What I've Learned at ReportingonHealth

Published on
December 6, 2012

Well, friends, this is my last official post as deputy editor of Center for Health Journalism Digital. In January, I'll be starting my new job as communications officer for the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health, where I'll be working on children's health policy issues. My last day here is Friday.

I'm still happy to take questions about health journalism – just email me through my profile or connect with me on Twitter @barbfederostrov.

For now, I'd like to offer this grab bag of thoughts about what I've learned working with ReportingonHealth since it began in 2008. I'd also like to thank my ReportingonHealth colleagues and especially you, the ReportingonHealth community, for reading and contributing to the site. I have learned so much from so many of you!

1. Don't live near a freeway if you can help it. Or a port, for that matter. Having grown up in the Los Angeles region, I was aware of the impact pollution can have on our health. But I was stunned to learn from the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship seminars and projects just how strongly living near a freeway or port correlates to higher asthma rates, heart disease and cancer, among other health problems.

2. Read as broadly as you can. Freed from daily reporting deadlines, I've been able to read more widely than I had as a newspaper reporter. Here's what I read and check out on Twitter on a routine basis, sparking more story ideas than I could ever share or write.

3. Accept being uncomfortable as you learn new skills. Before I started as an online editor in 2008, I had never used Twitter, worked with a content management system or even edited a blog post. I felt like a rookie reporter all over again, and I didn't like it. But it got better. I became more comfortable with social media, thanks largely to former ReportingonHealth community manager Angilee Shah, and now @ReportingHealth is approaching 10,000 Twitter followers. I'm now comfortable working in a completely digital environment.   

4. Beware of free cloud-based tools for your work. Nothing's ever really free. Living in the cloud can be great when you need to share documents and other work products with your colleagues. But beware of becoming too dependent on them; we had considered a free video hosting service besides YouTube that abruptly changed its model. The Ning we used to revamp our home page went buh-bye, at least for free, and I now see that FeedMyInbox, which the Association of Health Care Journalists and other groups use to communicate with their members, will soon shut down.

5. Be "platform-agnostic" to tell the best stories. That's jargon for using different storytelling, digital and media tools to get your story produced and distributed. As Reuters Health Executive Editor and educator Ivan Oransky wrote about why he always gives platform-agnostic assignments:

Journalists have always reported, curated, edited and managed information in various ways, no matter what we called it. What has changed over time, as technology gives us more options, is how we display that information to readers, viewers and listeners. And that will continue to change, just as predicted by the "medium yet to be invented" clauses in contracts that drive writers batty.

6. Find your own community, wherever it gathers. It's never been easier to find people online and off with similar professional interests. I've made great Twitter friends and connected with others in the real world through Meetup.com. Don't be too busy to do this regularly - your community is where your next story or job is coming from.

7. Appreciate people, every day. I've had the good fortune to work with wonderful colleagues and interns with shockingly good digital skills, and to learn from great bloggers like William Heisel, whose Antidote blog is a must-read for anyone interested in investigative health reporting. I'd also like to thank ReportingonHealth's entrepreneurial editor-in-chief, Michelle Levander, for taking a chance on me five years ago when I had plenty of experience in health journalism but no digital skills to speak of.

8. Stay positive, even when it's hard. When I started here in 2008, journalism was convulsing; I was among nearly 16,000 journalists forced out of their jobs that year. I worried that journalists specializing in covering health were a dying breed. Now, I'm feeling better about health journalism and journalism in general as I've watched scores of journalists and bloggers get great training from our fellowships and produce some groundbreaking stories. I've also learned a lot from the great work of Kaiser Health News and our sister program at USC, the CHCF Center for Health Reporting

I'm particularly heartened by the excellent work of the ReportingonHealth Collaborative in uncovering the enormous but little-known impact of the deadly fungal disease valley fever in Central California. It is great journalism experiments like this and others that give me real hope for the future.

Photo credit: Lisandro M. Enrique via Flickr