For Journalists Who Need an Escape Plan (Even If You’re Not Ready to Admit It Yet)

May 6, 2013

Working at newspapers isn’t what it used to be.

Working as a journalist

Reporter looking happy.

We know this from Allyson Bird’s post on why she left news, and we know it from a recent survey on CareerCast.com, which ranked “newspaper reporter” as the worst job of 2013. And if you’ve had the experience of working in a newsroom, you know it from the involuntary nodding you found yourself doing as you read both of those pieces.

The truth is, I never expected to leave journalism. Reporting was my love. But as the world around us changes, sometimes our dreams change, too. And just as I never expected to leave my life as a reporter, I never thought I’d love my second career as a digital entrepreneur as much as I do — perhaps, gasp, even more than I loved journalism.

If you’re a journalist who needs an escape plan or is even thinking about moving into a different profession, here are a few practical steps for moving forward, from someone who’s been there.

Build your own brand

Go ahead and work your butt off to grow a loyal community for your employer. But then grow one for yourself, too. One of the biggest mistakes professionals make in this new digital world of work is putting all their eggs in their employer’s basket and failing to invest in themselves.

Image: Invest in yourself

(Click to tweet this idea.)

Build a network and portfolio you can bring with you even after you decide to leave your employer (or, let’s be realistic, are laid off). This isn’t always easy to do as a journalist because of ethics rules, but if you’re creative, you’ll find a way to pull it off.

If your employer is smart, they’ll actually want you to build your own brand in addition to theirs, because you’ll likely bring the eyes of your own loyal community to your employer’s site. That makes you more valuable, which means your employer might actually do more things to keep you happy.

Launch a side hustle

Growing your own freelancing portfolio, small business or blog on the side of your day job is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Not only will it help you bring in extra money every month (which, let’s face it, is pretty necessary considering how much you’re making at the day job), you’ll also make new contacts and learn new skills. Your side hustle could eventually serve as the gateway to a new source of income.

This can be tricky depending on your beat and newsroom policies, but once again, if you really want it, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Usually only the top publications have policies that are strict enough to keep you from launching a side hustle, and if you’re working there, you’re probably not looking to make a move anyhow.

Talk to former journos who work in fields that interest you

You’ll never figure out that next step unless you start digging around and checking out your options. We all know journalists who have gone into public relations, but plenty of other avenues are available to you, too, if you can manage to think beyond the inverted pyramid.

My friend AJ, formerly a business reporter, is now a stock analyst. Another j-school friend, Dana, went from television personality to novelist. And yours truly has a business creating and selling guides and courses and helping small businesses create online content. (If you’re wondering how, exactly, I make my living, here’s a post that explains the details.)

Your skills are oh-so-transferable, you just have to figure out how to use them.

So don’t stand still. If you don’t know what you want, take your best guess so you can move ahead. Even if it’s not the right direction, at least you’re moving.

Have confidence that you WILL find another career you love

Right now it might seem like working in news is the only job you could ever love, but that will likely change as soon as you give other jobs or industries a chance.

Let me tell you for just one minute HOW MUCH I LOVE MY JOB. I love it for a lot of the same reasons I loved journalism: I’m constantly learning, always writing, often feeling the rush of a win. And I’m still helping people and making the world a better place, just in a different way.

But I also love this new career for reasons I never experienced as a journalist. I have the autonomy to get sh*t done, to make decisions rather than waiting for approval. I get to choose who I work with, which means being able to avoid people who induce frustration headaches. And I’m making far more money now than I ever did in my full-time journalism job. Earning a decent income that will help me support a family is more important to me now than it was in my early-20s, and IT FEELS SO GOOD to actually see financial rewards for working my butt off.

Can’t find a traditional job you’ll love as much as reporting? Create your own! If I can do it, so can you.

Stop waiting for someone to hand you the perfect gig — it ain’t gonna happen. Get out there and create something awesome.

Re-create your nut graf

Like the stories you write, your life has a nut graf. It’s always changing, always being redefined. And because there’s only so much room in that graf, adding a new element means letting go of something else.

So don’t be a slave to the career. Journalists tend to feel a strong sense of loyalty to the news, to getting the facts out there, often to the detriment of our personal and professional lives. But you can make a positive difference in this world in other ways, ways that are less frustrating, more financially rewarding, and yes, FUN.

