You just aren’t doing everything you can.
It’s the seemingly unintentional, passive-aggressive jab that I sometimes get from older or otherwise more established journalists, writers and editors. Most often and in many ways, I’m sure the sentiment is pristine in its accuracy, often abutted by the never-to-be-defended-against “it takes time,” which, of course is always true.
But I can’t help but think what’s happened since, say, 2007 or even later, is something bigger that is changing the value of a lot of once rock solid professional advice for young and otherwise aspiring journalists, and making it awfully hard out there.
Two weeks ago, The Temple News, a college newspaper with ample history, held its semi-annual reunion. The reception pulled 150 or more proud Newsers from 1949 through to current staffers, fairly impressive for an 88-year-old campus mainstay.
The 2009 Temple News Alumni Reunion Panel members
*Including current position and graduation year
- Mike Sisak – Copy editor, New York Times, 1962
- Steve Sansweet – Lucasfilm Ltd., 1966
- Phil Jasner – NBA beat writer, Philadelphia Daily News, 1968
- Chuck Darrow – Casinos beat writer, Philadelphia Daily News, 1974
- Barry Levine – Exec. editor, National Enquirer, 1981
- Brian White – Copy editor, Louisville Courier-Journal, 2004
- Nina Sachdev – Copy editor, Philadelphia Daily News, 2005
- Charmie Snetter – Copy editor, The Boston Globe, 2006
- Christopher Wink – Co-founder, Technically Philly, 2008
- Shannon McDonald –Founder and Editor, NEast Philly, 2009
It was a fine event held not far from where Temple University began more than 125 years ago, and, while mostly alumni clustered to those from their decade of graduation, there was co-mingling, which is always refreshing to see.
Before the reception, there were tours, mingling in the current newsroom and an alumni panel, of which I am proud to say I was a part.
Of the ten panel members, five had graduated this decade and the other half all had left the Temple News offices before 1981.
That means there quite literally was a generation a gap, at least 20 years between half the panel and, you know what, while the conversation quickly followed that track, the career advice that came later found a divide along more recent lines.
TALKING AND REMEMBERING
After everyone introduced him or herself, we were asked to share memories of our time with The Temple News. It felt natural to let the older cohort take hold of the conversation, and it seemed my fellow, younger panel members agreed, none of us saying much if anything more than that first introduction.
It became a sharing of stories from the panel members — and then the older folks from the audience of more than 30. Stories from people who were working in or breaking into the industry during a past generation of the industry.
Most young journalists love the old nostalgic talk of hot press/cold press/teletype and all the other once technologies of newspapering. So we, the younger generation, both on the panel and in the audience, of Temple News alumni, listened to them remembering.
Reunions are about remembering, so no one blinked when Mike Sisak, a copy editor on the New York Times’ sports desk and a 1962 Temple News editor-in-chief, called for anyone from his generation in the room to identify him or herself and talk about his or her experiences.
That, quite frankly, is the divide I expected.
The panel members who could perhaps still pass for someone’s child would mostly listen, while those who might more likely be called a parent or more likely still a grandparent would talk about the past. That’s how it’s meant to be.
With the last 10 minutes of the nearly 90-minute pre-reception event, current Temple News adviser and 1998 graduate John Di Carlo called for questions from the audience.
The bright, competent and hard-working aspiring broadcast journalist asked, as inevitably is the case at these types of events, asked for advice on grabbing that first job in the industry. Saddled with student loans and several hundred applications deep seven months past her graduation with not much to show for it outside a food service job, Matlach is, it seems, awfully frustrated by her lack of success despite, it seems, making a lot of the right decisions.
I almost cringed. Not because the question was unfair and certainly not because it wasn’t the time to do it — the room was full of the bright and excessively successful in an industry she wanted in on — but rather because I expected advice that wouldn’t help and, maybe, hurt her, in my opinion.
Here’s a quick review of some of the advice as I remember it:
- A 1959 graduate said try spicing up your applications or clips you send in. To get one of his first jobs, he sent in a cartoon.
- A 1962 graduate said reach out to alumni.
- A 1968 graduate said not to ignore Web products and asked, with a laugh from the crowd, if NEast Philly founder and 2009 graduate Shannon McDonald or I were hiring.
- A ~1970s graduate said to try public relations or other fields before finding a journalism gig.
- A 1991 graduate said ‘be annoying.’ He “graduated in a tough economy too,” but he got a position by persistently approaching the editor at a publication for which he wanted to work.
- A 2004 graduate said apply to smaller markets.
- A 2005 graduate says freelance, freelance, freelance.
You see, while the broad conversation was split along traditional generational lines, the conversation about career advice appears here to be affected more by the great big newspaper collapse that didn’t happen in its most popularly-recognized form until after 2006.
I think every since piece of advice above was absolutely viable even five years ago. I think they’ve all become more complicated since the quickened pace of newspaper decline, combined with a historic stall in advertising, the worst recession since before World War II and a complete rethink of the industry.
