Journalism in the Digital Age

People today are more connected than ever before. Since the internet was introduced in 1991, the digital world has exploded and is growing exponentially. By the year 2020, the number of PCs, smartphones, tablets, and connected devices is expected to reach 7.3 billion. Online sharing has helped humanity evolve, but it has also changed the landscape for information sharing and the news. Since news is so easy to share, it has become harder as a reader to find reliable sources as well as challenging for content creators to make their way to the top of the newsfeed amidst all the various media channels and producers.

Fifteen years ago you may have had the routine of pouring your cup of coffee in the morning, cracking open your printed daily newspaper that was delivered on your doorstep, smelling the pungent ink, and enjoying the feel of the flimsy, recycled paper between your fingertips. It was a grounding and comforting experience. Nowadays, only 16% of adults report getting their news from a newspaper first (Pew Research Center). Lower readership levels takes a major toll on the press and its bottom line.

Some say print will never die. But with digital information sharing surpassing the news and journalism evolving, what does this mean for those in the industry as a whole?

“It means we have to re-define what we do and how we do it,” says Santa Cruz local, Joel Hersch, co-founder of Swan Dive Media in Santa Cruz, California.

Joel Michael Sign

Hersch knew he wanted to be a writer by age 12 and a journalist by age 15. Following in the footsteps of his father, who had been a freelance writer, Hersch pursued his Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from California State University-Chico. After spending ten years as a journalist and writer for major news and media companies such as the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Good Times Weekly, Santa Cruz Waves Magazine, the former Mid-County Post in Capitola, and other platforms, Hersch realized that the newspaper economy is struggling.

“Journalists are expected to produce more but be paid less. Stress is high and grammar mistakes are rampant. It’s not sustainable for journalists nor the companies they work for,” says Hersch.

Recognizing that it was time to take his journalism to the next level, Hersch decided that he wanted to start storytelling for a digital world. He got a certificate through the Advanced Digital Media Institute at Berkeley’s School of Journalism where he gained more skills in videography, photography, digital media, website management, design, and podcasting.

Joel Michael Drone

Around that time, Hersch also reconnected with an old Santa Cruz High School friend, Michael Daniel, who had spent his last decade as a cinematographer for weddings, music videos and festivals. Hersch and Daniel had always bonded over their mutual love of storytelling and in 2016 decided to start their own media company within the creative walls of their garage.

“We wanted to be more than just a media company with fancy cameras. Instead, Swan Dive Media is a creative suite for high-end content: a cross between journalism and production,” says Hersch.

With their combined expertise, Hersch and Daniel provide an array of media services such as content, scripting, story development, consultation, branding, and even marketing. The duo landed their first small jobs through their network and the business started to grow. Hersch has a passion for environmental storytelling, so they covered topics on nuclear waste, water, and stewardship.

In 2018, just two years after inception, Swan Dive Media covered the Illuminated River Project: an endeavor by the City of Santa Cruz and the Arts Commission to install vibrant art projects that don't harm wildlife. They also embarked on a trip to Malawi, Africa, to follow and document the activities of a local Santa Cruz organization, His 2 Offer, or “H2O”, which installs solar in prisons along the countryside, provides food resources in orphanages, drills wells, and sets up power grids. Learn more…

Filming Malawi Michael
Filming Malawi Joel
Filming Mural
Filming Maker

“Moving into the digital sphere was necessary,” says Hersch. “Now I wake up every day enthusiastically knowing that I get to follow my passion. We’re setting ourselves up to see incredible things that are happening around the world and have it be our jobs!”

Recently, Swan Dive Media was able to move into its own space in “the Mill” building across from the Warrior Stadium in downtown Santa Cruz. In the next five to ten years, Hersch hopes that the company will grow and be able to take on larger clients or become a behemoth entity by itself.

“Think National Geographic, the New York Times or the Atlantic,” says Hersch, amused. “They are my inspiration.”

