I knew a lot about journalism in 1997. I was 26 years into an exciting career, enjoying a rewarding run as a reporter following success as an editor. But I’ve redirected and rejuvenated my career twice since then. Those efforts led me to opportunities and success I could not have imagined 13 years ago.
From 1997 to 2005, I consciously developed my skills, experience, connections and reputation in the field of journalism training, eventually getting a full-time job in the field. I was always interested in innovation and took steps in the mid-1990s to learn digital skills. Starting in 2006, I made digital innovation my primary pursuit and have consciously developed my digital skills, experience, connections and reputation (I still have a lot that I need to do). That pursuit led to two new jobs, first as editor of The Gazette and gazetteonline and now I’ve left the newspaper business to join a digital local news operation in the Washington metro area.
I hesitated to write this post because it feels boastful. But I have benefited greatly from people who generously shared the lessons they have learned, so I feel obligated to share as well. I share these lessons because lots of journalists need to redirect their careers and my experience might help. Poynter recruiting blogger Joe Grimm interviewed me recently for a post he’s working on, and observed that I had reinvented my career a few times, which nudged me to finish this draft and share my lessons, without worrying about appearances.
I have been touched by the many emails and other messages I have received from unemployed journalists and journalists frustrated with their current positions and organizations. Mimi had some heart-wrenching emails and blog comments when she wrote about how she and I fell out of love with newspapers. I wish I could give all these people jobs. I wish they could all receive some of the good breaks I’ve received (I know luck helps, as well as all the things I’ve done). I can’t make either of those things happen, but I can share some of what I’ve learned:
Keep learning. Nothing energizes you or your career like learning. We expect young people to learn lots of new things and grow quickly. But what I have learned in middle age has not only redirected my career, it has made it more fun and more fulfilling.
Decide what’s important to you. In 1997, I decided I wanted to train other journalists. It became a top priority and by 2002, I was becoming prominent in the training field because I followed that priority (even though reporting was still my primary job). By 2005, I had a full-time job with the American Press Institute, one of the leading organizations in journalism training. In 2006, I made digital innovation my top priority, working aggressively with API’s Newspaper Next project. My pursuit of that priority led me to The Gazette in 2008 and now to Allbritton Communications.
Pursue your priority. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission or to show you the way. Get started figuring it out and work to make it happen. My editors at the Omaha World-Herald in 1997 were not interested in making me a writing coach, even part-time. So I printed a simple (and, in retrospect, amateurish) flier to advertise my workshops and sent it to editors in the region. That brought me my first training gigs in 1997 and 1998.
Develop new skills. I had a general awareness in 2007 of social networks, but little experience. I had started sharing family and travel photos on Flickr. I had joined LinkedIn at someone’s invitation, but had not reached out to make connections (if someone wanted to connect, I did). I knew I should dig into social media deeper. So I started reaching out through LinkedIn and got started with Facebook. Like lots of people, I was initially puzzled by Twitter. But a challenge from Howard Owens prompted me to spend a week Twittering hard. That was enough to see the value and I learned quickly by spending some time and deciding it was important and fumbling my way to competence, then confidence. (Check out this Mashable post on people using social media skills to find jobs and redirect their careers.)
Pursue training opportunities. For all of my career, I have pursued training opportunities wherever I could find them: state press associations, National Writers’ Workshops, in-house programs, an American Press Institute seminar. Beyond what I learned in each program, I nurtured a love of learning that helped me move ahead.
Invest in yourself. Companies should invest more in training their journalists, but journalists should not leave their careers dependent on the budgets and commitment of their employers. Spend your own time and money to improve yourself professionally. I paid my own way to the Nieman Narrative Editing Conference in 2004 and I took a few classes, one of them in web design, at Creighton University in the 1990s. With an eye to possibly teaching someday, I had applied for graduate school and registered for my first class when I accepted this job (I withdrew from class, rather than juggle the class with a new job, but I plan to take some classes later).
