Journalism job hunters: My advice to you

Thursday, May 19, 2016
As I've said many times and in many places, over the last decade: This is the best time ever to be looking for a job in the media.

Sure, traditional hirers -- I'm looking at you, newspapers, radio and TV stations -- may not seem quite so vibrant these days.

But the skills they've traditionally required -- the ability to create great work under deadline, to track the news, to craft work that connects with an audience -- are more in demand than ever. Because every company that has a presence on the web is now in the publishing business.

So, congratulations, grads and grads-to-be. You're in for fun.

Because hardly a week goes by that some aspiring (or expiring) journalist doesn't ask me for advice, I'm putting it down here in the hope it'll help you. (This will be an evolving document, so check back for updates.)

Decide where you want to live your life, then look for work. You'll find as many paths to success as you'll find successful people. But over the course of my (sigh) decades in the media biz, I've watched as many of the best and most successful journalists and media executives worked their way up from the bottom -- internships, overnight shifts, clerical jobs -- in their market of choice. And I've watched as friends have left their hometown to start careers elsewhere and then find that life gets in the way -- they meet a love, start a family, take a job with golden handcuffs -- and wind up saying regretfully, years later: "I wish I'd been able to make it back to [insert your hometown here]." When you've exhausted all your local options, you may need to expand your search to other markets. But why not start where you hope to end?

Buy people coffee or lunch. Find an organization you'd like to work for and use LinkedIn or Facebook or whatever other platform works -- your connections, or your friends' connections -- to invite someone who works for that organization to join you, just to find out more about what it's like to work there. No need to discuss a specific job. No need for a job opening at all. Just gather intel. If all goes well, you have a stronger connection when a job does open. The investment in a hot beverage can pay many dividends over time. (Plus, you know what? A lot of the time, a pro will pick up the tab.)

Cast an even wider net. If you're without a job now, take advantage of your flexibility. Find interesting people -- friends, relatives, alumni, or just someone you admire -- across any profession and ask if you can get together just to learn more about her or his career and collect some wisdom. (Flattery can get you somewhere.) A lot of people will blow you off, but those who make time for you are exactly the sort of people who can help you -- if not now, then later. Even if they're not in your chosen profession, they may well know someone who is. Again: No actual job opening required.

Don't wait for someone to pay you to do what you love doing. When I graduated from college, if I wanted to reach an audience that wasn't limited by the number of stamps I could lick (yes, that was before self-sticking stamps), I had to be hired by someone with a printing press or a federally licensed broadcast antenna. The joy of now is that you can reach the world without sucking up to such people. If you're in the job hunt, spend about half your time looking for work and the other half creating what you love. Start a blog, or post to Facebook, Twitter, Medium, Instagram -- whatever works for you -- and do the job for which you'd like to be hired. Go to a City Council meeting and write it up. Broadcast a protest march on PeriscopeTake out your smartphone, record an interview with someone interesting and post it to SoundCloud. Watch a baseball game on TV and blog it live. Attend a concert and take photos or post a critical review. If you're good enough, you may find an advertiser or underwriter willing to kick in a few bucks to be associated with your work. And when you're really good enough, you may find that all of a sudden you have a brand and a business of your own.

If you need to take some non-media job to make ends meet, well, you're not the first and you won't be the last. But then set aside a few hours a day or each week to do what you love. It'll keep you in practice, it'll expand your portfolio and -- as I said -- it could even turn into something sustainable.

As for how to find job openings: Certainly if you have a favorite company you'd like to court, sign up for its listings service. Beyond that, to my experience, seems to turn up a mix of media jobs a cut above other sites. In the Midwest, I strongly recommend subscribing to the free Chicago Headline Club/INBA JobFile mailing list.

And while you're waiting for the phone to ring: Volunteer. Lots of needy organizations can use great writers, photographers and audio and video producers. Find one you like and offer your services for free. Because what else ya got goin' on, huh?

Other questions about finding a job in the journalism world? Other suggestions? Post 'em below.

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