Until then, the duo is taking it one day at a time and learning as they go. Some days involve traveling, filming and collecting B-Roll. Other days are less glamorous with long hours in the office editing, developing story content, or following leads. As their portfolio grows and diversifies, each project continues to build on the success of the previous one and acts as a marketing tool for the company.

Since Hersch and Daniel are from Santa Cruz, they plan to keep their roots here, establish longevity and create opportunities for other local organizations and businesses. Although there are challenges that come with living in Santa Cruz, Hersch emphasizes that being in Santa Cruz already gives a person a “leg-up” because of the access to a great network of people and the entrepreneurial spirit.

“We’re not chomping at the bit to live in big industry cities like Los Angeles or New York City. The digital era doesn’t require that. Technology exists so that we can be mobile and flexible,” says Hersch.

Filming Santa Cruz Joel

When asked about how new, budding journalists can best position themselves in the Santa Cruz market or as freelancers, Hersch offers some key advice:

Want it badly enough. When you own a business it becomes your baby, so you had better choose something that you want to be part of your life until you’re done with it and are ready to walk away to something else. Sometimes 12-14 hour days are normal. If this doesn’t sound reasonable, it’s probably not for you.

Make a plan. Always have a plan, start out from beginning to end, and know what comes in between. This extends into life.

Be authentic. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you put out there. People will always be cued into authenticity. For journalists, bring the same thing that you brought to journalism and don’t lose those elements of what makes a story authentic in that transition. There are many production companies popping up often that can create competition and doubt. Focus on making your own quality work and trust the process. The better you do, the more life you’ll breathe into your business. Your reputation will follow you and people will hire you.

Practice makes perfect. As a journalist, you become an expert on things in short-order and learn to ask as many questions as possible. No matter what you do, keep on interviewing people and asking questions even when you’re not working. Master this skill because sometimes you’ll be coming up with questions on the way to a job.

Find time for creativity. This may be a no-brainer but it’s easy to overlook. Although you may be working in the Creative Arts field, sometimes the business and growth mentality takes over. Carve out a certain time of day where you can actually just be creative and tap into the other side of the brain where your passion lies.

Find balance. It’s easy to burn the candle at both ends or to over-commit when you love what you do. Sometimes you forget about self-care because life and work blend together. I’m able to find balance in nature. Since I’ve integrated nature and the environment into my production, it helps me feel more balanced. A big part of my life is also sailing, and I live part time in the harbor.

Set your boundaries. It’s easy to get excited about a project and envision what might be possible, however, this can make the project have an “endless” aspect to it. You could spend one month or five months on it. Set your boundaries.

You don’t have to spend a lot of money. Many people think that when starting a business, they need to spend a lot of money quickly. To be an entrepreneur, you have to be resourceful. Take several more passes at your list of expenses and decide what’s critical, where you can trim the fat, or find ways to be more efficient.

Find your inspiration. It’s important to identify the people in the industry who you can look up to. Follow your favorite influencers on social media and find out what happens behind the scenes.

Reflect. In order to move forward, always remember how you got where you’re currently at. Use your personal history to help carve out your dreams and help you to connect with other people. My first exposure to writing was through my father. He sailed my mother and me around the world. We were a migratory family and I was on a boat between the ages of 12 and 17. I’ve lived in the West Caribbean, Guatemala, Colombia, Spain, Belize, and Mexico. I attended an international high school in Spain where I learned Spanish and wrote for the school’s newspaper. Living in other cultures helped me to become more confident in situations that might otherwise make me uncomfortable, and helped me talk to people with whom I otherwise wouldn’t. My traveling background was a key component my interest in journalism and filmmaking. I wanted to effectively tell stories about people from around the world.

Despite many years on a boat sailing around the world, Hersch feels like he’s a product of Santa Cruz and continues to invest his time in this identity. When not writing articles or chasing after the camera, you can find him soaking up the uniqueness of the area and running private charters on his family’s 42-foot boat in the harbor.

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