You can’t wait until you need a job to position yourself for the job hunt.
Yesterday I posted some advice on looking for a job in journalism when you lose your job. Today I’m making the point that your next job hunt starts in what you do while you’re employed and feeling secure and happy with your job (as I was for nearly all my time at Digital First Media). While working, you need to build the brand, accomplishments and connections that will become essential in your job hunt.
Your job hunt might start with losing your job in a corporate staff reduction, as happened to my Thunderdome colleagues and me in April. Or you may be frustrated with your current job and decide to move along. Or you may want to pursue your dream job. Someone may come courting you when you’re pleased with your current job (that happened to me in 1998 and I left the Omaha World-Herald to join the Des Moines Register and it happened in 2012 and I came very close to leaving Digital First Media). In any of those situations, it’s important to position yourself for future opportunities in the job you’re doing now.
Do good work
Quality work often isn’t enough, but job-hunting success always starts there. You can do good work and still not succeed in a job hunt because you didn’t do the things I discussed yesterday (or just because job-hunting is hard). But no amount of digital sophistication, networking or other techniques discussed here is likely to help if you don’t do quality work. I apologize for what will amount to boasting here, but the point is important to make.
My new job as Lamar Family Visiting Scholar at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University stems from a string of good work I’ve done over the years. In 2009, when I was finishing some work on a grant for some ethics seminars for the American Press Institute, Jerry Ceppos was dean of the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. We might have met before at a conference, but we didn’t know each other well. Jerry brought me in for the seminar, which examined the ethical issues of digital journalism. If I hadn’t delivered a good seminar, that would have been the last time I had worked for Jerry. But I did a good job and he remembered me.
Jerry moved to LSU and last year contacted me about brainstorming with LSU faculty and students about possibilities for a Knight grant the Manship School had received for student-led social media projects. I agreed to visit LSU, and, as long as I was on campus, Jerry asked me to meet with student media leaders and discuss why they should consider a digital-first approach. Apparently I did a good job again. If I had done a mediocre job on either of those sessions last year, I wouldn’t be working at LSU now.
Looking back, every job I ever got stemmed from doing good work. When I applied to be the part-time sports writer at the Evening Sentinel in Shenandoah, Iowa, the summer before my senior year in high school in 1971, Chuck Offenburger, the sports editor, called one of my teachers for a reference. If I hadn’t done good work for that teacher, I wouldn’t have received that first job. And if I hadn’t done good work in that part-time job and a couple summer and winter internships for the Sentinel, I wouldn’t have been invited back for my first full-time job after graduating from Texas Christian University in 1976.
In 1977, a situation at the Sentinel created concerns about my job security there. I contacted Offenburger, then a reporter at the Des Moines Register. If I hadn’t been doing good work, Chuck would have been sympathetic, I’m sure. But he wouldn’t have written a note encouraging the managing editor at the Register to hire me (I later got to read that note). The Register hired me in November 1977, based in no small part on Chuck’s recommendation.
In 1985, Rick Tapscott of the Kansas City Times was looking for an assistant national/mid-America editor. When Gannett’s purchase of the Register was announced, Rick asked Barb Musfeldt of the rival Kansas City Star (his future wife) who would be someone good to poach from the Register. If I hadn’t done a good job of editing Barb’s stories when she was an intern at the Register and a graduate student at Iowa State University, she wouldn’t have mentioned me. But she did, and I got the Kansas City job.
Six years later, I was ready to leave Kansas City. I applied to a publisher in Minot, North Dakota, who had never heard of me. I listed Michael Gartner as a reference. Michael was the Editor when I moved to the Des Moines Register. I was the copy editor who usually handled his column about words. Michael had moved on to become President of NBC News. The publisher called him to ask about me (but partly just because she wanted to talk to Gartner, who was a very big deal in journalism them). Michael remembered my good work and gave me a strong reference that I later heard got me the interview, which got me the job.
I don’t know exactly what landed me my next job at the Omaha World-Herald, after I was fired in Minot, but I sent clips of my best stories to the editors there, and I sent them references, including Gartner and Tapscott. I got that job. I think I nailed the interview, but if the clips weren’t good, or if I hadn’t done good work for Gartner and Tapscott, I wouldn’t have gotten the interview.
In 1998, Tapscott moved to the Des Moines Register as metro editor. Almost immediately, he gave me a call. That wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done good work for him in Kansas City. Two years later, I returned to the World-Herald, again a move that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done good work for them in my first hitch.
