May 2011 marked my one year anniversary as an official j-school grad. Yay. I’ll admit I was doing a bit of celebrating at the time in 2010, but I knew the real battle was just getting started. I needed to find a job.
I had to pull some strings at the restaurant to get the Saturday of graduation off – after all Saturday is the busiest day – and they were expecting me back at 6 a.m. the next morning. Of all of my j-school cohorts sitting on the floor of the Georgia Dome listening to Christiane Amanpour’s keynote that day not one of us (that I knew at least) had a job lined up. Few had any immediate prospects, myself included.
Fast-forward to August 2010 and I was doing a bit more celebrating. I landed my first real ‘journalism’ job. A part-time social media position with the Center for Sustainable Journalism. The three months between graduation and part-time officialdom translated into a lot of freelance pitches, some half-ass networking, a good bit of rejections and even, regrettably, taking on a few pro-bono assignments (which sounds a lot better than saying ‘I write for free’).
A part-time social media gig wasn’t exactly the New York Times spot I’d been dreaming of, but it was a good start. At a time when most organizations were still trying to figure out what social media was the CSJ gave me the opportunity to apply a skill I didn’t even consider a skill. It was just a part of life.
I tell you this little narrative because I did more-or-less what ‘the industry’ told me to do at the time. I was on all the social media sites, concentrated on multimedia/visual production (now commonly dubbed multi-platform journalism), built my own arsenal of photography equipment, interned (granted only once, but in my defense it’s hard to find time to sleep while working and schooling full-time, much less fit in a bunch of internships), worked with student media and generally did my best to reach out and start making some contacts in the industry.
At the time Patch was still in it’s infancy but was fully vested in the future of online news, traditional news organizations were still debating whether print publications would exist by 2014 and CareerBuilder.com named social media one of the top 10 hiring trends of the year. From my professors I heard basically the same story: the industry is changing, you better hop on the new media wave while you still can.
But the reality on the ground was a bit different. Big Atlanta publications like CNN and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution had or were jumping on the social media band wagon, but it offered little opportunity for us newly grads hunting that coveted entry-level position.
Fast-forward 12 months and it’s a slightly different landscape. Recent months have seen some smaller publications such as the Marietta Daily Journal and the Daily Report start hiring online community managers and similar positions, but overall the media industry in this city offers little for the continuous stream of new j-school grads.
With that said, the future isn’t the present. Looking back at my first year out of school I made a lot of mistakes. To state the obvious, most were my own misperceptions. I had a general idea of how publications worked, had seen the inside of more than a few newsrooms and did my time as an editor with the school paper. I knew landing a job with such a tight market would be difficult, but ‘difficult’ was an understatement.
The fact is there is no career path in journalism today. Basically you get in wherever you can and figure it out from there. A year from now I’ll probably write another one of these posts about how wrong all of this is, but for now it’s what I see from my seat a year into the industry.
So, what’s an aspiring journalist to do? Take everything with a grain of salt, and I mean everything. Industry news, trends, rejections, compliments, success, advice and even this post. No one knows the future of media, but I can guarantee the trade of journalism isn’t disappearing anytime soon.
Here’s a few do’s and don’ts for entry-level journos I learned in year one:
- Dig ditches, but not your own - If you’re not willing to work a part-time journalism job and hold it down at a BBQ restaurant at the same time then you might as well call it quits now. Ok, odds are your story isn’t going to be exactly like mine, but odds are also it’ll take a similar caliber sacrifice to get where you want to go. With such a large pool of applicants and a small number of available jobs it’s up to you to go the extra mile and stand above the heap.
- Shake hands, kiss babies - I hate to say it, but the journalism industry is all about who you know. It’s a challenge for anyone, but for someone like me with a blue collar background it’s especially challenging. I didn’t have high-placed family friends or someone to make an introduction for me. I basically started from square one when I graduated (see #5 below).
- Tweet like you’ve never tweeted before – This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to the life of an Online Community Manager. As our Executive Director Leonard Witt pointed out last year, you have a better chance of landing a job with 300 contacts than you do with 30 contacts. Social media is the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to make that happen. I owe a lot to social media platforms, and Twitter in particular. I landed this job on Twitter, a few photo and other freelance gigs and met a long list of high-ranking editors, reporters and just about every other job title on earth. Where else can you talk with the head of domestic news gathering at CNN at the click of a button?
- Use words like ‘pro bono’ – Now-a-days journalists have to be their own PR specialist in a way. In reality this hasn’t changed much over the years, but today there are just fewer barriers between the reporter and the public. For as long as I can remember ethics codes held the line “avoid bias, real or perceived.’ If avoiding the perception of bias isn’t PR I don’t know what is. Using words like pro bono and just being conscious of the fact that people actually read what you write – whether it be in print, on Twitter, Facebook or wherever – can help you save a little face and look better in front of perspective employers at the same time.
- Like them on Facebook – So how do you stand out in a stack of 100 resumes? A good place to start would be the website of the place you’re applying. Don’t send the same resume and cover letter to every office. Research. Find the publication’s voice and what kind of stories they gravitate toward. Submit your clippings based on what you know about the company. Find the editor’s e-mail and drop them a line after a few days. Don’t hear back? Try again. Be nice, respect their time and don’t get annoying, but let them know you’re ambitious and serious about hitting the ground running. Find the editor and every other staff member you can on LinkedIn. Send them an invite saying you want to connect and you submitted your resume for the position.
- Treat expert opinion as gold - For one of my final undergard assignments I decided to do a piece on the future of new media in Georgia (please hold the laughter until the end). Honestly, it was more of a way to get some of the biggest names in journalism in the area on the phone. One of the people I talked with was Ken Edelstein, former Editor at Creative Loafing and future colleague at the CSJ. I asked him some broad, naive question like “what’s the future of journalism in Georgia?” What he said I’ll never forget: “Ha, I should be asking you that. You know better than I do.” With that said, young grads, you know as much if not more about the future of journalism than those that have been doing it for 30 years, BUT you don’t know as much about the practice. Listen, learn, take notes, but keep in mind you’ll be in the industry way after they’re gone. In short, you’re the future of journalism.
- Don’t wait until graduation to make connections – My biggest regret is letting graduation sneak up on me as quick as it did. It’s easy to do, but the earlier you can start networking the better. And don’t be scared. Most pros are happy to talk and share experiences. Not sure where to start? Professional organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Association are great resources — and don’t for get your local press club.
- Never write for free, much less ‘pro bono’ – Ok, so I broke my own advice. It’s kind of one of those tricky subjects. I know a lot of people that found themselves working for the clippings and not for the pay check, myself included, but you’re also cheapening the trade at the same time. Everybody wants to make a living doing what they love. Writing for free isn’t the way to do it, but ultimately may lead to a stronger resume and a better job. The easiest way around this is to call your local Patch editor and ask them about freelancing. $50 a pop is better than nothing.
- Don’t buy a house – I love my house and my neighborhood. I hate the fact I can’t move to Minneapolis, or wherever, tomorrow. Journalism is an industry that either requires you to relocate to do exactly what you want to do or be flexible enough to take what’s available where you want to live. Don’t get tied down, at least not yet.
- Don’t compromise ethics – Do you have your own code of ethics? Maybe you should. In an age of citizen media, freelancers and stringers it’s important to remember the morals you and the profession stand on. It should go without saying, but never compromise your ethics for a pay check. You may feel pressure at the time, but when push comes to pull it’s going to do a lot more damage to you as a reporter than it is to your publication (or at least it’ll matter more to YOU).