You can’t swing a dead LOLcat these days without hitting an enterprising journalist who’s striking out to create a new-media venture. This week New York magazine profiles Ezra Klein, founder of The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, who recently jumped ship to start his own news site for Vox Media. (Klein and I worked together several years ago at The American Prospect.) While I’ve been critical of the fact that most of the high-profile journo-entrepreneurs have the same demographic profile as Klein, I have a lot of respect for the work he does—and the way he’s shaped his career and pursued what he wanted.
Start building your platform early. Do you have a website, blog, podcast, or Web series that you’ve created and update regularly? Great! It’s good if this venture is named after you, but it doesn’t have to be. What’s important is that you invest a serious amount of time and effort in it.
Be prolific. Time. Effort. These things are important. You can’t get away with posting once every six months—I don’t care how good your writing is. You need to be producing every day, multiple times a day. If you’re not good already, you’ll get better.
Befriend people who have the job you want in two years. Email them, tweet at them, approach them at events. Ask for their advice. If possible, move to the city where they live and apply for internships or entry-level jobs at the publications where they work. If you do manage to become coworkers, you’ll probably find you have some non-work things in common, so these colleagues will likely become friends. Support their work just as much as they’ve supported yours. You’re a team now.
Specialize. If you don’t already have a beat or set of issues you’re passionate about covering, listen to higher-up editors when they complain, “It’s so hard to find a good writer on [X topic].” Or when they say with exasperation, “Do we know any freelancers on this beat?” Their frustration is your opportunity. Ideally, you’ll develop a couple of areas of expertise that overlap somewhat, so your knowledge of and reporting on one subject will lead to better ideas about another.
Find a sponsor. Seek out older journalists who are well-connected and respected, and who are in a position to allocate funds or are friendly with those who are. These people are called sponsors, not mentors. They are here for you, not just to dispense advice but to help you succeed in very concrete ways. Look for people who have a trait or two in common with you—if you’re a white girl from Iowa, look for an older white woman from the Midwest. Admittedly, this is easier if you’re a white guy and there are lots of older white guys in high-level editorial positions. It’s harder for the rest of us. Try anyway. The point is, you want to make it as easy as possible for your sponsor to look at you and see a younger version of him or herself.
Schmooze. Do not be shy about telling your sponsors which other high-level media folks you’d like to meet. Then go out and meet them. Do this again and again. Eventually, start hosting your own events and inviting both your colleagues and people from your sponsor’s world, too.
Become a platform triple threat. Digital, print, TV, radio. Sure, the differences between platforms get blurrier by the day, but for now it really helps to be well-versed in as many formats as possible and produce work that plays to each of them. If three sounds like a lot, aim for at least two.
Have a hobby. A public hobby, ideally, and one that you can monetize in some way and call upon when you’re schmoozing. It’ll make you a more interesting person. I know it’s crass to suggest developing hobbies for professional advancement. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it would help you get ahead.
Write your own narrative. Are you an idealist who went searching for the facts to support your beliefs and ended up making a career out of it? Are you a writer who explains opaque, heavy subject matter with the flip tone of a BuzzFeed quiz? Are you a wonk who just wants to wonk harder? Your colleagues (who are also friends) who share your approach to journalism can help with the creation of this narrative. In fact, together you make a media trend story. You don’t need to splash your narrative on your website, but definitely think about it when you accept jobs and short-term assignments. And you need to draw on it when media reporters start calling.
Ask for more. More money, more space, a better title, more flexibility to freelance, more air time. Especially if you’re a woman, you’re going to have to learn how to do this in a way that is both confident and self-effacing. (I know. It sucks.) But you have to ask for what you want. You’re going to need the practice in asking for small things, because soon you’ll be at the point where you’re asking for the big stuff. Like eight figures to start your own media company.