During my second hitch at the World-Herald, I did a lot of freelance training for other newspapers and for journalism organizations, including the American Press Institute. So when I applied for a job at API in 2005, they already knew about my good work.
References who told about my good work earlier in my career also helped when the publisher of the Cedar Rapids Gazette hired me as editor in 2008.
Two years later, I asked Jim Brady about working for his new Washington local news operation, which later was named TBD. Brady knew who I was because of my blog. Our first communication was a Twitter direct message praising a blog post I had written. Apparently I did good work for TBD because Brady hired me again to work at the Journal Register Company (which later became Digital First Media).
I had plenty of ups and downs along the way, but every single opportunity clearly or apparently had its roots in good work I had done before. That’s not to say I didn’t make mistakes or have some days that didn’t help me get my next job. But you have to do enough good work that people remember that.
The techniques I discussed yesterday are important. They help you capitalize on good work. But career success starts with doing good work in your current job. You may need to do more work to capitalize on that success. But networking, branding and smart use of social media won’t make up for mediocre work. Whatever opportunities come your way will eventually trace back to someone seeing your good work and wanting to hire you and/or to someone you worked with saying how good you were.
Treat every day in your current job as your audition for your dream job. Because it may be.
Develop and tend your brand
You can use the term “reputation” if “brand” makes you uncomfortable. But you don’t want to be a generic journalist (or reporter or editor or photojournalist or whatever specialty you will pitch yourself as) when you’re looking for a job. Even if you succeed in getting an offer, it will be at a discount rate. A strong brand helps you stand out from other contenders for a job and gives you value that some employers will pay more for.
Both with people I knew before Digital First Media decided to close Thunderdome and with people I had never met, I know the brand I had developed resulted in the contacts from 20 potential employers (or consulting clients) in the days after news of the Thunderdome closing broke. In addition, another six potential employers/clients that I contacted about positions they had listed or just to discuss possibilities responded to my inquiries. Again, I’m sure that my brand was essential to their interest in me.
That encouraging response of potential opportunities wasn’t just a result of my good work, but of my efforts to help the new business see my good work.
Tend your network connections
Networking wouldn’t have made a bit of difference if I hadn’t done good work for Jerry Ceppos back in 2007. But he might have forgotten about my work (or not thought of me as quickly) if I hadn’t stayed in touch.
I followed up that 2009 seminar in Reno with an email to Jerry, passing along a couple documents relating to our discussions there. Jerry replied with a nice note praising my work. Even that simple exchange extends the relationship beyond the hit-and-run nature of a one-day campus visit, but we had a few other emails and phone calls. When the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication met in Washington last year, I made a point of going into DC (I live in the Virginia suburbs) to meet with a few academics I knew. I was a candidate then for another academic job, and I thought some networking with journalism academics wouldn’t hurt.
Jerry wasn’t one of the academics I made an appointment to visit, but I spotted him across a hotel lobby and went over to chat. I told him about the academic job I was interested in. I don’t know (and maybe Jerry doesn’t) whether I might have occurred to him anyway as a possibility for helping with the Knight grant or as a prospect for my current job. But a few weeks later, he emailed me about another matter. And just a few months after that conversation, Jerry invited me to campus to help as a consultant on the Knight grant, and just a few months after that, he offered me a job. I have no doubt my networking helped me land this job.
But it wasn’t just that job. Staying in touch with Rick Tapscott and Jim Brady certainly helped me get second jobs with each. Connecting digitally with Jim before we met helped me land my first job with him.
And my network paid off big-time in this last job hunt. A casual acquaintance whom I’ve chatted with at some social/professional events (and followed up with on email) introduced me by email to two former colleagues of hers who had jobs to fill. One of those led to an offer and the other led to an interview.
Another friend gave me a strong reference for another job for which I got an interview (I had a distant connection to the person making the hire, but a closer friend had worked closely with that person). Eight other work or consulting opportunities came through third-party connections in my network.
Every time you meet another journalist or news executive, consider him or her someone who might offer you a job, introduce you to your next employer or recommend you to your next employer.
Excel in digital journalism
The law of supply and demand has always ruled the journalism job market.
The first time I was fired, in 1992, I was a good editor. A really good editor, in my view. But the job market had more really good editors than really good editing jobs. It took me six months to find my next job, a reporting job at a whopping pay cut.
