Monday, October 19, 2009

This J-Student Ponders the Dollars and “Sense” of a New Career

Or How Not to Start at the Bottom When Your Birth Date Shows You’re Nearing “the Top”

Guest Post by Alex Speredelozzi for Talking Writing

Recently, I attended a career fair for journalists at Harvard University. Never mind that I didn’t know the fair was for young would-be interns, not middle-aged graduate students in journalism like myself looking to break into a second career. (How gullible am I to think that newspaper publishers would show up to offer jobs with checks?)

With newspapers bleeding black ink, one might think that few college students would show any interest in journalism. I recall that college for me was a time of idealism, but I thought today’s students were far more practical. Yet that didn’t seem to be the case at this Harvard career fair. There appeared to be no shortage of people interested in media careers. Which is a problem for us all—and especially for me.

My impression of student interest could have been skewed; the number of people might have looked larger because the room was small. I do know, however, that some students came not just from Harvard. One young woman told me she traveled all the way from Cornell University in New York with a group of like-minded students.

Granted, an internship at a newspaper is not only great experience for budding reporters but for those interested in law, government service, public relations, and a host of other professions. The investigative and writing skills are invaluable. But you have to admire the spunk of young people wanting to hurl themselves into an industry in financial disarray.

Maybe the reason for this enthusiasm was best expressed by a panel of veteran international journalists (all current Nieman Fellows) at the career fair. They agreed that there's no money in journalism. I wanted to know what motivates them each day.

“What do you get out of it?” I asked during the Q-and-A.

Their answer: the lifestyle, the excitement, the adrenalin rush. Gary Knight, photographer and editor with VII Photo Agency and Dispatches, couldn’t imagine another career. James Reynolds, China correspondent for the BBC, spoke fondly of flying into a country on an almost empty plane while people rushed to board planes leaving the country.

Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono of Zimbabwe, a documentary film director/news producer for Television International, smiled like a kid as he talked about using electronic image-transferring equipment that would have landed him in jail for five years if caught. Anita Snow, Havana bureau chief for the Associated Press, discussed the thrill (and difficulty) of opening a news bureau in Cuba.

These journalists relished the chance to meet and interview both influential people and everyday folks, and to report on crucial events that make history.

But what happens when you’re married with a family and the little eyes in your home look to you for bread and milk?

Even if you find a job as a journalist, it’s not clear how you secure fair pay. In the heyday of newspaper publishing, many owners raked it in but paid journalists only a weekly wage. Early on, reporters unionized to gain some leverage over employers, but unionization doesn’t build you a second home on a lake.

Except for a few stars, journalists get paid like other service employees that we value so much but pay so little: teachers, nurses, firefighters, librarians.

The panelists also agreed that to get and keep a job these days, journalists must know how to work with sound and pictures. Words alone won’t cut it. Though great writing and storytelling are the backbone of journalism, multimedia is the future. We’re a visual society, and we’ve been that way for decades. The technology that’s driving many of the changes in the journalism business is making multimedia the pencil-and-paper of the future.

Fine. I get it. But I have to say that just as the physical ability to put pen to paper never made anyone a writer, the fun of dropping and dragging on a screen won’t turn you into a multimedia expert. What makes a great story great, including one told via podcast, still relies on some old faithfuls: great characterization, great quotes, great story ideas, great reporting.

There’s also a more fundamental law to making it in journalism, at least financially, especially if you can’t afford to start at the bottom. Journalists must develop a niche unnoticed as yet by editors and valued by readers. They need to create a unique “product” and “brand” that can’t be easily replicated.

The buzz word is “specialization.” The journalism field has had specialists for years. But now it requires a higher level of intentionality. You need subject-matter expertise, and editors and readers need to associate your name automatically with that subject. The goal: Ensure that editors can’t hire anyone else to fill your shoes.

With an ample supply of journalists willing and able to cover a town meeting, a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the latest robbery, there’s no reason for publishers and editors to pay for content. Writing better than the next guy by itself doesn’t necessarily translate into higher pay. Sometimes “good-enough” is all that editors and publishers are willing to go for.

Unless, of course, they must come to you, and only you, to get the story.

My problem is that I don’t have a specialty. At heart, I’m a general-assignment reporter. My interests vary wide and far. I was attracted to writing and reporting because of the opportunity it offered to learn a little about a lot of things. So now, I must decide: Do I make a living in a different field and write on the side for pure enjoyment? Or do I develop a niche while also clearing a little space for those stories that widen my eyes? I’ll keep you posted.

You can see samples of my reporting at The Sun Chronicle.


  1. alex: as an aging journalist-wanna-be, i feel your pain! but one fact holds true and transcends the particulars of our time: there will always those eager young talents anxious and willing to work more hours in a week than i can work in a month and do it for pittance. they are not the ones with big eyes (or inner-voices) questioning the validity of your endeavors, or your dreams. while their youth, ambition, and flexibility may feel like more than your circumstances can bear, you have wisdom, real-world experience, and you speak from the heart. attributes which cannot be taught. keep the faith...i have confidence you'll find your way.

  2. I agree about speaking from the heart—journalists who do this at any age, and who have a solid grasp of what readers are looking for in emotionally complex situations, will always have a leg-up.

    One of the reasons I like magazine feature-writing and have gravitated in that direction is that it allows for more subtlety than daily news writing. More than ever, readers want to know a writer's biases and perspective so they can make judgments for themselves.