Let’s use the comment section to chat about two topics:

1. If you’re a journalist who’s thinking about making a transition, what sorts of resources would help you make a decision and start moving toward it?

2. If you’re a former journalist who’s already transitioned to another career, what industry are you working in now, and what practical steps did you make to get there?

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14 Replies to “For Journalists Who Need an Escape Plan (Even If You’re Not Ready to Admit It Yet)”

  • I left journalism in the mid-1990s: a generation ago. I mourned for it at the time and have friends and colleagues who had great careers, but things evolve and I moved to roles that fit my interests and skills.
    I first became a speech writer and editor for a multinational organization which was rewarding and a great learning experience. To train up and move on, I considered a Masters in PR, but eventually went for the broader option of an MBA (I was previously a business reporter).
    After graduating, I moved into PR consulting and even had my own business for a while. It was not easy to switch into the necessary sales mode, but there is a little of that in all of us and it is worth cultivating some ‘vested interest’ in order to become a useful advisor rather than a detached observer. However, with the dot.com bust and Asian Crisis, not everything was within my control.
    Eventually I became a publisher in the United Nations, then a communications manager. I have taken professional training courses – online or on-site – every year for the past decade, and I maintain a strong interest in the evolution of media (hence reading your blog!). This helps to keep my skills sharp and talents relevant to my current and potential employers.
    Whatever your path in life, I recommend you train and learn, build your networks and keep pushing yourself: you are more likely to get there!

  • Alexis,
    I, too, was a journalist. I graduated from college with a J-degree from a mid-sized university not known for journalism. Like you, I wanted to write and journalism seemed to be the best place in which to feed that passion. But I found I didn’t have the stomach for the news business. I never really felt the opportunity to enjoy the story I had just written before I had to get to work on three, four or five other stories. I also was not politically driven, to the strong frustration of my editor, who seemed to find something egregious in everything.
    Somewhere along the way I discovered a passion for running and found my way into the sports and fitness industry with several leading running brands. The communication skills and the ability to interview and listen have certainly helped me develop in this career.
    It was serendipitous I think that I followed a path other than the one that had me going to be a syndicted columnist on the L.A. Times.
    All these years later I sometimes wonder if I had been a little more patient if that job at the L.A. Times would have materialized. But I don’t spend too much time with regrets. They’re not healthy.
    I am curious what the next chapter holds for me….

    • Jennifer Duncan says:

      Alexis,

      I’ve left news, spent nearly 10 years in it. I, too, am highly invested in fitness. How do you get into writing for fitness, or marrying the two passions?

  • Robyn says:

    I trained as a journalist but didn’t work more than a couple years at a paper before I realized maybe it wasn’t the only kind of writing I could do. So now I’m a copy writer at a non-profit. And while it’s great I’m often too tired to do my own writing. Creatively I’m drained, and so while I dream of a side-hustle to get my passion for the craft back I’m nervous my day job is going to suck the life out of me. Thanks for this post.

  • Rookie-ish says:

    Hi guys
    I won’t get into the details of why this post interests me, but I am a current FT staff writer for a weekly. I wrote freelance for this paper almost exclusively for about a year, and I’ve been a staff writer for a little over 2 years now. Other than that, I wrote a small handful of pieces freelance for a total of two other companies. Also, I have a bachelors in Communications – PR. What I’m trying to figure out is – I know I’m now a “veteran” journalist, but how experienced am I considered? Enough to possibly be hired as PR person like the ones I deal with as a journalist? What fields/types of work would be feasible for someone with my limited resume to be hired for? I’m starting to see that I got into this field at the worst possible time and am looking a Plan B, at least tentatively. I just don’t know if it’s out there for someone like me. All the content writing, technical writing, report writing, PR etc. jobs seem to want people with experience I don’t have and will never get sticking with my current job. Any feedback would be very much appreciated.

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Hi there — A few ideas: First, I wouldn’t say you’re a veteran, but you do have experience that makes you valuable in the PR world, because you know how to pitch journalists. That’s something to play up. Second: Can you find time/freedom to freelance on the side of your day job to build a portfolio in these other areas? That will go a long way toward helping you make the transition when you’re ready.

