The introverted journalist is doing just fine
In a loud industry, quiet voices have their say
November 23, 2020, 9:00 am ASTLast Updated: November 13, 2020, 2:03 pm
He’s been a journalist for more than a decade and works for a magazine with a readership of 2.4 million. Still, Nick Taylor-Vaisey doesn’t feel he belongs.
An associate editor of Maclean’s, Taylor-Vaisey loves what he does. But going up to a scrum and competing for the attention of public figures, or asking a contentious question at a press conference, makes his stomach crawl with nerves. He’ll carefully pick over the wording of the question in his head, wanting to fade into the background.
It’s a discomfort he never gets over.
“The initial feeling—like this is a world that is not for me, and yet here I am, trying to live in it and work in it,” he says, “will never go away.”
Taylor-Vaisey is a journalist who is an introvert. One of many. Some are editors, hidden behind the veil of the stories they polish. Others are scattered among more outspoken reporters, blending in like chameleons.
Introverted journalists face challenges to the core of their personality. Still, some find the strength in themselves to rise to journalistic renown. Great reporters and writers, from Joan Didion and Peter Gzowski to investigative journalist Katherine Boo and news anchor Diane Sawyer, are introverts.
In a loud industry, quiet voices are having their say.
The perfect personality
Not everyone is an extreme introvert or extrovert. Most people are ambiverts, hovering in a limbo with traits of both.
Stereotypically, though, journalists are extroverts. A 2008 study published in European Journal of Personality found that people who completed a simulated job application to be a journalist presented themselves as more extroverted than usual.
It’s not just public perception: even some journalists believe there is an expectation of a certain personality.
In their 2010 book Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists, CBS broadcaster Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel, a professor at Fordham University in New York, wrote that “journalists must feel comfortable speaking with strangers, no matter how personal or difficult the subject.” The “right personality” for a journalist is “brave, or at least bold”—traits that rarely come naturally to introverts.
In forty years working on and off as a journalist, Knobel has worked with people in print, television, radio and magazines. “The vast majority,” she says now, “are extroverts. But definitely not all.”
If journalism is dominated by extroverts, how do the quieter folks fit in?
Behind the scenes
Within journalism, people gravitate to roles that suit their personality.
A 2018 study published in Journalism & Mass Communication Educator found that extroverted journalism students prefer broadcast careers. They don’t shy away from the camera or microphone; they bask in the attention.
Many introverts, on the other hand, like to work in the background. Taylor-Vaisey is never happier than when he retreats into filing Freedom of Information requests or analyzing spreadsheets, activities that “allow me to not talk to anybody.” Poring over data, alone, “just feels more natural.”
But he, like most journalists, can’t spend all day huddled behind a computer, diving into data or quietly editing copy. At some point, they’re forced into uncomfortable situations. Then, their stress can be helpful.
If he feels nervous before an interview, Taylor-Vaisey reads through his research again, making sure he has his facts straight before he picks up the phone. If he needs to challenge a source, there’s no hesitation. He knows exactly what he’s talking about.
Other times, introverts have another persona they present to get through the job. “We’re kind of putting on an act,” says Taylor-Vaisey. “We know we have a role to play.”
Though it might feel unnatural, that extroverted act might be good for introverts. Researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa, according to a 2012 study published in Emotion, found that introverts who made an effort to act extroverted improved their happiness in the short term. Extroverts, on the other hand, weren’t as adaptable. When they purposely acted against their disposition, they felt worse.
The temporary benefit to an introvert’s mood, though, might come with a cost later on.
In January 2009, Claire Sibonney finished a busy graveyard shift – midnight to 8 a.m. – for Reuter’s, on the international online news desk in Toronto. Instead of sleeping when she got home, she forced herself to stay awake to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration on television. In her exhaustion, she almost burned down her kitchen.
A friend from work was over and they were making snacks. She went to warm up Afghan flatbread in the oven, but turned on the stovetop instead. A plastic bowl of popcorn sitting innocently on the stove melted, causing a fire and a whole lot of smoke.
“My head,” Sibonney says, “just wasn’t there.”
After 20 years of working in hectic newsrooms, she started freelancing full-time in 2017. An introvert, she misses the camaraderie of the newsroom, but says her schedule is better now. “The older I get,” she says, “the more I pay attention to how I work best.”
Her strengths, Sibonney says, lie in attention to detail and an ability to “get in the zone” and focus for long periods of time.
That’s one of the advantages introverts have, Susan Cain said in her 2012 bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. “Flow is an optimal state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity… In a state of flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your own adequacy.”
Flow isn’t exclusive to introverts, but the activities most likely to achieve flow are solitary. They include writing, researching and editing.
In the field, too, the quiet nature of an introvert can be a benefit.
< Allan Thompson isn't an introvert himself, but he's worked with some and has seen many pass through the journalism program at Carleton University. The Associate Director of the School of Journalism and Communication, he assures young introverted students that there is space for them to thrive. Introverts, he says, have a “natural ability to observe. They're soaking up their surroundings because of that personality trait. And we don't do enough of that.” Details add colour to journalism: What song is playing in the background? What photos are on the wall of the person you're interviewing? Do they fidget as they speak, make dramatic gestures to emphasize a point or hold themselves still? Introverts pay attention to details, sprinkling stories with gems that bring characters and places to life.
Wency Leung isn’t fazed by talking to strangers; it’s hard to picture her anxious. An introverted reporter for the Globe and Mail’s health pages, her voice is bright and she laughs often. But after a day of interviews and meetings, she’s exhausted and needs time alone to, as she says, get “energy from the silence.”
Parts of her job still make her uncomfortable. Putting herself into a story, as journalists do in personal essays and narrative journalism, goes against her nature.
This summer, Leung wrote a piece about sharing with Globe and Mail readers that she is a kidney donor. “The moment I filed my first draft to my editors,” she said, “I wanted to simultaneously throw up, scrub myself down in the shower, burn my laptop and chew off all my fingernails. I felt exposed.”
The rise of social media has increased the expectation for journalists to share more of their personal thoughts and work online.
The Digital News Report for 2016, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that 51 per cent of 50,000 people across 26 countries use social media as a source of news. Twelve per cent use it as their main source of news.
Like their readers, journalists have shifted to social media to publicize their work and themselves. “It feels like being at a big party,” says Leung. “I totally feel shy about being on Twitter. And the idea of selling yourself, that really freaks me out.”
Yet Leung is a competent, established, introverted journalist.
Yes, different personalities are suited to different skills. Introverted journalists can use their strengths of listening, observation and deep focus to their advantage. But someone’s personality is secondary if they are willing to put in work and overcome their weaknesses, regardless of being introverted or extroverted.
Back in Toronto, digging through Freedom of Information requests for Maclean’s, Nick Taylor-Vaisey knows there are certain qualities that matter more to journalists.
“We’re very high-minded people who believe genuinely and very earnestly in the public interest,” says Taylor-Vaisey. “We believe in our skill sets and that they can produce answers to questions that are important for the public.
“We may be introverted, but we are passionate.”
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