Archive for the ‘Career advice’ Category


Perhaps I’m the last person who should make fun of Tribune’s renaming its company tronc. But that won’t stop me.

I named Project Unbolt. I proudly worked for TBD. I let my CEO change my title from editor to information content conductor (thankfully, Editor & Publisher went old-school in recognizing me as Editor of the Year). I get why you might choose a ridiculous name (or a great name that others might like; reaction to TBD’s name was mixed).

I’ll say this: It’s too early to say whether this name change is a master stroke, a stupid move or both. I’ll explain that more later.

But the reaction to the move was swift, derisive and hilarious: (more…)


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This continues my series on professional networking.

If you don’t think promotion should be part of journalism, I understand. I did little to nothing to promote myself or my work in the first 20-plus years of my career. And I had a good career: rewarding mid-level editor jobs and senior reporting jobs at metro newspapers, top editor of a smaller newspaper.

I can’t think of a single self-promotional thing I did for the first two decades of my career, unless you count some internal boasting in newsroom chit-chat or an occasional humble brag to make sure the boss knew my role in a story.

I didn’t do anything to actually promote myself (that I can recall) until 1997. And I think my career since has benefited greatly from self-promotion, and from overcoming a strong journalistic resistance to promotion.

I decided in 1997 that I wanted to train journalists and get paid for doing so. I thought I had something to teach journalists after all those years of work, and I thought I would like training, and I could use the money. And no one would know that I was available to do training if I didn’t promote myself.

So I developed my first website, promoting my training services and posting workshop handouts online. I was taking a web design class under Father Don Doll at Creighton University, and my website was all about me and my training services.

York News Times logoBut that was early in the history of the web and well before Google, so I also developed an amateurish flier promoting my services (design was never a strong suit of mine). I mailed that flier to newsrooms and press associations around the Midwest and landed three training gigs: with the York News-Times (a Nebraska daily not to be confused with the New York Times), the North Dakota Newspaper Association and the Minot Daily News. Since I was a former Minot editor and well known to the folks at NDNA, those gigs came through a mix of networking and promotion. But I didn’t know anyone at York, and that first training gig came from the amateurish flier. (more…)

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This continues my series on professional networking.

One of the most offensive, discriminatory terms of the professional world is “the old boy network.”

I’ve blogged all week about the value of building and using a professional network to advance your career. But I need to acknowledge a sinister factor: The old boy network has long been a tool of racism and sexism, often unintentionally but still emphatically helping white men’s journalism careers to the detriment of women and journalists of color.

In Wednesday’s post, when I listed people whose connections have helped lead to jobs during my career, I certainly noticed that most were white men. To some extent that’s going to be true for most journalists, because white men are still disproportionately powerful, and the situation was more disproportionate in the 1970s, when my career started.

Some discrimination is intentional and inherently evil. But I think this aspect of discrimination is rooted in the fact that we all have natural affinities for people with shared experiences, and most people’s default settings will be to connect with people who share our own demographic experiences.

But diversity is important for the news business (beyond the fact that discrimination is wrong). If we are going to matter to diverse communities, we need diverse staffs and leaders. So journalists seeking to have successful careers, hire successful staffs and improve the news business need to make the effort to diversify our personal networks. And the truth is, as journalists we have extensive shared experiences on which we can build strong affinities, if we’re just honest enough to acknowledge those natural demographic affinities and let the professional experiences rule our default settings.

Effective networking that is diligent in preventing discrimination — except by such factors as experience, skills and work ethic — can be as effective in increasing diversity as the old boy network was in blocking it.

I’ve been aware of, and sometimes heavily involved in, efforts to diversify most organizations where I’ve worked. I encourage (and practice) efforts to diversify networks, and I know of women and people of color in leadership positions who have used their network connections to alert diverse candidates to opportunities and recommend them for jobs, somewhat offsetting the bias of the old-boy network (in which the word white was unspoken but very real). (more…)

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Guest-teaching at Northern Kentucky University, 2012

Guest-speaking at Northern Kentucky University, 2012

This continues a series on professional networking.

I don’t think I ever advertised my services as a journalism trainer. But my professional network brings business to me again and again.

I won’t try the same approach here as I used yesterday in explaining the value of my network in connecting me with new jobs, whether I was looking or not. I’ve had hundreds of training and consulting jobs since I decided to launch a side business of newsroom training in 1997, so I won’t detail the network role in all of them, as I did with full-time jobs. Instead, I’ll detail a few of the networking successes that have delivered multiple jobs.

