I recently received a note from a high school senior on the cusp of her graduation. She was starting college in the fall and hoped to become a political journalist: what advice could I share? My counsel, of course, comes with a built-in bias: I used to be a political journalist, but was laid off early in my career, at the start of the Internet era, when newspapers were beginning to discover their advertising-based revenue model had gone up in smoke.
The “Plan B” I developed for myself over the ensuing decade – working first as a freelance journalist, then a presidential campaign spokesperson, a nonprofit executive director, a documentary filmmaker, and a marketing strategist – inspired my newly-released book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, which provides a “reinvention roadmap” for others who are struggling to find their footing in the new economy or who want to figure out how to live out their passions.
Being a journalist is – in my opinion – the most exciting career possible. You get paid to learn new things, go to cool events, mingle with interesting people, and ask them anything you want. For creative intellectuals, or those who’d like to consider themselves such, it’s unbeatable. Yet the savage truth is that journalism’s heyday is long gone. The Project for Excellence in Journalism reports that between 2001-2009, approximately 1/3 of newsroom jobs in U.S. newspapers vanished. To put it mildly, this is not a promising time to be entering the field.
So what’s my advice for intrepid aspiring journalists who want to try, anyway? Here are a few strategies that may improve your chances in a tough and declining industry.
Start a blog. Creating your own digital outpost – which you can do for free using sites like WordPress or Blogger – is invaluable. “It takes time to build a following,” my friend Laura Vanderkam, who has built a successful freelance writing career, told me. “But it’s worth it to start now.” Any potential employer wants to see samples of your work and, hopefully, that you’ve already built a following. Blogging (and promoting it via social media) is the best first step.
Follow a “media ladder strategy.” Once you’ve developed an array of posts, approach other outlets about writing for them. You can start small, with a student newspaper or local website, and then “ladder” your way up to increasingly prestigious publications – local weeklies, regional dailies, and eventually national publications. Your future success, says Vanderkam, is all about the clips you develop, so think strategically about how to build your portfolio.
Cultivate multimedia skills. It’s not enough just to be able to write anymore. Journalists are increasingly being called upon to perform multimedia services that used to be the province of specialists. (The Chicago Sun-Times recently laid off its entire staff of photographers; I predict the gap will probably be filled by a combination of freelancers and forcing writers to step up and figure it out.) If you can demonstrate real expertise in photography and video, you’ll have a competitive advantage.
Learn marketing. I’m not much of a risk-taker, so here’s my advice on hedging your bets: get some PR or marketing internships under your belt. Most journalists, including myself, have flocked into those fields when we’ve been laid off, because the skills are highly transferable. Even if you don’t want to become a marketer, it’s good to know how things operate “on the other side,” and it may enable you to become a savvier reporter. But just in case, recognize that journalistic skills are increasingly coveted in the marketing field.
Build a personal brand. Sadly – as in any economic situation where supply outstrips demand – journalists have become a commodity. These days, media outlets can rest assured there’s always someone willing to step up and write for less money, or even for free. The only way to fight back against the perception that you’re just another number is by developing a robust personal brand. Readers know what to expect when they see Malcolm Gladwell’s byline, or Michael Lewis’ – and they’re willing to pay good money for that product. In turn, magazines will pony up for their distinct perspective, and the pre-existing fan base they bring with them. A strong personal brand is the ultimate career insurance.
Develop an entrepreneurial mindset. It used to be that freelance careers were considered risky. Let’s get real: when it comes to journalism, even if you land a staff job, you’re probably going to lose it eventually. The waves of layoffs (nearly 2000 newspaper jobs lost in 2012 alone) have become a steady feature of journalistic life. The safest strategy may be creating a long-term career as a freelancer – and that means thinking like an entrepreneur, because every day, you’re pitching your client (the editor) and trying to convince them to buy your product (the new story you want to write). You have to get comfortable with the reality of living in a DIY economy.
There’s no way around it: journalism is a very hard industry to break into these days. But if you work to develop a robust skill set and take the business side of journalism just as seriously as you do your reporting, you may still be able to build a solid and satisfying career.
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on June 1, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.