Share, don’t protect. I began posting my training materials online in 1998. When a network of newsroom trainers launched the No Train, No Gain web site in 2000, I immediately began contributing all my workout handouts. Lots of people used my materials for free. Some of them decided to hire me to present workshops for their organizations. I developed a healthy second income while I was a reporter and eventually got a better-paying full-time training job with API. Several times people asked me how I could afford to give my training materials away. My answer: How could I afford not to?
Don’t wait for someone else to promote your work. Journalists often shy away from self-promotion. We like to let our work speak for itself. But I’ve learned that my work speaks louder if I help people find it. On No Train, No Gain, on a list-serv for newsroom trainers, on social media and my blog, I have pointed out my training materials and services and shared my views on journalism and the news business. If my work didn’t speak for itself, the promotion would just bring me a reputation as a self-promoter. But I think I was delivering value and helping people find my work helped build my reputation.
Network. Make connections in person, on the phone and online. When you see some journalism you admire, message or call the journalist responsible with praise and how’d-you-do-it questions. Follow up when someone connects with you at a conference or through email and social media. Cultivate relationships. When I pitched for a job with API in 2005, I had never met Drew Davis, the organization’s president, but I had been a discussion leader for four API seminars and had cultivated strong relationships with staff. I had never met Jim Brady, my new boss, when I first pitched for a position with his digital Washington local news operation. But we followed each other on Twitter and we had exchanged some direct messages about things I had blogged about, so he knew who I was and we had the start of a relationship.
Become a recognizable digital presence. Beyond the importance of skills, which I already discussed, a digital presence helps people find you. I guarantee that a prospective employer who doesn’t already know you (and maybe one who does) will check you out online before calling your references, or possibly even before reading your resume. Check out your digital profile (some people call this your personal brand) and see what someone would learn about you. If you’re difficult to find or if some unflattering material is easy to find, start building a stronger digital presence. Through a blog, social networks and/or your personal web site, make it easy for me to see how good you are. This is not hypothetical. I will be hiring several people in my new position, and I will be checking them all out carefully online.
Get back up. You will be knocked down in your career. You will feel hurt. You will be angry. You have to get up and get on with your career. The end of my tenure at the Kansas City Star in the early 1990s was most unpleasant. A year later I was fired as editor of the Minot Daily News and spent six months without a job. I experienced a setback in my tenure at Gazette Communications. I got back up each time. Assess whether you need to change something in your own actions or approach. Decide whether you need to change directions. And keep going.
Take the initiative. I made the pitches for three of my last four jobs before anyone had posted an ad or listing for the job I eventually filled. I contacted the person who would do the hiring and made my case. In two of the three cases, we had never met before, so this wasn’t just effective networking. In one case, I had heard that the eventual boss was planning to create a new position (OK, that was good networking), and I was first in line with my pitch. I also scheduled my interview, telling the eventual boss that I was going to be in town in a few weeks anyway, so we should talk. In another case, I was interested in returning to a former employer and suggested that we talk. My timing was good and we worked out a position for me. Most recently, I contacted Brady as soon as I heard about the new local news operation he would be leading for Allbritton Communications. Initiative doesn’t work every time. I’ve been contacted by lots of people since I announced I was joining Allbritton, and they won’t all come to work for us. But I suspect that some of them will.
Never say no for someone else. People will tell you “no” a lot when you are looking for a new job. But make them say it. If you start saying “no” for them, eventually you will talk yourself out of applying for the right job. I have received hundreds of rejection letters and emails in my career, to say nothing of the pitches that have been ignored. But keep pitching. If you want a job, don’t focus on all the reasons someone might say no. Consider why they would say yes and make your pitch. Even when you’re not optimistic about your chances, make your pitch. I’m paraphrasing (perhaps quoting) someone I can’t remember here, but career success is not measured by how often people tell you no, but by the few times they tell you yes.