Except for last year, when treatment for lymphoma took me off the road, I’ve made a five-figure second income most years since 2003 or so. I doubt if there was a single year when most of the gigs and most of the income didn’t come at least in part from network connections.

Though I really started in training as a continuing venture in 1997, my first gig was 12 years earlier at the St. Joseph News-Press and Gazette in Missouri. How that came about illustrated the importance of networking in such a pursuit: The St. Joe managing editor and Arnold Garson, my managing editor at the Des Moines Register, were at a meeting of the Associated Press Managing Editors together. The St. Joe editor mentioned to Arnie that he was interested in getting some newsroom training. Arnie thought I’d be good at that, so he dropped my name. I did well, and maintained the interest, though career opportunities took me in different directions for a while.

As my training career really took off in the early 2000s, networking provided opportunities time after time. Literally hundreds of opportunities came my way through my network. Here are how some of the major networking connections in my training career helped me: (more…)

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This continues my series on professional networking.

I credit my skills and hard work for most of the success I’ve achieved professionally. But my professional network has helped tremendously, too.

In this post, I’m going to run through the jobs I’ve landed and explain how my network helped me get most (but not all) of the jobs in my career:

Because my mother read the newspaper …

Chuck Offenburger, right, gave me my first job in journalism back in 1971.

Chuck Offenburger, right, gave me my first job in journalism back in 1971.

I was on a canoe trip in the summer of 1971, between my junior and senior years of high school, when my mother read a notice in the Evening Sentinel that Sports Editor Chuck Offenburger was looking for a sports writer. I didn’t know Chuck, and had no network connection to him. But Mom called the notice to my attention. I applied and I got the job (and Chuck and I remain friends).

But the network connection that mattered here was my mother. I’m not a fan of nepotism or family interference, which didn’t happen here. Mom didn’t even know Chuck. But she tipped me off to the first job of my journalism career. And Mimi has alerted two of our sons to opportunities that led to jobs for them. Listen to your mom. (more…)

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A few recent experiences have underscored the value of networking. I’ve seen student or professional journalists launch or advance their careers in part because of their strong professional networks. I’ve also seen student or pro journalists fail to seize valuable networking opportunities. And my professional network continues to bring me opportunities.

I’ve mentioned the value of professional networks in previous posts offering career advice. But I haven’t done a full post on networking yet. So today I start a series on the topic with networking tips. Wednesday I’ll detail how my professional networks have helped deliver most of the jobs in my 45-year journalism and teaching career. Thursday I’ll detail how valuable networking was been in my consulting career. Friday I’ll discuss the importance of a diverse network. Saturday I’ll cover how promotion, which overlaps with networking but isn’t the same, has helped my career.

The series might continue if other ideas occur to me or if colleagues offer to write guest posts. Yes, that’s an invitation to write such a post. I’ll elaborate at the end of this post.

Quality work matters most

I want to start this piece (and will conclude other parts of the series) with an important point that should be obvious, but sometimes isn’t: Networking is nowhere near as important as doing good work.

I’ve encountered some journalists who seem to be cynical about networking or sometimes are openly dismissive of it. They seem to think (or actually say) that their work should speak for itself, and regard networking as some form of ass-kissing or merely as schmoozing.

Your work should speak for itself. But that doesn’t help you unless someone is listening. Networking (with rare exceptions) isn’t a way for unqualified candidates or screw-ups to schmooze their ways to successful careers. And it has drawbacks, such as the “old-boy network” that favored cronyism (usually among white men) over qualifications. (More on diversity issues later in the series.)

If you network effectively, as a job-seeker or a manager responsible for hiring, networking means giving the candidate’s work a chance to speak for itself and the employer a chance to hear from good candidates.

If you’re good and have a strong network, you’re likely to have a more successful career than someone who’s similarly good but has a weak network. I’ve never given someone a job simply because of our connections, and I don’t think I’ve ever been offered a job simply because of connections. But connections have given me and people I’ve hired opportunities to show why we were the best people for jobs.

Make connections

This couldn’t be any simpler: A good professional network results from connecting with other professional journalists. You work for and with journalists in your internships and your first jobs who can help your career later. Professional journalists will speak at your university, and you’ll get a chance to chat and make an impression. You’ll have an opportunity to string a story for a professional media outlet, interacting with an editor in the process. You might attend a journalism conference such as the Online News Association or Excellence in Journalism conferences where students and professionals mix.

