Advice for journalists graduating into a recession

New journalists, I graduated May 2008, and though I actually think this moment is even more challenging than then, let me share a few thoughts I wish someone told me then.

It’s ok to consider a job outside journalism. Your skills (writing, analysis, research) are portable. We do want people to shuffle to growth industries. You can bring journalism thinking and support elsewhere.

But the economy is presently stalled and many of you are true believers, so let’s talk.

Before you do anything, take a moment to write down what specifically you love most about the craft. Community service? Paid to write? Paid to ask tough questions? Maybe you just think it’s important and you’re pretty good at it?

Write it as a sentence and look at it. This should be your guiding light.

Back in 2008, mine would have been something like: Make a career writing, learning, sharing and otherwise having an impact on a community.

First, find something, anything, that gives you some recurring money.

I landscaped with a friend and plumbed for an old boss. Just 1-2 days a week but this was so important for me for a year or so of the depths of the Great Recession. If you need to work in food service — or become a contract tracer, then so be it. It is not shameful; it is not retreat. It is trying to live.

Second, find editors who are patient, both for giving you work and feedback and guidance. You’re likely going to do some freelance writing, I sure did. This is chance to find the good ones — and the tired ones and the rotten ones.

I did $15 (!?!) posts for a culture blog because they were frequent and I was desperate. I sent out so many pitches for $75, $100 and $150 items. I didn’t know what I was doing. You’ll need to establish your own standards and expectations. I definitely thought I was drowning a lot, writing constantly and for any money I could find. (Find freelancing advice from back then here)

Keep applying for full-time reporting jobs if that’s where your heart leads you. This is why those (poorly paying) freelance stories help; you can slowly climb your way out.

Try to find a speciality, which is hard at 21, 22, 23 but anything helps, even as a start. Take the stories you can get, but on a blog or on social media or in other contributions, develop sources and insight and perspective that interests you. Your personal story could be that; or your past studies or your network or simply something you enjoy reading about.

Manage what you spend. Let’s talk about expenses. This was v scary for me; I felt v alone. I found $300~ rent in a troubled neighborhood. I’m not sure I set foot in a restaurant until 2010. I deferred my student loans.

One caution: I did have a credit card but I avoided using it, paid down monthly

Find a tribe: I had several friends who were in a similar situation to me and that meant the world. We commiserated.

I did develop a lot of petty jealousy with them, so I had to keep that in check. Stay focused on YOU. Help when you can, it’ll help you later

Ignore anyone who says you’re lazy and they had it harder. Older journalists might mistreat you. Fuck them.

In ‘08/09/10 I got dunked on by so many experienced journalists who lectured me on not doing it “the right way.” Looking back those scars still haven’t healed. I’ve never felt fully welcomed because I came in the side door. I’ll save my “older journalist stories” for another time. Like the 30-something editor who told a bunch of other editors I (22-years old) did a shitty job on a $150 alt weekly cover story. (He didn’t help me)

If I remember correctly, I couldn’t pay my electric bill that month.

Launch something on your own the way you think it should be done.

In Feb 2009, scared, stressed and increasingly desperate, friends and I launched what later became Technically Media.

Today we employ 15-people, send daily emails to 70k~ people and have made our community better. But you do not have to stay an entrepreneur.

By 2010, the economy was improving. My network and skills had grown. I likely could have kept trying to find the full-time reporting role I wanted.

Instead I discovered I loved growing a media company. That time had helped me regardless of my goals, though. You can get back into a newsroom.

The point to young journalists: you will survive.

  • Know what you want; stay focused on it
  • Do what you need to do to pay rent (I landscaped and plumbed)
  • Forget people who do not have sympathy
  • Find a way to do what you’ve been trained to do: make communities more honest

This was adapted from a Twitter thread.

Graduation photo by Joshua Hoehne via Unsplash