EDIT: Originally posted in March, 2008, I’m promoting this post again on the occasion of angryjournalist.com’s 10,000th comment today (as mentioned by @howardowens and @digidave on Twitter). How much of the advice do you think is still relevant? – ed.
You might have heard of the journalism punching bag I created, AngryJournalist.com, and if you’re a college student right now it’s probably a discouraging place to frequent given all the horror stories that’s on there.
It’s not completely hopeless, despite all the doom and gloom, however, you can’t assume that your college education will be all you need to snag a job. Remember, your journalism degree’s probably no different than the thousands of other j-degrees out there that other graduates have. The only thing that’s going to set you apart from the pack and help you land a job is ultimately related to the amount of self-initiative and investment you place within yourself.
I remember looking for a job (and internships) and thinking that I was really unprepared. I had decent clips, extensive college-newspaper experience but still felt as if I wasn’t competitive enough — and this was back in 2005-2006, when Web skills weren’t as in demand as they are now.
So, how should you prepare? Here’s some tips that I think will help you on the job hunt.
Click below to read my thoughts below the jump.
+ Get real about your situation
Take some advice from Warren Buffett:
“You ought to be able to explain why you’re taking the job you’re taking, why you’re making the investment you’re making, or whatever it may be. And if it can’t stand applying pencil to paper, you’d better think it through some more. And if you can’t write an intelligent answer to those questions, don’t do it.”
You know that journalism jobs don’t pay much money, so be smart about entering the field. Know how much money you need to pay your bills (student loans, car payment, rent, utilities, insurance, etc.) and also basic cost of living. Adjust for taxes that will be taken out of your paycheck.
You might think you can take a job that pays less than $30,000 a year, but can you really? Do the math. Look through your spending habits in college and see how much money you burn through in a month. Be realistic about what you need to stay above water.
Once you know this number, don’t compromise downward — or better yet, ask for more should you get a job offer. You might think this is the only offer you’re going to get, but if you’re good enough you’ll be able to find a better offer. Don’t be a sucker.
It’d be nice if journalists could just focus on the job and say pay doesn’t matter, but that’s not the case. Logically approach the idea of entering the field. Make sure it makes financial sense for you to take an offer. Don’t bother applying to places that you know won’t meet your salary requirements. Have standards and stick to your guns. Remember your starting salary will determine your next raise or pay jump when you switch publications.
+ Know the business and the industry
You might think you know journalism. It’s writing articles for a newspaper. Or shooting photographs. Or designing pages. Or maybe even that new media stuff people keep mentioning. Wrong. Those are skills.
Knowing the business and industry means realizing the broader challenges journalism as a whole is facing. Look beyond what job you’ll be doing and take a look at the snapshot portrait that’s being developed right now about the profession. Do you know about the mass layoffs, buyouts, paycuts and hiring freezes? How about the declining or stagnating advertising revenues? What do you know about what stock analysts are saying about the price per share on the major newspaper chains? Do you know the stock history of the parent company of the paper you’re applying to? More importantly, do you know how all of this will affect your job (should you get it) and the benefits, raises (or lack thereof) that you receive?
If your answer to any of that was “no,” then you need to find those answers. Why would you enter an industry you know nothing about? There are greater external forces acting on your newspaper than just what happens within the paper’s distribution. Start by reading (daily) Romenesko, Editor & Publisher, NYT’s Media & Advertising section, OJR, AJR, Reuters MediaFile and Gawker. Then, read even more. Read the State of the News Media 2008 report, especially the advertising section and the economics portions.
Learn about the trends in journalism. Learn what the buzzwords words are and decide if you think they’re bullshit or not: hyperlocalism, crowdsourcing, etc. Look at what direction the business side of journalism is pushing the industry side of journalism into. Watch to see how these forces change the type of journalism you’ll be doing at a certain publication.
Remember: journalism is a business first in most cases — maybe not for you, but it is for those who cut your paycheck. Money will end up dictating the editorial process in every way, for better or worse. Be honest with yourself and decide if you can ride the wave that’s overtaking the field.
Don’t know HTML, how to install blogging software or shoot and edit video? Too bad, you’re out of excuses because you have the Internet. Take the initiative to learn these yourself. Add value to your skillset and make yourself more marketable to an employer.
Your college education isn’t the reason why you don’t know new media — you are. Saying, “I’m really bad with computers” won’t make people pity you and hand you a job. In a competitive job market, there are no more free rides.
No one’s saying you have to be the expert, but ignorance isn’t tolerable. Spend your free time online learning something new and stop wasting time with Scrabulous on Facebook! And once you learn these new things, take it a step further and think, “How can I use this to be a better journalist and tell better stories for the consumer?”