Seek out each such opportunity, whether it’s a genuine journalism experience or some grunt work (perhaps picking up the visiting journalist at the airport). You don’t know which connections are going to pay off for you when, so you should seize opportunities to make as many connections as you can.

ireconferencelogo180x700.3Organizations such as Investigative Reporters and Editors (meeting June 16-18 in New Orleans) and ONA (meeting Sept. 15-17 in Denver) provide discounted or complimentary registration for students who help with conference duties. Some will be simple work such as staffing a registration table. But some student work involves livetweeting or blogging about conference sessions for the organization’s website. I’ve been interviewed several times at conferences by students covering the sessions where I spoke.

And don’t just regard the professional journalists you meet as networking opportunities. Other students you meet at the conference are going to have journalism careers, too. Some might end up working some place you’d like to land or might climb the career ladder faster or in a different direction. All of them are potential references for the future, if not prospective bosses or job contacts.

Follow up

When you make a professional connection, you can follow up in a variety of ways. You don’t have to do all of these every time with every person you meet. You shouldn’t become a stalker or a pest. But you should stay in touch with people you interacted with meaningfully. Some ways to follow up:

Follow up by email. If you chatted with someone when you met, continue the conversation by email. Share a link, whether it’s your own writing or someone else’s, that relates to what you discussed. Ask a question (which usually will prompt a response). Don’t ask a favor yet, unless the person offered in person to help. If she did, refer to the offer in your request. If your in-person conversation identified a way you could help the other person, offer assistance yourself. That’s the first and best step toward a mutually beneficial relationship. I went to a conference earlier this month and am following up this week with the people I met there. All have the potential to be helpful in some decisions we’re making for LSU Student Media.

Twitter_logo_blueFollow on Twitter. The person might follow you back, which gives you the opportunity to exchange direct messages. If the person tweets something you find interesting, retweet or reply, so you’re continuing the conversations you started in person. If the person tweets links to his work, click on them and read or watch, so you’re more familiar with the person’s work. Tweet some praise about the best work. Or ask a how’d-you-do-that question in a tweet.

Facebook logo copyFriend on Facebook (maybe). If you feel as though you really became friends in your first connection, send a friend request. This gives you a chance to be in each other’s social conversations regularly and continue the friendship. If your connection was pretty brief and not personal, I don’t recommend friending on Facebook (though you might subscribe to public posts or like someone’s professional page, and comment occasionally, which helps you move toward a friendship).

Follow professional work. After you’ve met someone, pay attention to her work, if the person’s work is easily available online. If you comment on a blog, tweet praise about a story or email a compliment about a video, that helps build your relationship and helps you stand out from all those other students or young journalists the veteran may know. It also helps you understand the journalist’s work and how she might be helpful to you in the future.

Share mutual interests. Your initial contact was probably professional in nature, but might have covered some personal interests, too. Address some of those personal matters in follow-up conversations, particularly if you share some interests. I recently attended a conference with a colleague who is, like me, a Yankee fan, specifically a fan of Bucky Dent and the 1978 Yankees. In the conversation, I told him I blog about the Yankees. In a follow-up email, I shared some links from my blog to posts about Dent and other members of the ’78 Yankees. Because I was pretty public about my cancer treatment, and have tweeted a lot about travel delays, people can (and do) easily make our relationships more personal by asking about my health or referring to me when they tweet about their own travel woes. Don’t force a friendship or fake interests that aren’t genuinely mutual. But if you can naturally expand the conversation beyond the professional, you’re headed toward an actual friendship.

Ask questions. As I mentioned when discussing Twitter above, asking a journalist how he or she did something outstanding is a great way to deepen a relationship. That starts turning a person from a journalist you met somewhere into a mentor. If you’re working on a story that involves data analysis, and you’re struggling a bit, and you read an excellent data story recently by a journalist you met at a conference, email asking if he has a few minutes to answer some questions. You chat by phone or email or Skype, and the veteran helps you do a better story. You publicly thank the journalist on social media when you share the link and perhaps he tweets a link to the story with some praise. And your network connection is growing in value.

