How to network when your room is the newsroom

This column originally appeared in Navigator, GroundTruth’s newsletter for early-career journalists.

As workplaces shifted to virtual during the pandemic, media organizations were no exception, effectively changing the way newsrooms operate, likely for good.

For young journalists entering the field remotely, charting the course of  their career can feel like an entirely new game. Initially trained to work in high-energy, constantly bustling newsrooms, where face-to-face interactions would lead to mentorship, promotion or even new job opportunities, early career journalists are left wondering if it’s possible to build a career through Zoom. Many are feeling the pressure that they may be behind, in terms of learning to build a network or making strong connections with new faces.

This edition of the Navigator will explore how journalists and professionals have navigated this hurdle and came out stronger because of it. We talked to Dr. Nick Morgan, a communication expert among prominent thought-leaders and author of “Can You Hear Me? How To Connect With People In The Virtual World.” Report for America corps members Laurel Demkovich, Ariama Long and Bobby Brier also weighed in with their personal experiences and advice for their fellow early career journalists.

Understanding the science of why it’s harder to connect

According to a survey from the Reuters Institute of Journalism in 2021, only 9% of newsrooms planned to return to a pre-pandemic work model, meaning the majority had already committed to switching to a hybrid work model. Now in full force in early 2023, this change is still somewhat new in terms of encompassing a journalist’s full career, but the difficulties that come with it are still felt.

Zoom, a platform used by many as a video-conferencing tool, has been instrumental in maintaining relationships, but never fully replaces a face to face meeting. Based on Morgan’s research, it comes down to the lack of information we receive from our senses, as they would all be engaged when in-person.

“All these senses are diminished, we can still see each other, but we’re seeing each other in two dimensions, not three. The result is that we humans don’t like to have restricted information from those five senses, it drives us crazy. It actually causes a low-level stress response,” Morgan said.

With less information being unconsciously exchanged and more so interpreted, understanding each other on a human level can feel daunting and stressful. Luckily, there are ways to overcome this “hump” and still find success and build trust among our peers, coworkers, and sources.

Take the leap and reach out

One of the most common words of advice we hear to connect with others is reaching out, but how can you do this successfully? For one, social media’s direct message features can expand your reach across the globe. This applies to both your peers, your editors and other coworkers.

“It’s definitely hard, to this day, it still takes me a long time to send that first message and build up that courage. But I’ve found that people are very willing to help young journalists, this field is very difficult and people who have been in the career a long time want to keep as many people in it as possible,” said Demkovich, who covers the Washington State legislature for the Spokesman-Review.

Light-heartedness can also make way for a more natural connection, which Long has leaned on when networking with others over the phone for the first time.

“You have to get over the awkwardness and be like, ‘Hey nice to phone meet you, here’s what I’m doing, here’s what’s going on,” said Long, a city government reporter for the New York Amsterdam News.

Create space for informal time

The workplace may have wholly embraced Zoom meetings, but that doesn’t mean that you can not use them to your advantage. Coming from a background of virtual reporting at New York University, Brier’s cohort relied on informal Zoom meetups away from structured time just to connect.

“A big icebreaker was people’s pets, somebody inevitably always had a cat that walked across the screen and that was a conversation starter. That’s how you learn more about folks, it was a really nice way to do that and I miss them,” said Brier, who currently covers mental health in rural areas for NJ Spotlight News.

Similarly, this idea of finding a mutual topic of interest and then building off of it, is an idea known as “racing to the middle,” coined by a friend of Morgan’s, as a technique for initially building a relationship.

“You share enough confidences and you build trust. Try to find something that you both are passionate about as quickly as possible and talk about that. From that, it can go onto other topics of real interest,” Morgan said. It’s a way to learn more about your coworkers that, if maintained, can be even more fruitful than the proverbial water cooler.

Lean on those around you

Working hybridly between writing at home, covering rallies, or teaching at a local high school for her service project, Long takes advantage of her network to create contacts with those nearby. Though it can feel daunting to meet up with those you’ve only seen virtually, she emphasizes that the results pay-off.

“I’ve met up with all the other NY Report for America people outside of official meetings. And that was cool, we even have a weird little group chat where we talk to each other about stuff for no reason. It makes it feel like you’re not alone,” Long said.

Those without built-in networks or who are starting a job in a new city can refer to their own institution’s directory. This could be as simple as sending a short email, casual message through Slack, or a comment through Zoom to a coworker you’d like to talk to more.

Go the extra mile

Sure, you could do your job without friendship, comradery, or mentorship among your coworkers. But fundamentally, we are wired to seek deeper connections among those who inspire, encourage, and challenge us in new ways. For Demkovich, the first step could be as simple as a compliment.

“I think you’ll find that a lot more people are willing to talk to you than you might think. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people if you’ve read something of theirs. Say, ‘I read this story of yours, I really liked it, would you want to get coffee?’” Demkovich said.

This advice carries in the field too; for those of us that make it out the door to cover a live event, mustering up the courage to approach a virtual face in real life can forge lasting connections.

“I think it’s always nice to start the initial connection online or even just back and forth in email and then it makes it a little easier, believe it or not, to randomly run into them,” Long said, “Just look at their picture so when you meet them out at a rally, remind them that we’ve spoken before and that I do kind of know you.”

Pushing beyond the daily tasks of your role can feel draining at times, but as journalists, we can only grow when we push each other up together. Brier explains that it’s important to find this support both inside and outside the field.

“It seems like the ones who have the success they were hoping for were the ones who stuck with it and that’s something I would say to anybody is to stick with it and find those people in your life who love and support you both in journalism and outside of it no matter what you do,” Brier said.