+ Think of yourself as a brand
I’ve written about this idea before. You might think you’re too young in your career to build a brand. Wrong. You need to start developing it now. Literally, your employer is purchasing your skills over someone else. You have to sell that idea to them. This requires you to think in marketing and advertising mode. This means doing more than joining Facebook and LinkedIn (although, those are good starting points).
Get a professional-sounding e-mail account that uses your real name. Get a domain name with your real name and server space to setup a homebase for yourself. Make sure it’s SEOed properly (search engine optimization, if you didn’t know that, then you should’ve Googled it). Start blogging there. Feature your new media projects and post your clips and portfolio. Keep it professional and well designed, because the idea is you want your employer to Google your name, find your site and say “damn, I want to hire this youngblood.” Don’t know how to do this? Ask friends. Google it. Remember, no more excuses.
Get into the Web 2.0 stuff. Grab a Twitter, del.icio.us, Flickr, Digg, etc. account with your real name. Link in your profiles on those sites back to your homepage. Build up your identity using your real name. When you comment on blogs, newspaper sites, etc., again, use your real name and link back to your personal site. Establish your presence online while building SEO. Not sure what to do? Howard Owens has a list for you. You’ll need this to start building your personal social network.
Finally, don’t ruin your personal branding by putting stupid photos up on Flickr and Facebook. Think before you write a drive-by comment on a blog or newspaper Web site. When you contribute to the conversation online, make sure it’s adding value, not destroying it.
+ Stop blaming others
Maybe you wanted to start blogging for your college paper, but they’re too incompetent, lazy or slow to let that happen. Same goes for video. Or soundslides. So, you’re sitting around and doing nothing now.
Screw them. Do it yourself. Buy a domain name, camcorder, digital camera, digital recorder, etc. or whatever you need and make it happen today. If you still get birthday and holiday gifts from parents and relatives, ask them for the higher-priced items. Tell them it’s an investment in your own career development. Or maybe you’re willing to invest in yourself to do quality journalism. Either way, that’s the path you need to take.
We’re in an era where you don’t have to be officially affiliated with “legitimate media” to be a journalist. Start your own on campus blogging network of writers. Find contributors and give your college paper a run for their money online. Break news. Advertise with spray chalk your URL. Post it in classrooms. Use Facebook. Put some of that marketing and advertising you learned about to get students excited about what you’re creating. Become your own part-time publisher.
When you’re in a job interview, you can be one of two people. You can say, “Well, we didn’t have blogs at our college paper,” or you can say, “We didn’t have blogs at my paper, so I decided to leave and create my own publishing network on campus.” Which candidate would you hire? Don’t waste your time waiting for others to catch up, because that’s the kind of thing a traditional newspaper would do and we know how well that’s worked out for them.
+ Know where you want to work
Get a good idea about the publication’s strategy and vision — and not the bullshit one that they’ll spin you. What have they actually done? Where have they spent the cash? Do they have an online strategy beyond just “we’ll put videos and blogs up”? How are they looking to monetize the Internet? What’s their definition of innovation and what was the last good thing they did online (and is it crap)? Google the names of their top executives and management and see what these people are saying about where they’re taking the company. Read the Romenesko memos and see what’s being said internally. Does this sound like a place where you’ll be comfortable working and confident that you’ll be on a ship headed in the right direction?
What about the environment? Are the editors and management incompetent or are they inspiring? Try to get to know people on the inside of the company and ask them for the dirt. What do the front-line journalists in the trenches have to say about the management? How many of them have left recently or taken buyouts? What about the sales and advertising staff? They’re important, too, as they bring in the money. Do they find that it’s harder or easier to sell ads for the paper, and what about online? Even if the market isn’t competitive, is it shrinking?
And remember, this is your first job, not your last. Where can you go from here? Can you prove yourself at this publication and get the portfolio you’ll need to find another job or move up within the company quickly?
When you get to the end of your interview, you should have more questions than they had for you. I think it’s easy to get enamored with the fact that someone actually called you back for an interview that you’ll tend to let the interviewer off the hook. Hold their feet to the fire like you would a source and get the answers you need to make an informed decision. After all, it’s your career.
+ Don’t limit yourself
Finally, I want to leave you with this thought: It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get a newspaper job.
There’s online publications, non-profits, activist publications, etc. Yes, you can also be like me and join the so-called “dark side” and go into public relations. If you’re talented, marketable and passionate, then you can find yourself with opportunities beyond what you’d traditionally think of as a journalism job.
You might think that, right now, all you want to do is work at a newspaper and be a reporter. But you’ll probably quickly find that you might not enjoy that as much as you thought. And it’s also likely that you’ll find that your interests extends beyond deadtree editions. To me, it didn’t make sense to close any doors and restrict myself narrowly. You can be happy doing a variety of things.
If all you love is newspaper journalism, then you take the risk of it not loving you back.