Networking isn’t one-way

Your professional network isn’t just a matter of making connections with more experienced journalists who can help you right now or in the near future, though that’s important. As I mentioned above, peers can be important, too. And when you get to be a veteran of my age, younger journalists can be important network connections.

Jim Brady is more than a decade younger than I am. I won’t repeat here the story about how we developed our network connection over digital media, but that effort to connect with a younger colleague resulted in two different jobs working for Jim.

In my first job working for Jim, the people I hired included two young journalists who had earlier made effective network connections with me, Mandy Jenkins and Jeff Sonderman (again, I’ve blogged before about how they made those connections). Well, they’ve both risen to important positions, Mandy as News Director at Storyful and Jeff as Associate Director at the American Press Institute, where either or both might be helpful professionally in the future to me and/or my students. In fact, at this point in my career, they are probably more useful to my students and me as network connections than I am to them.

A few years ago, I interviewed and later offered a job to Alexis Grant, a recent college graduate who was starting her journalism career after a year traveling in Africa. She didn’t take the job I offered her. But we stayed in touch (she guest-blogged for me once) as she launched her career and became successful. Well, I’m still far more experienced than Alexis, but that network connection worked both ways, and she’s hired me to do some training for her staff later this summer.

Help others

Networking can’t be a one-way relationship. If you help other professionals, whether peers or people who (for now) are above you in the journalism chain, it’s bound to help you professionally. Your reward may not be a direct, observable result of one favor resulting in one job interview, but being helpful is good for your reputation, and I think it comes back to help you even more. Some of the most successful journalists I know are some of the most helpful, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

In my view, one of the most self-serving things a journalist can do is help other journalists.

Say thanks

When someone helps you, whether it’s a small favor such as answering a question or spending a few moments with you at a conference, or a huge favor such as helping set up a job interview, say thank you. Say it in person or say it in an email or both. Say it publicly in social media. If it was a big enough favor, a handwritten thank-you card is probably more meaningful than ever in this digital age. People remember colleagues who are grateful. And those who aren’t.

Other posts in this series

How networking helped land most of my jobs

How networking built my training and consulting business

A professional network should be diverse

Tips for helping your career through promotion

Want to write a guest post?

You may have some experience in networking that would add to this series. If you’d like to write a guest post, please email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.

Interested in a networking workshop?

The posts in this series can be developed into a workshop or series of workshops for you journalism organization or university. If you’re interested in discussing or scheduling a workshop on networking (or some other topic), please email me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com.


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Image linked from BrutallyHonest.org

A journalist doesn’t need superpowers. But if you excel in a particular skill that’s in short supply, you won’t be one of those journalists whining about pay. Or if you do whine, that will be just to maintain your secret identity.

Mark Stencel and Kim Perry produced an outstanding (but perhaps daunting) report for the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurialism, Superpowers: The digital skills media leaders say journalists need going forward.

The report could be intimidating or discouraging for a senior journalism major still looking for a job as graduation approaches or for a veteran journalist still stinging from a layoff and wondering what’s next.

The report notes the skills desired in an ad for a multimedia reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, an Illinois newspaper with print circulation of less than 60,000 and just over 9,000 Twitter followers. The ad, Stencel and Perry noted, sought:

someone capable of ‘shooting videos and learning how to produce interactive graphics,’ plus a willingness ‘to use social media as part of the daily beat routine.’ Oh, and ‘database journalism skills are a plus’ too, the editors added.

And I’m going to speculate that the position pays less than Jimmy Olson makes.

I have a little experience hiring journalists in the digital age, as well as looking for jobs. I don’t have any super powers. I don’t think I could leap over my suitcase in a single bound. But I’ve assessed the value of journalists with impressive but incomplete skill sets, and I’ve managed to maintain some value in the job market. So I want to share some thoughts on “Superpowers,” both the Tow-Knight Center report and the job skills it addresses. (more…)

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I wish journalists weren’t learning so many important lessons from losing their jobs. But, as long as so many journalists are losing their jobs, I’m glad some of them are sharing the lessons they’re learning.

I blogged recently about the turmoil in Canadian media, which resembles what U.S. media have also faced, including various companies I’ve worked for.

I’ve shared lessons here before (links below) from my job losses and job searches, but in this post, I want to call attention to posts by two Canadian friends who have blogged their own lessons.