Here are my concerns:
- This might translate today to a solid multimedia presence, something Matlach is trying, though perhaps she could do more. She is building a bit of a presence on Twitter and has her reel on Youtube, seen above, which dominates a Google search of her name. The fact remains that journalism jobs have been cut at a historic rate over the past three years, so entry level jobs are now being absorbed by people with years more experience. The newspaper bubble is popping and no cartoon is gonna overcome that.
- Reaching out to alumni is always valuable, and I saw Matlach wisely speaking to this alumnus after the reception. But in a room of 50 or more successful journalists at newspapers and news outfits of big and small acclaim, only one could even begin to speak honestly of any freelance opportunities for someone starting out — Barry Levine, the executive editor of the National Enquirer and a 1981 graduate.
- The growth of Web news is, of course, a real one and likely we’ll see a huge hyperlocal movement in the next few years. I’m also a passionate believer that the most successful of these will be for-profit entities, but this is a surprisingly nascent movement. Without the real help of alumni in No. 2, a recent graduate would have to have a lot of luck to get on board with a profitable online news arm. Knowledge of this is simply way ahead of the actual businesses.
- See No. 1. With so many unemployed people generally, and particular in the media industry, I think established journalists are underestimating how difficult it is to find that writing-related, but not-quite-journalism job. Still, the point should be taken, but keep these struggles in mind.
- It’s frustrating for recent graduates to hear the folks from the early 1980s and 1990s talk about the tough economies they graduated into. Please understand that this is a new beast. Not only is unemployment for 20-somethings the highest since records were first taken in the 1940s, but when we’re talking the news industry, there is simply no generation of journalism graduates who have ever faced the entry-level obstacles that today’s graduates do. That 1991 graduate who came out in a “tough economy, too” came out to a newspaper industry that was still growing in some ways — the historic peak for the number of newspapers with at least 250k readers didn’t come until 1993. All that said, persistence sure is virtue, but the jobs, even those internships, simply aren’t there.
- Sure, entry-level folks need to look outside Philadelphia if they are still going to try to play the newspaper/media climbing game, but, say it with me now, more than 30,000 newspaper jobs have been lost in the past two years. Matlach told the audience that she had applied for positions in Guam, and she’s also applied for gigs in North Dakota. She’s trying.
- I agree with the sentiment of freelancing and I’m doing it myself, but having spoken after the panel to the alumnae who made this suggestion, I know there is a misunderstanding about how available that is for recent graduates who need money. You’re not supposed to freelance when you’re just starting out, when there’s a recession nor when the news industry is in a period of massive readjustment. They’re all happening now, so it’s harder than ever for young freelancers. I believe that, particularly because while the number of outlets for which to write has jumped, the number of paid opportunities has not.
No one, particularly no one on a fancy alumni panel celebrating a college newspaper with a proud tradition, wants to give a bleak response or offer no real help. So you give the advice you’ve been given. You say things that have worked, but that doesn’t mean they’ll work now.
This is what I would have told Matlach, though she already knows my thoughts here.
- Ride out this recession. Get whatever job you can now to pay your bills because the recession is lessening, some advertising money will flow again, business models will be rehashed, news orgs and other big companies will feel less of a pinch on their legacy debt, unemployment will reduce in the coming years and the like.
- While you’re doing that, do three things so as not to waste your time: Do freelance. This is a lot more difficult than I think many established journalists want to believe, but you do have to keep your name out there. It won’t pay your bills like it has for others for reasons: there are more freelancers now because of unemployment; there are smaller budgets for it and you’re young so you’re least important, established and networked. Understand the pros and cons.
- Do create the strongest multimedia presence you can. I am hardly a Web developer, but I’ve continually focused on trying to develop my ability to own Web news, writing and reporting and, though Matlach is strong in these areas, I know she, like most others out there, can learn plenty more. When this thing turns around, you’d be a fool to not be the strongest out the gate.
- And, I think most important, start creating your own job. No one is entirely certain how long it will take for employment numbers to return to whatever was once normal. Even when they do, no one is entirely sure what the media landscape will look like. Hell, maybe the world isn’t ending, but this may be a very dramatic pardigm shift in the world of news. Find a niche and start trying to create a job, a business and a life around news and reporting and journalism if that’s really what you want. Learn to write a business plan.
A friend of mine, who is a bright young multimedia journalist by any standard, a fellow 2008 Temple News alumnus and even-keeled in his temperament, recently expressed, perhaps only partially in jest, his concern that he might be unable to stop from shouting down the next established journalist who tried to lay the claim that things were harder when he was starting.
It’s not that not-yet established journalists don’t respect their more accomplished peers. We do. But for every old timers story about how they didn’t have the Internet and other Web-based technologies and tools, it’s difficult to not hear any sympathy for how difficult it is right now.
That’s going to change in coming years. But graduates from, say 2006 or 2007, particularly those in journalism fields, through to the next couple graduating classes have it damn tough, and it’d be nice for some of that to be respected and understood, instead of criticized.