know that you no longer know. Probably some of the most fruitful conversations you have sort of emerge as a mentor. It’s like, I don’t know. This used to be this way, it’s no longer this way. For the mentee, in a good way, be skeptical. You can question the context, you can question the underlying situation that gives rise to your mentor’s advice. You should question that openly. You should definitely evaluate it before you act on it. Conversations about the conversation especially in this space are really useful. And so be really skeptical and discuss that.
NICOLE: So we just talked previously about how different roles can present a challenge but at the same time they can be a huge source of strength. Use the conversation to surface shared concerns or questions because you’ll basically be surprised at the things that you do have in common and you can, again, go back talking about the strategies and tactics to start addressing them. And while this is definitely a good exercise to do with a mentor we also recommend just doing this in general in your life and then be as honest as possible when it comes to answering important questions.
DAVID: In the same spirit as what we’ve been discussing, sort of advise less, inquire more, ask questions. You’re going to feel, as a mentor, compelled to tell stories and experiences — or at least I do, maybe to a fault. When you do that, provide that context and that experience as a datapoint and never a conclusion. Again, always contextualize your experience and remember as you offer that advice, that there is no monolithic experience in any role, in any team, in any company in this industry. You may have to do the exact same work that are thoroughly different for reasons that are not obvious. And, again, lean always on the questions. We find a lot more answers by asking rather than telling.
NICOLE: So what are some actionable tactics that both mentors and mentees can take back in sustaining meaningful relationships? What we mean by tactics is what are the topics of conversations that can occur between a mentor and a mentee, and what are the ways that you can frame that conversation?
DAVID: Let’s get some things out of the way. So there are questions that you all are probably asking: whether you’re a mentor, or mentee, or aspiring mentor/mentee. Where is media going? How do I face the challenges? Have I made it right decisions? Should I be a public defender or a farmer? These questions of existential dread are really fun to talk about, and sometimes yield fruit but they’re often flying at too high an altitude to approach, especially as you’re building a relationship and we suggest breaking them down into their constituent parts and concerns.
NICOLE: And so, obviously, for mentees, a big part of that is their career. So I think it’s mentees it’s important to think about your career in the present moment, are you well equipped to do your job with your current skill set. Ask yourself what it actually is you do day to day and your title. And if not, can you take a step back with your mentor and see if you can describe the work. Describing the work correctly and then see how that feels. Also think again about this huge theme that we’ve had at SRCCON: sustainability and self-care. Interrogate your work culture, your work style, is it draining or is it unhealthy? Do you see yourself moving up as it evolves, or do you see yourself doing something else? And in the true Marie Kondo spirit of this talk — she’s so young, it’s crazy —
DAVID: Or she looks young.
NICOLE: Does it bring you joy? And also equally important, does it bring you appropriate compensation and recognition? Do you enjoy the people that you work for or with? And if any one of those things are missing, how do you make sure that you’re paid, valued, supported, and energized? And, finally, think about the long game here. Allow yourself to get kind of mad, and philosophical, what is the work that you’re meant to be doing? Does it correspond or align with the work that you’re good at, with stuff that you enjoy, and if not how can we reconcile all those differences. And, finally, take a step back and think about your trajectory and your path. Are you on the path to achieving those sorts of lofty high career goals are you sort of making your way? Is this a Robert Frost situation where you don’t really know where to go? Is it a known road or is it one that you sort of need to be a trailblazer on your own?
DAVID: So there are a couple of different ways that we’ve found useful to talk about this from a mentorship position. One is to consider the context around the work that your mentee is doing. In four dimensions, just among several, role, team, company, and industry. So could you do different work elsewhere on the team? Could you work on a different team doing the same thing? You get into uncomfortable spaces but it’s worth exploring. Is it possible that you should be at another company that better suits your needs? Maybe a smaller company, a bigger company. And industry-wise, is this the right space for you? Is this the kind of work that — where you can be healthy and successful? We don’t want to talk about that. I mean, this is something that you have to consider. Another way in this that is useful for mentors who have been around for a while is you might recognize that there is a lot more flexibility and malleability in how you define work and roles at your company. And suggesting to your mentee, giving them permission to create or invent a role even as an exercise is really, really handy as a tool. And if you are a sponsor, which is something that we’re not discussing but was discussed really well yesterday can be a really interesting tool. Other things that never change. The work changes but buildings don’t. You have hopefully worked at a few different companies. You know how organizational charts work. Take the time to explain your organizational chart. Take the time to explain your company politics. Give people — give your mentee an understanding of how the team dynamics are working at an executive level. Also from a vantage point, you’re more likely to see if your mentee is stuck than your mentee is. Make sure their work is recognized and valuable to the organization or at least be able to point out to them that there’s a cognitive dissonance between their permission and your perception and the company’s perception. And lastly, serve as a switchboard for your mentee that you know elsewhere. Help them form relationships and conversations with people at other companies and other teams. Act as a force multiplier sort of for their career. That’s super handy.
NICOLE: So really what we’re thinking about here are meta-skills, which are things like knowing how to craft or ask thought-provoking questions and we’re not solving new problems per se, but we’re solving them in new contexts and that brings new complexities. So, again, as we sort of discussed, there is no monolithic experience for any person in media anymore. There’s no one way for us to get where we need to go. Creative media is malleable and so it’s optimized for flexibility. As a person grows and industry changes. Above all, favor the health and the growth of the individual.
DAVID: This is the task that you’re charged with as mentors. And if there’s anything that we’ve heard in these talks over the last two days, it’s just how deep down you have to get in accepting the person’s psychology and work. The one answer and one skill that you can’t provide is a sense of self-agency and the tools, and the power, and the permission to exercise that self-agency in your organization on your team, elsewhere in the organization, in other companies in this organization, and in their career as a whole. And that’s what we really want to leave you with.
NICOLE: So we threw a lot of questions at you. We hope you discuss them amongst yourselves. Please talk about them with us. If you have any comments, questions, feedback, if this talk brought you joy, please let us know. We’ll be around. Thank you.
[ Applause ]
RYAN: Thank you so much, David and Nicole. It was so cool having you do that talk as a team, and really helpful to hear the personal experiences from both sides of the mentorship. We’re going to take just a second to re-mic and then we’ll be up to introduce our final speaker of SRCCON:WORK!