Melanie Coulson, whom I met in a visit to the Ottawa Citizen in 2010, lost her job there a couple years ago. This week more Citizen journalists have lost their jobs*, and Mel blogged about four lessons she learned since losing hers. I recommend reading her entire post, but here’s a passage that stood out to me:

Stop thinking of yourself as a journalist with specialized skills that won’t transfer to other jobs. I’m telling you — they are so, so in demand.

Words are your super power — but to others they are kryptonite.

You have other amazing superhero skills: You ask the right questions, ones that others are afraid to ask.

This is something you’ve done that your whole career.

Update: And now Mel has a new gig:

Earlier this month, Kim Fox shared nine lessons from her own job-loss experience, including this one:

Say yes to every meeting  –  even when you’re feeling low, or aren’t sure about fit. IMHO any interview is good practice; it’s just as important to learn what you DON’T want.

*Update: Drew Gragg notes in the comments that the most recent departures at the Citizen were voluntary buyouts. I don’t know the particulars of the Ottawa situation, but I do know that every round of buyouts in the news business includes some pressure to accept a buyout before some people may want to end their careers. Sometimes the pressure is an attractive package, sometimes the pressure is an explicit or implicit recognition that the company may cut jobs (with a less attractive severance package) if it doesn’t succeed in reducing the newsroom enough with buyouts. And some people are fed up and ready for retirement or another career and jump at the package. I know some happy journalists who have moved on with not problems after a buyout. I know others who have dealt with and still deal with many of the issues discussed in Kim’s and Mel’s posts, though the dynamic is definitely different if you had a choice in the matter, even a choice under pressure.

My links on losing jobs and looking for the next one

I should note here that you don’t always start looking for a job because you just lost one. I’ve lost two jobs in my 45-year journalism career. Other times, I moved on because a great opportunity arose while I was enjoying a job. Sometimes I started looking for work because I could see the current job situation deteriorating for reasons varying from personal relationships to economic turmoil to changing strategy. Along the way, I learned a lot.

Here are previous posts I’ve written about dealing with the impact of a job loss and looking for the next one (the first one includes excellent advice from colleagues):

Job-hunting tips: Spread the word, network, be patient and persistent

Prepare for your next job hunt while you’re still working

What is your advice for job-hunting journalists?

Tips on landing your next job in digital journalism

Job-hunting advice for journalists selling skills in the digital market

Use digital tools to showcase your career and your work

Confessions (strategies) of a branded journalist (or a journalist with a reputation, if you prefer)

Your digital profile tells people a lot

Enduring lessons from being fired 20 years ago

Bitterness is like wreaking revenge on yourself

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I led a webinar Wednesday for the Society of Professional Journalists on job-hunting for journalists (but non-journos are welcome, too):

I just hit some highlights from my many blog posts on job-seeking, but those links are below. I’ve updated the top of this post to add my slides and to turn the post from future to past tense. From here on, it’s Monday’s post, which was seeking advice from other journalists. Thanks to all who send advice. That advice (from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and email) is shared in the slides above.


Here’s what I posted Monday, seeking that advice:

To stimulate your thinking, I’ll share a few tips here from previous posts on the topic, with links (I’ll suggest this post as further reading for webinar participants) and questions (in bold, to facilitate skimming here) to stimulate your thinking:

Prep for the job hunt

If you have a great job and you’re lucky (and want to) stay in it, I hope you stay where you are for many years to come. But the sad fact of journalism is (and always was) that you could lose your job abruptly, with little warning. I lost a job with no warning once (told on Friday to clean out my office that evening) and last year I got three months’ notice. Other times you feel like you’re ready for a move up that’s not likely to come in your own newsroom. Or you can’t stand your boss or your company or you want more money or a different beat. The reasons for starting a job hunt are plentiful. But your path to the next job starts while you’re happy and secure (or at least still welcome to come in every day, if no one feels secure any more) in your current job.

I wrote a blog post last year on preparing for your next job while you’re still working. One of my tips from that post: “you should always be learning new digital skills.”

What are some things you’ve done, before you started a job hunt, that helped once you started trying to find your next job (whether voluntary or by necessity)? 


One of my tips in the blog post on preparing for the next job hunt (and most, if not all, of my posts relating to this topic) is to build your professional network. In a 2010 post about job-hunting tips, I noted that Jeff Sonderman and Mandy Jenkins contacted me as soon as I got hired at TBD, before I had posted any job openings. They both eventually got jobs on my community engagement team.