Most jobs today, even basic, traditional jobs such as reporter, photojournalist or editor, demand digital skills. You don’t have to excel at all digital skills (I don’t), but you should have multiple digital skills and excel at some of them (I do).
I suspect my Thunderdome colleagues are finding new jobs – many of them excellent jobs that continue their career advancement – faster than most, if not all, other batches of journalists who have been thrown out into the job market all at once. I’m certain that is because we hired people with excellent digital skills and they continued learning new tools and skills while working for Thunderdome.
As I said, you don’t have to master all digital skills. But you should always be learning new digital skills.
Excel at traditional journalism skills
The importance of digital skills doesn’t diminish the importance of traditional journalism skills such as writing, verification, copy editing and photography. But the value of those skills works differently than it used to.
You may excel at writing long newspaper stories, and the market for that skill has changed greatly. But if you relied on good editors to polish those stories for publication, your work is not going to get as heavy editing in most newsrooms today, so you have to take more responsibility for the quality of your stories.
If you’re a good reporter and writer, you may have to shoot your own photos on some stories, so polish your photography skills. If you’re a good photojournalist, you may need to do some reporting and write the text that accompanies a visual story or a good script for a video. So polish your writing skills.
Build good will
I have many fond memories (and great stories) of newsroom characters who were surly, arrogant and difficult to work with. Many of them were great journalists whom I would gladly hire or recommend for jobs. But here’s the thing about supply and demand: If the supply of great journalists exceeds the demand for great journalists, many employers are going to hire the great journalists who are more pleasant to work with. Argue about the unfairness of that if you want, but overcoming human nature is kind of tough.
I can be pushy, demanding and persistent, qualities that helped me get information from sources and helped me in leading staff members, but that sometimes annoy all those people, as well as my peers and bosses. Maybe I can’t change that and maybe I won’t, but that’s part of the package with me. But I don’t want it to be the first thing anyone thinks of when they discuss how I am to work with. So I try to be generous and fun and helpful when I don’t have to be pushy, demanding and persistent.
You don’t want anyone’s reference for you to be: “He can be an asshole at times, but he’s really good.” They can hire really good journalists who aren’t assholes, or who built enough good will that they mention your good attributes before they mention the part about being pushy (the good will even turns it into a description of your annoying behavior, rather than a characterization of you as an asshole).
Ross Maghielse, a former Digital First colleague, shared this advice on good will:
In my experiences, people hire people they like and who are recommended to them from people they trust. So attitude is a big thing. Don’t burn bridges. Some of the most useful contacts I have are my former employers (Thunderdome colleagues, obviously, have been incredibly helpful and that’s a little bit different circumstance). Former bosses at my previous two jobs before Thunderdome immediately helped get me interviews, contacts, in one case offered me a return job, and helped create options for me post-Thunderdome fallout.
They were also there just as a resource to pick their brains, buy a drink and discuss possible career paths.
Blog about journalism
One of the best career moves I ever made was to start this blog and join the conversation about how journalists should use Twitter, journalism ethics, business models for news and other issues of the news business. Jim Brady, who, as I noted earlier, has hired me twice, first contacted me about a blog post. John Paton, the Journal Register Co. CEO contacted me out of the blue to ask my advice. I didn’t ask him why he reached out to me, but it had to be because I had blogged about news-business issues he also was addressing. John and Jim eventually hired me to work at Journal Register. And the email from Jerry Ceppos inviting me to consult on LSU’s Knight project came just a month after he had emailed me about a blog post. Without question, the blog has played a role in landing the three jobs I’ve been hired to since I started it.
A blog can be a lot of work. But it also gives you a distinct voice in the journalism conversation, and that’s been hugely valuable to me.
Maintain your digital profile
Find a place to showcase your work and tell the story of your career. My blog’s “about” page has more than 18,000 views, more than all but two of the posts I’ve ever written. I don’t know how many of those people are prospective employers, probably just a handful. But anyone who’s interested in learning more about me can pretty quickly find that page and a few others where I tell the story of my career. I make it easy for a prospective employer or client to learn what I offer and what I can do.
What’s your advice?
I’ve shared advice yesterday and today on looking for a new job and on preparing yourself for your next job hunt. I’m sure many others have helpful advice, too, for either challenge. Please share your advice in a comment here. Or, if you have enough advice for a guest post, email me — stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com — and we’ll discuss a possible guest post.