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Monday, October 11, 2010
Generation J Toolbox

Taking next steps in tough job market

By Jacob Probus

Saying the journalism job market is tough is like saying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill made a little mess: It’s an awesomely gross understatement. It’s hard out there.

A small daily paper here in Alabama recently posted an entry-level reporting job on JournalismJobs.com. In a city of less than 15,000 inhabitants, at a paper with circulation under 5,700, for a job that probably paid $25,000 a year at best, 44 folks from around the country applied on the first day. Scary stuff.

But enough nattering negativity. Just because the market is tough doesn’t mean young, enterprising journalists can’t make their way through it. We’re journalists because we have a passion for the craft, because we love what we do. Very few of us have the big-bucks incentive to do it for the money, anyway.

What do early-career journalists need to do? Go back and get a master’s degree? Is your body of work more important than your level of education? How much does experience count? For the answers, I asked four of the nation’s top news managers.

Randy Hagihara, senior editor at the Los Angeles Times and director of Metpro, a Tribune Company training program for reporters

Hagihara said a master’s degree won’t replace good work experience and high-quality clips.

“There’s really no substitute for experience — working for campus media, then leveraging that experience into internships,” he said. “A master’s degree in journalism can be helpful, if you didn’t get any kind of experience as an undergrad. However, it’s not a guarantee of anything except maybe a hefty student loan.”

Stacia Deshishku, CNN director of White House coverage

Deshishku said she “believes firmly in the school of hard work” because it “pays off in the end.” The CNN White House chief said to take any job you can, however menial, “just to get in the door,” then work hard to get ahead.

“People notice committed hard workers,” she said. “Answer the phone; it helps you learn everyone’s name and job function. Volunteer, for anything and everything. Whatever you do, do it well. Don’t assume a small job is just busy work. It might not seem important to you, but it could mean the difference. People — hiring managers — remember those who go out of their way to help others.”

Deshishku said she never advises young journalists to get a graduate degree “right off the bat.” But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at some point. “I went back to school after working for over 10 years in order to better understand the business and leadership skills needed to advance as a newsroom manager.”

David Sweeney, managing editor at National Public Radio

Sweeney said you need “a combination of interest, creativity, diligence and hard work.” He said the industry is undergoing “tremendous changes,” which is causing anxiety but also providing a “new dynamic environment … and new opportunities.” The fundamentals remain the same, though, he said, the most important being “accuracy in your reporting and writing.”

NPR’s top editor advises aspiring journalists to start at their high school and college papers then move on to an internship at one of their local media outlets. Sweeney also suggests taking an entry-level position or internship to get in, then working hard to move up. His advice for standing out: “learn as much as you can … be enthusiastic but not overbearing … don’t be afraid to ask questions … get it right the first time.” Sweeney also recommends seeking out a mentorship program.

Joyce Terhaar, managing editor for content at The Sacramento Bee

Terhaar said her paper looks for a good mix of education, experience and “a lot of good clips.” She said some students come to them at job fairs with two or three clips in their portfolio. If that’s the case, she says, they need to work at a smaller organization first.

She said a bachelor’s degree “is a must” and a master’s can give a good candidate the edge. She adds, though, that she would never pass someone over just because they don’t have a master’s. Terhaar said her paper often hires from master’s programs because they develop specialized skills, like document- or data-driven investigative reporting, which undergrad programs don’t get to.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have gotten a master’s early on because it gets harder the further you get into your career,” she said.

So get out there, find a job or an internship wherever you can, work hard to move up, and keep the passion going. Find a mentor. SPJ has a mentoring program (SPJ Mentor Match-up: spj.org/mentor.asp). Maybe you should get a master’s degree. Cutting a path through this jungle of a job market won’t be easy — nothing worth doing is — but you can do it.

Jacob Probus earned his bachelor’s in communication with a concentration in print journalism from Jacksonville State University. He’s a new father and spends his free time with his son Finley and wife Mandy. Reach him at Jacob_probus@rocketmail.com.

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