What are your tips on building a network and using that network to help land your next job?

Digital profile

I blogged in 2009 about building and tending your digital profile and in 2012 about using digital tools to showcase your career and your work. Perhaps my most important advice from those posts: Google yourself so you will see yourself as prospective bosses see you (in a 2013 post, I advised editors to check job candidates’ digital profiles).

If you think you’ve showcased your career and your work effectively, please send me a link. I may use your profile page as an example in the webinar.


We will cover resumés briefly in the webinar. My key pieces of advice: Keep it to one page, but hyperlink to a page that gives more detail about your career and to actual examples of any works you cite in the resumé. (I included more resumé tips in that 2010 post).

Do you have any resumé tips? Or a resumé you’re proud of that I could share in the webinar and on the blog?

The Pitch

We will discuss how to pitch for a job. This will include the cover letter, of course, but also other ways of connecting with a prospective boss and making your pitch. As noted in that 2010 post, I made my initial (successful) pitch for a job with a direct message on Twitter.

Do you have a great cover letter you’d like to share (I could omit your name, if you prefer, but if it’s not your cover letter, I want permission from the sender to use, with or without name)? Or tell me how you pitched effectively other than through a cover letter.


Prep is helpful in two phases of the job hunt: researching the person, job and organization before you even make your pitch and doing even more research before your interview. Another point in that 2010 post was that candidates scored points in my interviews for TBD jobs with their knowledge about our people and strategy and what we had written about our plans.

The interview

Of course, you have to nail the interview. In a 2011 post, I shared a tip from Justin Karp: “Don’t be afraid to be bold when you meet someone.”

How have you nailed an interview (or screwed one up)? How have people that you interviewed excelled or stumbled? If you’ve been the boss doing the interviews, what are some important questions you ask?


Unless you get offered the job during the interview (that has happened to me, but it’s rare), your work is not done when the interview finishes. In a post from last year, I noted that I helped land my job with the American Press Institute by spending my flight home writing up my strategy for pursuing the job I’d just interviewed for. I emailed my prospective boss the strategy when I got home and within a week, I got an excellent offer that I accepted.

How have you followed up an interview effectively to help you land a job?

Don’t feel limited by my questions. I welcome your advice, whether in response to my questions or just from your own experience. Share a tip or tell a story about what worked for you or what didn’t.

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Steve Buttry interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev

An interview with Mikhail Gorbachev was one of many memorable stories for the Omaha World-Herald. Photo by Kent Sievers.

I left the Omaha World-Herald for the second time 10 years ago. After sharing some lessons earlier this year from my much shorter time at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, I started reflecting on my time at the World-Herald and what I learned there.

I spent longer at the World-Herald than anywhere else in my career, 10 years, four months in two hitches of roughly five years each, 1993 to 1998, and 2000 to 2005. I was a reporter the whole time, though I was also a writing coach the second time around.

Here are some lessons I learned in my two tenures in Omaha (or lessons I had already learned that were underscored or relearned):

Get back to work

This was my World-Herald file staffer mug. I  think Jim Burnett shot it. I was much younger then.

This was my World-Herald file staffer mug. I think Jim Burnett shot it. I was much younger then.

As I’ve noted before, I was fired as editor of the Minot Daily News in 1992. In terms of getting my career back on track, it didn’t matter a lot whether I was fired because I screwed up (I didn’t) or fired because the company was cutting costs to prepare for a sale (it was). I was without a job and without a paycheck and the newspaper job market was tight (newspapers were in much better shape than today, but closings of afternoon newspapers had resulted in lost jobs and it felt like a bleak time). Even though I was willing to take a step back to resume working, many employers were reluctant to hire me for a downward move. And no one was interested in me for a step forward. In my late 30s, my career was in jeopardy, and I was exploring jobs outside journalism as well as some newspaper jobs. (more…)

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I can’t believe it’s been five years since I left Iowa. In some ways, my adventure at the Cedar Rapids Gazette seems like it was only a year or two ago. In other ways, it seems a lifetime ago. But it ended five years ago today.

My departure from the Gazette was awkward. More on that later. But the circumstances inhibited me from reflecting at the time on lessons from a job that was simultaneously one of the most rewarding and frustrating experiences of my career. But maybe distance gives you better perspective on those lessons anyway. So here are those belated reflections.

