Steve Buttry to journalists: Jump in and learn

I asked Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement & Social Media for Journal Register Co., if he would write a guest post for Buffy’s World. I was thrilled that he immediately said yes. Steve is one of my online heroes. Not only is he a nice guy, but he’s always super helpful and has tons of great advice. While we haven’t met in person yet (he hopes to visit soon), I feel like I know a lot about him just by reading his blog, following him on Facebook and Twitter. When I read the column he sent, I couldn’t help but smile. He’s dead-on here.

A huge thank-you to Steve for taking the time to write this post. I know you will enjoy it.


I spend a lot of my time training journalists, but I think the best thing you can do to boost your journalism career is to train yourself.

If I am talking to editors or news company executives, I tell them that they should be investing in training for their staffs. But my advice to journalists is: Don’t let your employer control or limit your professional growth. Seek out training opportunities yourself (and pay the cost if your bosses won’t and you can afford it). And dig in and teach yourself.

No one taught me how to use Twitter. I just started using it. I didn’t understand it and I felt kind of stupid at first. But I started following people. I hit their links. I tweeted about what I was doing and reading. I retweeted (once I figured out what that was) things I found interesting. I asked stupid questions. When people tweeted links that explained things about Twitter, I read them and learned. Eventually, I learned enough to start teaching others.

Same with using Storify. I created an account, started pecking around and found out that it wasn’t any harder than searching, clicking, dragging and writing, all of which I already knew how to do. So I started doing it and started getting better at it. By asking a question on Twitter, I learned one trick (double-click an item in the search module to move it to the top of the story module). By just following smart people on Twitter (@bydanielvictor), I learned another trick (shift-double-click sends an item from the search module to the bottom of the story module). And now I’m teaching people how to curate using Storify.

The benefits of teaching yourself go beyond the skill you just learned: You underscore your own responsibility for your professional growth; you are less intimidated the next time you encounter a new tool or technique you know you should learn; lessons stick better when you learn by doing.

Back in 1995, before I ever had a single workshop or a single minute of instruction on data analysis, I was faced with the challenge of figuring out who was telling the truth: Nebraska environmental officials or contractors who had been cleaning up leaking underground storage tanks (known by the acronym LUST, and what reporter wouldn’t want to do a story using that word in capital letters?).

Nebraska officials said the cleanup of gasoline contamination had been halted for a few weeks because of a cash-flow problem. Contractors said the state’s LUST fund was broke, and cleanup would be stopped indefinitely. And long before I knew of Jay Rosen, I couldn’t stand to write he-said-she-said stories. I wanted the truth.

So I spent a day at the Department of Environmental Quality offices, recording the date and amount of each bill the state had already received for cleanup work, as well as the monthly revenue figures for the fund. Then I spent an hour or two with an Excel tutorial and another few hours entering the DEQ data. And I found the truth.

It was my first try at data analysis, so I didn’t rush to turn my story in to my editors. I wondered if my figures were actually right. Even though I had double-checked all my formulas and entries, I lacked confidence in my new skill. So I took my spreadsheets to DEQ officials and showed them my analysis. They confirmed what I had found: Invoices already on hand would take up every nickel the state could expect to collect for the next several months. And everyone conceded that the state would be receiving many more bills in the coming weeks. I didn’t need to do a he-said-she-said story. The fund was broke. And I had developed a new skill.

I learned more about data analysis at two programs of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting, and working on a project with a colleague, Carol Napolitano, whose skills were far beyond mine. But I’m sure that much of the benefit I gained from data skills in my reporting days stemmed from the fact that I took the time and the initiative (and the frustrating, humbling starts and stops) to learn some of the skills on my own.

I turned in more front-page stories based on data analysis, but frankly, my data skills could stand an update now. The field has moved ahead while I’ve been focusing on other matters. But the learning I did on my own 16 years ago still serves me well as I try to keep up in a swift-moving profession.

I love to train journalists. I am delighted that Journal Register Co. is making training a high priority and an important part of my work. If your newsroom offers training programs, you should take advantage of them as often as possible. But if no one’s offering the training you need, seize control of your own professional growth. Find an online course from News University or Lynda. Find a tutorial offered by a software developer. Or just jump in and learn by trial and error.

Pursue learning opportunities as persistently as you pursued your toughest story.

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About Buffy Andrews

Assistant Managing Editor of Features and Niche Publications for the York Daily Record/Sunday News. Also, Social Media Coordinator.
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