Every journalist needs a Plan B

"The key to life is how well you deal with plan B."

Photo: “The key to life is how well you deal with plan B.” by Betsy Weber, Some Rights Reserved from Flickr

Last summer, I noticed that a college classmate had joined a Facebook group called Plan B, a group for “former and current newspaper and video journalism people” looking for a second act, a job match for their transferable skills, a support group or simply a hedge against the instability in the industry. I joined because I sensed that my job as a regional executive editor wasn’t going to be around much longer, and I knew that I needed to start coming up with my Plan B. I would need my Plan B much sooner than expected.

It was clear that more cuts were to come last summer. In the almost two years that I held the job, there had been a straight-forward budget cut and a major reorganisation that was supposed to see us lose 15 percent of our payroll and 20 percent of our headcount. For a time due to existing staff getting promoted or deciding to part ways with the company, at one point last spring, we were almost 50 percent below our pre-reorganisation staffing. The budget was cut again before we filled any of the open positions due a miscalculation during the reorganisation planning. After months of recruiting and before we filled all of the open roles, a hiring freeze was implemented and an early retirement programme rolled out soon after. And then, last October, my role and another were eliminated.

Fortunately, the very next week I had two gigs, which had been in the works for months, and shortly after that, I set up my own consultancy, which is a continuation of work that I did before the job. I’m thrilled to have some very exciting projects in the coming months (although I still have time for more so feel free to get in touch). Ultimately, I want a full-time role, but this work means that I have the breathing room and space to find the best job and the best fit.

That space has been an incredible gift. It has allowed me to talk to a number of mentors and friends and think about all of my options. Compared to 2013, the last time I was looking for a full-time role, I’m actually more optimistic that I’ll be able to find the right role in journalism, but this is as good as time as any to think broadly. And this time like last, I’m thinking not just about the job but also about quality of life, closeness to friends and family and work-life balance.

Apart from the value of having a Plan B, here’s a few things I’ve learned already during this search:

  • Reach out to your network –  Last summer, I began reaching out to mentors and friends in the industry. It helped me get a head start on my job search, and if my friends aren’t in a position to hire me full-time, they still might be looking for a consultant with my skills and experience. But even if work isn’t in the offing, your friends will be a great source of support. I’ve been humbled at how much help friends have been in terms of brokering connections and helping me find new opportunities.
  • Take a passion inventory – One person on the Plan B group worried that she would never find a job as noble as journalism. Many of us got into this business because of the mission, the public service mission. But there are a lot of ways to serve the public. What other passions do you have? Journalism may be a noble mission, but it’s an industry in crisis. At times, I have asked myself if it has become the professional equivalent of an abusive relationship. If your current job in journalism robs you of your life through endless hours of toil while still not providing you a livelihood, there is nothing noble in it. I have seen too many journalists grow bitter after years of sacrifice. This is a chance to write your own story.
  • Think about skills, rather than a specific job – I just came across this today on Editor & Publisher by Tim Gallagher who left newspapers and now has his own small business. He spoke with a careers coach who told him, “We are going to talk about who you are. What your skills are. Not the jobs you’ve had.” He added, “And for the first time in nearly 30 years I began to think that there were jobs out there that did not start with journalism.”
  • Have a FoF – Call it a rainy day fund, an emergency fund or something more colourful, but if at all possible, bank some money so when the axeman cometh, it isn’t an immediate sentence for financial ruin. Before you rush to the keyboard to protest, trust me, I know how hard this on a journalist’s salary, especially when you’re just starting out. When I landed my first journalism job at the Hay’s Daily News in Hays Kansas in the mid-90s, I was making $2000 less than a first year teacher – $16,900 if you must ask. That said, I’ll own my own advantage or privilege, I got my bachelor’s degree debt-free, but only because my parents started saving for college almost the day I was born. They had to start saving early because they were both teachers, so not the demographic definition of high net worth individuals. I learned to save from my parents.

In an ideal world, I would have loved to have made the move on my own terms, but with the cushion my consulting has given me, I’m actually viewing this transition as a gift. I have recharged my batteries and am looking on my future as one of exciting opportunity.

Without my Plan B, I would be consumed with stress and overcome with fear, and I would leap at the first opportunity whether it was the right one or not. Certainly, I’ll be happy when I’ve filled in some more blanks, but I’m doing the heavy lifting now to answer those questions.

Ultimately, having a Plan B is about being prepared. With the industry in such turmoil, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to control the outcome, but the outcome isn’t the loss of a job, it’s what happens next.

Featured photo by Betsy Weber from Flickr.


Thank you! The Oscar speech as I start my new job

As I start my new job, I feel a deep sense of gratitude. I owe a lot of people a lot of thanks for their support over the last two years.

As I go back to full-time work, I first want to thank the managing director of Y Ffynhonnell, Suw, for being such a great boss. 😉 Seriously, Suw helped me navigate this leap into independence, which was truly terrifying for someone who had always held a full-time job. She has also been really supportive about my new job, although I’m sure she will miss me as a valued employee. She’ll still have to deal with me as an office mate.