I want to keep the focus positive here: sharing lessons that I learned or relearned in challenging times. Because the lessons are not all positive, I want to make one thing clear: I have no regrets about the Cedar Rapids experience and I applaud my CEO there, Chuck Peters, for attempting innovation at a time when most of the newspaper business was shamefully timid.

I’ll share my lessons in these categories: career, newsroom leadership, disaster response, leading innovation, managing upheaval. (more…)

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Mark Briggs

Mark Briggs

If you want to give your career a boost, I can’t think of better advice than Mark Briggs gives in a Quill magazine article to work on side projects.

I encourage reading Mark’s Quill piece before reading my advice. He has had more success on side projects than I have, and provides excellent advice. My point here is to endorse and elaborate on Mark’s points.

I’ve been pursuing side projects for more than the past two decades. I didn’t get paid for them all and I can’t claim success in all of them. But I think they have boosted my career at least as much as the work I’ve done on my actual job responsibilities.

I’ll share some advice on pursuing side projects, but first, I’ll make four overall points about your real job, your life and the side projects:

  1. The primary job is your first work priority. You need to give your primary job responsibilities at least full-time attention. If side projects start causing you to shortchange your primary job, before a project is ready to support you and deserves full-time attention, that could harm your career more than your side projects help. I spent a week visiting Mark’s newsroom in Tacoma in 2007 and could see that he was tireless in his primary work and respected by his colleagues.
  2. The side project can be part of your primary job. As Mark notes in his piece, some of Google’s most successful projects started in the company’s requirement that employees spend 20 percent of their time developing ideas that aren’t part of their regular job. When the bosses are seeking volunteers for new projects, be eager to jump in. Or take the initiative by proposing something you can work on, either full-time as a short-term project or on the side for the longer term. The Des Moines Register hired me in 1998 and the Omaha World-Herald hired me in 2000 primarily for reporting positions. But in both cases, I negotiated to spend part of my time as a writing coach, a regular side project that eventually would propel me to a new full-time job.
  3. The side project can be completely separate. Let your bosses know what you’re doing and work out reasonable agreements about what you can or can’t do, what might be a conflict of interests and how much you can or can’t mix work with outside projects. An outside project or how you pursue it should never be a surprise to your boss.
  4. Family comes first. I like how Mark mentions working on side projects around family responsibilities and even involving his children in one. When our sons were home, I did most of my side-project work in the early morning, before they were awake. My side projects took off in our empty-nest years, and Mimi frequently comes along for travel related to my side projects, so the extra time I spend on them at home pays off with fun together (such as trips to Italy the past two years).

Now for some advice on pursuing and managing side projects:

Make daily progress

My side project from the early 1990s — a novel — was not a success, judging from the rejection letters I received from agents and publishers. It was never published and never will be. But I learned an important lesson in writing it: Daily progress pushes your project along.

If I had planned to write that book on weekends or occasional bursts of activity, I never would have finished. And when I tried to work on it in the evening, I was never getting around to it: dinner, kids’ activities, TV, end-of-the-workday collapse all pushed it aside.

I started making progress — and finished the first draft in six months — when I decided to wake up an hour early each day and write for a solid hour while the family was sleeping before hopping into the shower to get ready for work. The hour of progress that I made each morning propelled the project along (and the momentum from that daily progress pushed me to do more writing in evenings and weekends).

Mark also tells of writing his books, starting with Journalism 2.0, in the early-morning hours. He started writing two hours before it would be time to start waking up kids and getting ready for school and work.

Getting up an hour or two early might not be the key for your side project, or may not work (you might have to collaborate on your project with people who aren’t awake yet or interview sources working normal hours). But the point is important: Find a way to commit daily time and make daily progress on your side project.

I still do most of my work on my blog (more on that shortly) early in the morning before I turn to the responsibilities of my day job. I regard the novel as a huge, if unpublished, success because it taught me how to make daily progress on other projects. On the side projects that are part of my job, I try to make an hour or two of progress early in my workday, too.

Learn to promote yourself

Journalists tend not to be promoters. We tend to think our work should speak for itself. But your side projects might require some promotion. I encourage you to recognize the need to overcome your reticence and learn to speak up for yourself.

Promotion did not come easy to me, but my career as a journalism trainer never would have happened if I had not learned to promote my work, pushing past my personal tendencies and wishes every step of the way. I developed a flier (amateurish, I can see in retrospect, but it helped land my first few gigs and I got better), created a website, touted my services in conversations on a list-serv of newsroom trainers and published all my workshop handouts on the No Train, No Gain website, for which I volunteered to become content coordinator.

