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.
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.
Organizations 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.
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.
Follow 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.
Friend 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.
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.
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
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.