Indicate Media Journalist One-On-One Series - Michael Humphrey

For the latest installment of our journalist Q&A series, we had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Humphrey, a long-time journalist who contributes to Forbes and has also written for The New Yorker, New York, Salon, National Catholic Reporter and The Kansas City Star. Mike is also a Ph.D. student in Public Communication and Technology and an instructor in the Department of Journalism and Technical Communication at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.


1. You have such an interesting past, so let's start at the beginning. In undergrad, you studied both mass communication/speech and the philosophy of religion. While books could be (and have been) written about the parallels between mass communication and religion (e.g. propagation of the faith), briefly, how did one discipline shape your view of the other?

Philosophy of religion helped me appreciate the relationship between abstract thought and practical action, which I believe lies at the core of communication. My professor studied under Richard Niebuhr who once wrote, “Everyone has some kind of philosophy, some general worldview, which to men [sic] of other views will seem mythological.” I think that’s right and the challenge for communication is how we construct workable understandings of each other across such barriers. 

2. Fast forward. You now contribute a column on called Techno-Trainers. You previously covered user experience and now focus on video. How did you fall into the video beat - is it something that's always interested you?

I started with the video beat in 2010 and did about three years of that, then shifted to UX for a year, and moved back to video earlier this year. Really my interest in video as a format is driven almost entirely by YouTube, which I personally find the most intriguing social media platform there is. The interaction that occurs between YouTube celebrities and large fan bases fascinates me. I was really writing about digital culture most of the time and I found myself in the digital video beat because of that. Then following digital video trends took me to other places -- social TV, cord-cutting, etc. The medium itself does not intrigue me as much as how relationships and cultures are formed around these videos. 

3. What's your one piece of advice for PR folks when it comes to building relationships with journalists - and has that advice changed from when your career first started to after the Internet 'happened'?

I was kind of poking around for six months in the digital video space when a P.R. person pitched an idea that changed my career. She saw a piece I had written (I can’t remember what it was) and she was representing Google at the time. She could tell that I was interested in digital video as a disruptive technology and how that gave viewers a new kind of agency. That led her to pitch me a series about emerging YouTube stars, which was still pretty undercovered in early 2011. That series dominates my most-read list and led me into the field I cover now.

I tell this story because she understood that I needed content and access to good stories. She read my work and figured out how to shape her clients’ needs to my beat. Then she approached me with a newsworthy idea. We tweaked it some, but really we both were amazed at how successful that relationship became. So often I get pitches to interview CEOs about her or his company, but I almost never write that kind of piece. The pitches that make it through to a conversation understand what I do write about.

The Internet changed a lot about the relationship. Content demand is high, so PR professionals are important for many bloggers and other kinds of journalists to provide the resources for that content. But there’s one fundamental fact that I think has not changed: PR professionals are there to serve their clients. I and all journalists have to keep that in mind and do our own research to make sure we are best serving our clients, the readers.

4. You're also a Ph.D student at Colorado State University teaching journalism and digital media to undergrads. In a nutshell, what's it like working with Millennials who grew up on digital and social media?

Love them! They are misunderstood. They are not the digi-philes we make them out to be. Most are deeply conflicted about their tethering to the social and mobile revolution, fueled by the fear of missing out. Sometimes I think they are more nostalgic for my childhood than I am. And I believe as they mature, they are going to fight for balance in their lives.

Here’s one example. A few weeks ago, The New York Times did a nice piece about how e-book sales are slipping and print books are on the rise again. There were a lot of reasons given, but no one mentioned Millennials. I have a hunch they are an important element here. Most of my students can’t stand e-books. They want print for that lean-back experience. Interestingly, they tell me that will switch quickly when their younger siblings, cousins and nieces start consuming. The YouTube Generation, or Generation Z, is the real digital tidal wave coming.

5. Many of your your journalism students plan to go into PR, marketing or advertising. What are a few of the core principles you teach that span both sides (knowing that the objectives of journalism and PR/marketing are often at odds). Storytelling? What else?

I talk a lot about developing digital communities around stories and information. That means, for both sides, the content should be transparent, collaborative, trustworthy and useful. I believe the mass scale pageview approach is reaching its logical zenith and that value propositions of return visitors are becoming more critical. Look at the way YouTubers are using their communal influence to start businesses, sell other brands and build empires. That’s about connecting not just to a piece of content, but the human being behind it. I think it applies to all sides of communication today. I remind them toward the end of the semester, “Don’t forget to be human.”

6. Where do most of your story ideas come from today? Do you get PR pitches that sometimes help develop a story? Is it just about scanning the news and keeping up on current events? 

It varies. I read a lot and I watch a lot. I’m pretty much done with hot takes, but I will do a lot of reading about topics that matter to digital video and will come in with a slower analysis. Mostly I like to interview people, so I’ll reach out to them or to their publicist. Like I said above, a great story idea from a PR professional is always welcomed. I will often shape it differently than pitched, but I respect that they also have good storytelling instincts and so I’m always willing to listen.

7. Speaking of that, when it comes to media consumption, what are your top must read outlets or must watch programs every day?

Nothing but Forbes. Just kidding! I still go to the front pages of traditional outlets like the the Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York, The Denver Post, Fort Collins Coloradoan. I read a lot from the Verge, TechCrunch, Medium. I read Peter Kafka at Re/code and admire his reporting. I used to read Grantland and can’t believe it is gone. Twitter and Google News are still very important places to find information for me. I use Pocket a lot for those gems I find via social, especially if they take a little longer to read.

8. Do you have any quick predictions on general trends for video and social heading into 2016?

I am telling my students to imagine strategies for 360-degree video, livestreaming and potentially augmented reality. Those technologies all need cultural inflection points still, in my opinion, but they are coming. It’s easy for tech-savvy people to misunderstand that what they know, and their friends know, is still not a cultural reality for most. I think living in Colorado helps with that some. But I think all three of those technologies hold great promise for storytelling and communication in general.

For social, it’s clearly becoming more visual and younger people seem more interested in one-to-one and one-to-few sociality, which is still best represented by Snapchat, although that app has become a much more public and broadcast-oriented platform the past year. I think it’s important to understand why Instagram is so successful. Not only is it visual, which I think matters most, but it’s usually a friendly place to be. I think that matters and we might see that narrative more as Twitter continues to struggle.

9. Just for fun: What is your all-time favorite 1) book 2) movie 3) album?

Oh wow, this is the hardest question. My favorite novel has long been The Brothers Karamazov and my favorite nonfiction book is probably Team of Rivals. My favorite movie is Fargo, but There Will Be Blood is a close second. My favorite album is Obrigado Brazil by Yo-Yo Ma. That has accompanied me through a lot of writing. But when it is time to get some energy, I love Jay Z’s MTV Unplugged album with The Roots as his band. That is an album that holds up for me.