Monday, November 24, 2008

How to get out of journalism

Steve Harteshorne, who with his cousin Max Harteshorne, runs the travel website came to my webwriting class last week and told the students, among other things, that it was just as important to have an exit strategy from the field of journalism as it is to understand how to break into it.

To quote my favorite tv show, "The Wire," true that.

I bring up the topic today because my favorite career columnist, New York Times blogger Marci Alboher is being laid off. Marci is the latest in an ever-growing line of journalists who are losing their jobs, not because of the quality of their work, but because of the economy and the tough times facing the news business. I think the choice was a silly one for the Times, and here's why.

So how do you prepare for a career that makes an important contribution to the world in so many ways, and yet, is underpaid and offers not so much job security? First, remember that no matter what your career goals, it's pretty likely that you're going to have at least four or five different careers--not jobs, careers--in your worklife, which could run as long 40-50 years. (Keep buying those lottery tickets.)

So while you're at UMass, you need to build your transferable skills. These include:

Writing and researching: finding information and presenting it in a clear, concise fashion, no matter what the platform: text, audio, video.

Languages: not just French. Check out the global language landscape.
Top 5 Languages of the World - Source TIME Almanac 2001

1. Mandarin Chinese: 885 million

2. Spanish: 332 million

3. English: 322 million

4. Bengali: 189 million

5. Hindi: 182 million
Soft Skills: Make eye contact with people. Have a firm handshake. Lose the attitude and play well with others. Get comfortable speaking to a crowd. Develop a good phone voice. Become a problem solver. Don't whine. Take feedback without arguing.

Intelligence and critical thinking: Read the New York Times every day. Buy it on Sunday and sit on the couch and read every section. Read the New Yorker. Read books. Listen to Terri Gross, Fresh Air, as she interviews economists, politicians, authors, journalists about their work and their ideas. Know about the world. Don't get all your news from Jon Stewart. I love the guy, but even he would say this.

Technological awareness: You need to know not just how all these things work, but also the impact of technology on how we think and how we live.

Willingness to keep learning: Figure out a strategy to keep up with the changes that come along, both in your field of choice, and in the economy at large. Be pro-active and always be thinking about your next move and what you need to make it. One book I read suggests learning a new skill every six months, whether that's a software program, public speaking, or learning Swahili.

Frugality: It's much easier to weather a downturn when you have a few bucks in the bank.

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