I spent several days last week talking to classes at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. This is the fine establishment that awarded me a bachelor’s degree a whopping 10 years ago, when everyone was already in deep panic mode about the future of the industry but had yet to really take the internet seriously. I realized just how long ago that was when the students asked how I got my first job. I explained that it was a combination of having several years of blogging experience (I wrote for one of the first big feminist blogs), allowing editors to get a sense of my ideas, and some limited staff experience (I was an intern at Mother Jones). In their faces I could see the truth: I’m already old. These days a blog and an internship aren’t enough to set you apart.
They, like most soon-to-be graduates, were palpably stressed about what would become of them. They’ve spent the past few years studying anthologies of narrative features and Pulitzer-winning reporting while simultaneously reading about mass layoffs—many of the career paths taken by those anthologized writers are no longer available to them. They have a lot of opportunities, but even more angst.
Here are a few of the things I heard over and over from these young journalists, along with my replies.
It’s fruitless to cold-apply for every entry-level job posted on MediaBistro, but I don’t have enough contacts to hear about jobs any other way.
Yeah, that sucks. The way you find out about jobs is to know people (or know people who know people) who will tip you off and put your name in front of those who are hiring. Even entry-level journalists need some kind of network. Rather than bemoan the fact that you never hear about jobs, focus on building that network.
I know, I know. I need a network, but networking is for douchebags.
Networking is for douchebags if you’re only doing it to get a job or a promotion. (Or “connecting” with random journalists on LinkedIn en masse.) Instead, think of your network as a community—a group of professional collaborators with whom you share skills and ideas, contacts and advice—that you invest in whether or not you’re looking for a new job. This is what Robert Krulwich calls horizontal loyalty.
For now, your network is going to be made up of a lot of other entry-level journalists—like your classmates and fellow interns—plus a few people who have been your internship supervisors. You need to get over the feeling that you’re competing for the same three jobs and see other entry-level journalists as allies. You personally may only know three higher-up editors, but if you share the wealth, together you know six or 10 or more. Ask your friends to make introductions, and do the same for them. This is how to slowly expand the number of people you know while also investing in the careers of those who are important to you. It takes time, but the payoff is real.
I want to be a journalist, but I still don’t know what type of journalist I want to be.
This seems to be a problem mostly afflicting the super-driven j-school student who’s been made to choose a track of courses that match with a specific format (print or digital or radio) or single skillset (editing or writing or designing). One student I talked to was worried that she was equally interested in writing and editing. This is, in fact, a great thing! It means you’re versatile. You can apply for lots of different types of entry-level jobs. And just because your first job involves mostly copyediting doesn’t mean you’re a copyeditor for life. Your career will be long and involve many iterations.
I have a really strong interest in a certain beat, but I don’t want to be pigeonholed.
It’s good to specialize, because your interests can help guide your job search and find a community of other journalists interested in the same subject. It can also give you a way to describe yourself (say, in your Twitter bio) and differentiate yourself. Just because you have a main area of expertise doesn’t mean you can never stray outside that beat. You’re free to change it up completely if a new opportunity presents itself or you develop a new set of interests.
If I don’t get a really good entry-level journalism job right away, I’m screwed.
You are not screwed. Most of the successful journalists I know—including me—paid the bills in many other ways before (and after) landing a full-time media job.
I probably have to move to New York, but I can’t afford it.
No, you don’t have to move to New York. But you do need a professional network and, ideally, a staff job. For some people, New York is a good place to find both of these things. It’s not the only place, though. The internet makes it easy to collaborate on side projects with journalists you know, to ask for introductions via email, to listen in on what your professional idols are talking to each other about on Twitter. If you don’t live in a city with a lot of journalists, you probably have to be more active about meeting and communicating with your fellow journalists digitally. But rest assured you can make good work and find great colleagues elsewhere. I’ve done all of my best work thousands of miles from New York.
All entry-level journalism jobs look so boring my brain might atrophy. Writing tweets? Copyediting? Factchecking? Covering city council meetings? No, thank you.
A lot of people love these jobs! But point taken. You have to think of your first job this way: You’re in a great position to soak up all of the information you can about how the higher-ups make editorial decisions—and about how your employer does business. (You might end up becoming a publisher.) This firsthand knowledge of how media gets made is going to stand you in good stead no matter where you end up. I learned a lot at my entry-level jobs, even if it didn’t seem valuable it at the time. Another valuable thing about a starting journalism job you find too easy is that it probably leaves you with some after-work time to pursue your own projects. Get together with your fellow under-utilized grads and make something on the side. Or try to create something on your own. Every big step up in my career has come not as a result of something I’ve done on the job, but something I’ve done outside it.
I feel like I have such a long way to go.
If you’re the sort of person who’s always striving to make better work, this is not a problem that will be isolated to the stressful months preceding graduation. You’ll always feel like you have different or more interesting work to be done elsewhere, that this isn’t your last stop. That’s a good thing.