My willingness to learn promotional skills and take on something that didn’t feel natural propelled me from obscurity to prominence in newsroom training. I was learning and growing as a trainer and making good connections, but I couldn’t have moved to a full-time training position with the American Press Institute without doing the promotion as well.

Don’t undersell yourself

Pricing your services on a side project, such as consulting or freelance writing, can be a huge challenge. Your work has value, and you should charge clients in a way that reflects the value. But it takes a while to develop and learn the value, and to understand your market.

I started out charging $250 per day for writing and editing workshops in 1997 and ’98, probably less than my services were worth even starting out, but I needed to break into the market, get some experience and prove my value. I raised my rates steadily as I gained experience and prominence and was charging $1,000 a day (and getting more work than I got at $250 a day) by the time I joined API in 2005.

At API, our basic fee for a full-day on-site seminar for a news organization (usually on topics such as leadership, rather than writing and editing workshops, and often involving more trainers than just me) was $6,000. I worried about who would pay such high prices. But I found that I was able to line up plenty of clients by delivering strong programs, measuring the results and showing those results to clients. Meanwhile, I raised my rates for writing workshops on the side to $1,500, and the demand continued.

When we launched Newspaper Next, our president, Drew Davis, set the price for a one-day N2 seminar at $11,000 (or $18K for a two-day seminar). I was initially skeptical that we could book much business at those prices. But we had developed a good product that the newspaper business wanted, and an effective seminar to help organizations understand and use the product. I was able to book several dozen seminars for news organizations. The demand was stiff enough that Steve Gray, the full-time leader of N2, couldn’t handle all our bookings, and Elaine Clisham and I had to handle several seminars.

(On the other hand, after a busy 2007 presenting the seminars, demand waned and we could no longer continue booking at that cost and that rate.)

You can’t charge more for your services than the market will pay. But don’t undersell the value of your services. Test the market and adjust as you need to. But don’t apologize for charging for the value you deliver.

Understand the value of free

While I was learning to price my services, I also learned the value of generosity. When I was publishing all my workshop handouts on No Train, No Gain, clients occasionally would ask me how I could afford to give that work away. My response was that I couldn’t afford not to give it away.

I could have put all those handouts into a book and charged for it, and probably wouldn’t have made enough to cover my costs of publishing the book. And my book would have become outdated the next month when I developed a new workshop. Giving the materials away built my reputation and promoted my paid services much better than advertising in an industry magazine or website would have.

At the same time that we were charging $11K for a full-day seminar for newspaper companies, API sent me to dozens of press association conferences for just $100 plus expenses, to present a one-hour Newspaper Next overview. We were essentially giving away a glimpse of the program (and the full N2 report was available free). But those nearly-free promotional appearances resulted in most of those five-figure paid gigs.

I charge my full fee for most of my workshops and appearances, but I occasionally waive (or discount) my fees for nonprofit groups. I may do it for the promotional value or just to contribute to an organization I want to support. I’ve never regretted generosity, and I’m convinced that the services I have “given away” have helped my market value and my income.

Develop a distinctive voice

I have never been paid a nickel for this blog. But it may be the best — and best-paying — side project I’ve ever done.

I started blogging when I was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald more than a decade ago, and continued blogging at API, then launched this blog in 2008 as editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette and have maintained it through three more jobs since then. Through that time, I was never hired to be a blogger and it was never my primary job. It was either a side project of my primary job or a side project outside the primary job.

This side project gave me a voice in discussions about where the news business was heading and how journalists needed to pursue the future. I used the voice in social media as well, and in guest pieces for several journalism magazines, reports, books and websites (each guest piece being a mini-side project in itself).

That voice I developed in the blog and other side projects propelled my career (including some nice pay raises) beyond what I could have achieved just from my primary jobs.

Personal note

Chemotherapy is my side project for the first half of 2015, so I have canceled speaking engagements and am curtailing other side projects. I will continue this blog (and worked on this post in the hospital), but blogging might also be sporadic.

What’s your advice?

I welcome you to share your experience with side projects as well, either in the comments here or in a guest post (email me at stephenbuttry at gmail dot com). What projects have you undertaken? How did they boost your career? What did you learn from your successes and mistakes?

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