I also want to thank all of the clients I’ve worked with over the past two years. Like the Oscars, I can’t thank you all here. I especially want to thank Mohamed Nanabhay and Riyaad Minty for the amazing opportunity to work with Al Jazeera. Thanks to Durga Raghunath at Network18 in India for inviting Suw and me to help with the launch of FirstPost. Strategy meetings in February to launch in May! Wow, what a ride. Thanks to John Thompson at Journalism.co.uk for inviting me to participate in the News Rewired conferences and for giving me the opportunity to share my passion for data journalism with other journalists. Thanks to Karl Schneider of RBI (and Adam Tinworth, now available to help you take your digital editorial projects to the next level) for giving me the opportunity to do training with staff on data journalism and beat blogging. Thanks also to the Norwegian Institute of Journalism and Transitions Online also for giving me opportunities to train journalists in a wide range of digital skills. Thank you to Send a Cow for an amazing opportunity to go to Kenya and see how mobile technology might help the farmers they work with share information. Suw and I had the opportunity to work with many other clients. Thank you all.

Journalists: Create your own career

Richard Gingras, head of news products for Google, was talking about the disruption in the journalism industry at a recent seminar for Knight Journalism Fellows at Stanford and made this observation:

Perhaps in journalism it will be like it was in music for a long time: there are a lot of people doing great stuff, but only a handful, the stars, will be able to make a good living out of it. Most will be doing it for a nickel and a dime, out of passion instead of profession.

There is no doubt that newsrooms will be much, much smaller in the future. At a future of news event at NESTA (National Endowment for Society, Technology and the Arts – an innovation NGO here) in London a couple of years ago, I threw out the figure that I thought there would be 40% fewer jobs in journalism than in the past. Charlie Beckett of the POLIS think tank at LSE disagreed. His figure? 80% fewer.

Low pay isn’t a huge change for local journalists, especially journalists just starting out. I made $2000 less than a first year teacher when I started as a journalist in a small town in Kansas. (Sadly, a first year teacher is a benchmark for low pay in the US.) Of course, my pay at the newspaper was high compared to some of the junior producers at local TV stations. A differential in pay isn’t new either, especially in TV, but increasingly in newspapers and other news organisations. People all assume that journalists make huge salaries, but that has always been only for a few – star columnists, television anchors and executive editors.

I won’t take issue with Gingras. I think he’s simply making an observation, and I made the same observation a couple of years back, around the time that I took a buyout from the Guardian. Furthermore, the star system is a fickle game. It’s media fashion, not journalism. I don’t want to pin my livelihood to being the media flavour of the month. I know how the media love to build up stars only to take equal zeal in destroying them in short order. I’ve seen the media eat its own over and over, and I have no interest in it.

Also, my primary interest in journalism is public service, and the media star system is built on totally different values with totally different priorities. Having said that, I’m honest enough to know that money isn’t made in offering a public service, just ask teachers. The real money is made by the media not public service journalism, and the media is about framing debates and entertaining readers with comment on the events of the day. Twas ever thus.

However, as my journalism professor Bob Reid told us:

Know what your price is.

A precious few get rich from journalism, especially public service journalism. At the end of the day, we all have bills to pay and personal goals, like a home and time with friends and family. You have to balance what the profession will provide and what you want from life. As 2012 starts, I’m asking myself a lot of questions about career-life balance.

Moreover beginning in the dot.com boom and continuing to this day, my digital skills have always been more valuable economically than my journalism skills. However, if there is one thing that I have learned since I took a buyout: I’m a journalist. I love it. My passion is still journalism, and not only journalism, but practically exploring the new opportunities created by digital journalism. I still get up every day excited about creating a new medium for journalism.

Gringas is right on two counts. Journalism is fuelled by passion, and an increasing number of journalists will struggle to make their living solely based on journalism. In the future, I think more people will do what I have done the past two years. Former colleagues don’t read our blog and don’t follow me on Twitter ask what I’m doing these days. My standard response is:

I’m doing things to support my journalism habit.

I’m frequently asked to write for free on someone else’s site, and I respond, when I write to write for free, I write on my blog. They say that it will be good exposure for me, and I can understand why it might be for some. However, most of these sites are comment sites. Their interest isn’t in public service journalism, and therefore, it’s not in my interest.

More broadly though, I realised years ago that I didn’t need someone to make me a star for me to have a career in journalism. When I was researching for the BBC how we could use blogs for journalism, I started to realise that not only could I take responsibility for my own profile and my own career, I should. I’m not naturally self-promotional, but I’ve never seen what I do here as promoting me. I’ve always seen my blogging as allowing me to talk about my passion for digital journalism.

It has meant that our blog is the centre of our business. As Suw often says, we don’t make money with out blog, we make money because of it. However, in the new world of post-industrial journalism, we’re going to be more responsible for our own careers, and we can rely less on the organisations that we work for to create opportunities for us. I say post-industrial journalism because we’re just suffering the same displacement that so many in the West have gone through in the post-industrial age. The news factories of yore are down-sizing, and mini-mills are taking their place. We’re going to have to take responsibility for our retooling and for nurturing our own profile. If that seems unseemly, I see my blog not so much as a single-minded exercise in career building. It has been really important in network building, and as I’ve navigated the wrenching changes, it’s been a lot easier with the friends and professional contacts I’ve made here.

This is all to say: Carpe diem! Some digital models rely on free content, and it might seem like a way to get exposure and build your profile. I’d still argue, set up your own site, a blog works very well, and take ownership of your own career. It’s hard work, just as hard as trying to stand out on the comment for free sites, but in the end, it can be a lot more satisfying and rewarding.