I have a daughter, Alison, who is about to graduate from college and seek out a journalistic career just as a survey has declared that “newspaper reporter” is now the worst job in America. Newspaper reporting has dropped below even lumberjack, a job at which people regularly get maimed.
And yet — I’m hopeful for her. As the media landscape radically morphs, there are emerging models that are opening up interesting ways for Alison and other newcomers to do good work. In fact, while traditional media increasingly becomes a bad place for a veteran journalist to work, the media space in general might be far better for a young journalist than it was 30 years ago when I started out.
So here’s what I’m telling Alison…
First of all, this applies to a goal of doing journalistic writing — not ad copywriting, corporate white papers, press releases. We’re talking news, analysis, features, narrative non-fiction — work that an audience wants to consume and would presumably pull to them, vs. it being pushed at them.
You’re building a career, not looking for a job. A lot of the journalistic work that’s available out there is freelance, and many onlookers are quick to say that stinks — freelancing is not as secure or remunerative as a “real” job. But…is that really true?
There is a lot of need for journalistic writing out there as news web sites and branded-content sites proliferate. Some of that work is for a story here or there; some of it is for a few days a week or a month at a time. In the old days, for instance, a new graduate wouldn’t stand a prayer of getting a job at ABC News. Now there are freelance opportunities at ABCNews.com, and they have a much lower barrier to entry.
Repeat that over and over in the media. What’s better — full-time jobs you can’t get, or freelance jobs you can get?
Assemble a few freelance gigs and you can make enough for a twenty-something to live on. Do good work, and freelance gigs lead to more or better freelance gigs. And freelance also leads to full-time jobs. A media outlet would rather hire a freelancer it knows and likes than a stranger who only sent in a resume.
Job security? Who’s to say a job is security? You can get laid off. With a matrix of freelance, losing one gig doesn’t leave you with nothing. Health insurance, you can buy. You’d be paying for half of it out of your paycheck if you had a full-time job anyway.
Many of the veteran journalists I know who have left big media outlets have created their own freelance-matrix jobs, usually writing some pieces for traditional outlets while doing some writing for brands and companies (which often pays more). For better or worse, it’s the way jobs increasingly look in the twenty-first century. But it’s not all bad. Ultimately, you are then you’re own boss.
Search out branded journalism. Right now, creating legitimate journalistic branded content is all the rage across the corporate world. And there are two things that are great about that for young journalists. (1) Many of these outlets are starting from scratch, so they need writers and editors and may be more open to people with less experience. (2) Compared to media outlets or web start-ups, corporate brands have a lot of money and are likely to pay better for freelance or full-time work.
A good friend of mine from my newspaper years is now running a branded journalism site set up by a Fortune 500 company. She recently told me that she doesn’t quite know how to handle the idea that her budgets are going UP, not down.
Build your own stuff. If you’re a writer, there’s nothing like writing something you really want to write. Now you can — and should — do it for an audience.
Look, if you write freelance or take a full-time job as a young journalist, you’ll be lucky if you end up writing about your passion. But now you can do that on the side. The easiest way, of course, is to start a blog. And then when you post something, tweet the hell out of it and post it on Facebook. Hopefully this is also showing off your talents as a writer, and when a prospective employer googles you — he or she will find this and be impressed.
The other new avenue is e-books. A decade ago, when printed books still reigned, it was pretty damn hard to get a lengthy work of writing published. These days — Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a self-published e-book. Kindle Singles e-books have opened up a whole new genre — the short (50 pages or so) book.
The likelihood is that you won’t directly make any money on a blog or self-published e-book. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. This is your outlet and your showcase. It will show others what you can do, and help you get paying gigs later.
Network like crazy. And finally, here’s something key that a new graduate can do now and that was all but impossible when I started out: you can connect to people in the journalism business all over the world.
LinkedIn is an amazing tool. Use it aggressively to make connections. And then go the extra mile — meet people in person. Meet as many as you can. Tell them what you want to do and who you are. Ask them what they do and learn about their companies or work. Be gracious and optimistic and they will like you. And some of them will remember you when they have a job opening, or when a friend asks if they know a good freelancer. It’s usually a pretty certain equation: the more people you know, the more you will work.
The journalistic work environment is definitely not easy, but it never has been — at least not in my lifetime. The tactics and goals involved in building a career have changed dramatically. But to say it’s worse now than the old days is to look at the old days through rose-colored glasses.
The trick now is to stay flexible and build a career block by block — a little brand work here, a little pure journalism there, a blog, an e-book, maybe some YouTube videos, tweets, a Pinterest page.
It’s not better or worse. It just is.