  • Susan says:

    I got my degree from a school that wasn’t known for journalism. At the time the push was communication, communication! After working at several jobs that were not in journalism, I finally landed a job at a small weekly in the midwest. I was thrilled but then…well the economy tanked, the boss wanted to sell the newspaper and I felt like I floated on thin ice until he finally let me go. I landed another job in a daily newspaper and I have learned more in a year and a half than I did in eight years at the weekly paper. It was been great but the paper is floundering. We have lost so many good people, and I see the writing on the wall. It makes me so sad. I know I should get out but I just can’t believe my dream is over. I have no idea what to do with my skill set. I have worked retail and part time jobs none of them made me happy. I was happy but know I am broke and worried. How the heck do I transition to better paying job. I would love to do something that helps others. Others includes animals-dogs maybe? I am a genealogy freak and spend all my free time researching but I am not “officially” a genealogist. Writing for myself somewhere along the line lost its appeal. Anyway, just my mental flossing.

    • I am still working as a journalist and loving it. I’m presently working on a side project and would love to receive comments about your challenges and problems staying in the journalism field.

    • in the same boat says:

      i understand exactly your problem i suffer it too. I do not know what if anything i can do other than newspaper journalism and sub-editing which all the jobs have been exported or destroyed.

      i have spent 10 years working hard in newsrooms even working for free on holidays for very low pay. and now i have been out of work 2 years and do not know where to get a job or what to do.

      like you i love researching and writing a story, got a brief stab at living the dream after years of sub-editing i finally got to report – and now it is over.

      cant do TV, cant do radio, too old to learn. Tired of working so hard now i am 40. I just do not have the energy or drive to work any more unpaid hours.

      So I just do not know what to do.

  • Austin says:

    Alexis, I enjoyed reading your piece and I believe you are right on the mark. The article was helpful and motivational. I have covered some of the biggest stories in New York and have traveled to over 40 datelines across the country. A reporter’s job becomes an adrenaline rush. It is exciting because it is in the moment, you have to get it right and your story needs a better angle than the competition. I believe the challenging of successfully building your own brand and making money will meet the intoxicating rush a reporter gets from knocking down the big story. Once again, I found your message struck the right cord. Good Luck! Cheers!

  • Melina says:

    Hey There!

    Thank you for this post. I am a recent graduate in journalism and have been working my butt off for the last 2 years at a radio station but I’ve decided to start my own blog on well a niche that isn’t very journalism-y. I’m talking about dating and really starting a movement for women (well I’m sort of starting). So I’m doing it on the side while I still have my day job but does it in any way interfere with my credibility?

    And can journalists have a second job that isn’t well news related let alone “serious hard news”?

    Thanks for getting in touch!

  • Judy Pokras says:

    I’m still working as a journalist after many decades, but it’s getting harder. I lost my main job after 5 1/2 years when the boss cut my hours and pay to one third of what they were and I quit. I love my other writing job, in which I cover the arts, but it’s only a part-time thing, and I need more income. I’m finding that the freelance jobs out there pay peanuts. I have a lot of experience and won’t work for next-to-nothing.

    I have many entrepreneurial ideas, but as I’m not a number crunching business type, I have not been able to launch them. I wish I could find a non-profit whose business-savvy people could help me. I would even make them a partner. My most recent idea would require a crowd-funding website, too complex for me to build.

    I have consulted with SCORE many times over the years, but they were either discouraging (all men, after all) or not hands-on enough for what I would need to launch a business.

  • SparkleQueen says:

    Stumbled on this link and thought yay! However, headline is misleading. Article only talks about reporters. Not all journalists are reporters. What about the trusty copy editors? Yes, we can make the proverbial shine, but that does not mean we are naturally writers. Give me a page with thousands of jumbled words and thoughts and I’ll do a sterling job in tidying it up, making it a joy to read and keeping you out of jail. However, give me a blank page and yes, I get stage fright.

    Any alt career suggestions for us poor subs? I’m not sure where to look, but I do need an escape plan.

    Thank you,

    SparkleQueen.

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Editing is a valued skill in a lot of professions! I suspect though, that you’ll need to branch out beyond copy editing and also become good at developmental editing. Good luck!

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