    We all have unique takes on life—call that our "specialization," if you will. It's very true, that as professional writers we do need to specialize in terms of subject matter for marketing reasons. But any really meaty subject area is full of a universe of story ideas. You, the writer, just need to respond and write passionately about it.

    So heart first—then brain to verify all those shifting facts—and courage, always, as the Wizard said...

  3. Alex, I'm in a similar place to you -- leaving a longtime career (in communications) to forge my way as a fiction writer. If I had not had the opportunity to take early retirement and have at least a small financial cushion, the "sense" definitely would have won out in that argument (as it had up until now).

    One place you might find the mix of writing and reporting you crave without the stress of wondering how you're going to feed those little ones is in the same place I did: the publications or communications department of an academic department.

    I was 40 years old, a recent escapee from the software industry, and unsuccessfully trying to support my fiction writing through freelance work when I took a publications job at Harvard to pay the bills (I also had young children). I thought I was selling out, but it ended up being fascinating and creatively challenging. I worked in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, where I interviewed faculty and students about their research and then wrote about it for a series of publications. Without going into great detail, let me just say that it was incredible to delve into the scientific basis for mysteries we see all around us and then use language to translate what I'd learned into something that the larger world could not only understand but value.

    I went on to another department, where I spent the past 17 years in similar pursuits, only related to Latin America. I never felt bored, I learned something new every day, and I could never have done it without the accumulated skills and wisdom gained through my life experiences.

    You might want to consider a similar path. I know of other professional writers (mostly journalists) who have gone this route for a second career and found it as satisfying as I did. It might also give you time for writing other things on the side (such as the magazine features Martha mentions).

  4. Elizabeth, Thanks for your feedback. I've thought about looking at colleges and universities. In fact, I sent a resume to MIT recently about a position available in their news office. Most of the positions I’ve seen in academia are within the public relations, marketing, or development offices. Any ideas about the best way to locate positions within academic departments?

    I’m a finalist for a position at a hospital as a project manager/writer developing an intranet site. I’m interested because I’d learn a lot about web development, design, usability, and the like--skills important in publishing and communications. Alex

  5. Great post, Alex. I think it is premature to announce the death of journalism. It has, however, seriously relocated and people who want to persue it better get on the move.

    Good luck!

  6. Elizabeth, I didn't mean to imply journalism is dying, but only that the better journalists understand what makes their writing monetarily valuable in the marketplace, the better they will be served financially. This is not to say that journalism that pays poorly isn’t valuable. Many things in life have value that is not financial.

    Not to get too political (“political” as in who has power and money and who does not; not as in “Republican” and “Democrat”), but journalists have been educated to believe they have a special calling as the “fourth estate,” as seekers of truth and combatants of corruption. It’s an appealing value. And it has much validity. Yet, to some extent, I think it’s one that has been used to justify lower pay (particularly by publishers); as though money were a soiled reward and journalists should aspire only to fulfill a higher purpose.

    The exciting part of new media and the Web is that more journalists I think will become independent publishers and “owners” of small online media outlets and perhaps earn greater income in the future.

  7. Hi Alex,

    Great post! I think you clearly laid out a lot of the questions that would-be journalists like us grapple with. I agree with all the responses, Fran's faith that if you keep at it you will eventually find a niche, and Martha's advice that Heart, Brain and Courage are all required.

    Congratulations again on the new postion--I think this will turn out to be very helpful in giving you some tools and experience that will aid your development as a writer, even if just in the practical sense of how to get a message out there today.

    Now, we all just have to figure out how to honor our work and family commitments, while still finding the energy to put into writing. This is something I've been struggling with lately--

    Best regards,

    Ken H.

  8. Ken, Well said (written!). Thanks for the encouragement. It helps to have a community of writers for support. I've more or less relied on the classes at the Extension School for that community, but now that my classes are done, I have to make a more concerted effort to be active in online writing groups such as this on, as well as join or start a local writer's group. As one person said to me recently, "We writers have to stick together." Alex

  9. Yes, we do need to stick together! I can't speak highly enough about the value of peer writing groups. And if any of you have interest in forming online writing groups, let us know at TW. I've heard an interest in this expressed by some other folks as well, and I'm toying with the idea of figuring out a way to help such online groups form.

  10. Alex, I agree completely that a community of writers is critical! My writing group has been an invaluable source of support when work and family obligations became overwhelming and I feared that I would never have time for fiction writing. I'm fascinated by the online writing community and all it has to offer.

    You asked about obtaining work in an academic department (although it looks as though you found a communications job--congratulations!) I took the route of starting at the bottom and working my way up. After not getting a single response to my applications for professional-level jobs that seemed a good match for my experience and skills, I started applying for support staff positions that had a (often very small) publications component.

    The position I obtained included serving as the secretary for both the department chairman and the director of an associated museum and producing a small group of department publications. Admittedly, it was hard going from working at an autonomous, fairly high level to being chastised for one day walking in the door three minutes late (literally) but it was a means to an end.

    I joined a university-wide communications group and offered (through the group) to write articles for other publications. I was able to demonstrate my communications skills this way and was then able to move up fairly quickly.

    I hope this is helpful for anyone considering a similar move!

  11. Elizabeth, Hearing of your experience is helpful. It's a great example of how positions often develop organically by taking on new tasks and "creating" a job (sphere of responsibility?), rather than by waiting to be appointed to a well-defined position or assigned to projects. I just accepted a new job as markcomm manager, but as I'm realizing, and which is probably good, the position will have to be developed and refined by me. I've been asked to contribute to two projects, but my role in both is not well-defined (despite what the job description states and what I was told the position involved). So I more or less have to make my own way.


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