Good Move, Bad Move

Picking your early jobs in the news business

By John R. Moses

I’m talking mainly to younger journalists who are just starting out and making their way through early career choices.

Picking your next job isn’t like picking your next car. The car costs you money, but it can be sold if you don’t like it. Most people won’t judge you for the rest of your career in part based on whether you drove a Ford or a Chevy.

Not so for your work history.

It’s wrong to say future employers will shame you if you go from a glorified shopper to the award-winning Blattsville Times. You can do what you perceive as some unchallenging work before eventually hitting a new job that was meant for you. Time in the trenches learning one’s craft is necessary.

You also don’t want to waste your time.

As for the current job, your first or second,  the one you have now or maybe just left, chances are good you were grateful to have it and be in the business, wherever you started.

The question is, what’s next? Regardless of where you are in your career as a journalist, what do you want and where do you see your career path leading you? Those are the same questions I ask myself decades into the business as I seek a new job.

Beware of shiny objects

In the olden days, when websites were a novelty and a Lexis/Nexis console in the newsroom screamed “high tech,” many newspapers were essentially the same. They had AP, perhaps UPI or other wire services.

By 1985 word processors or computer systems like Coyote had mostly knocked  Royal typewriters into the corner of the press room next to the old linotype machines.

Most American newspapers now feature new bells and whistles. Websites. Blogs. Interactive features. Digital advertising arms. Most feature e-editions and subscriptions for only electronic access.

My own recent job searches have highlighted how some papers innovate, while others are attaching those shiny bells and whistles to steam locomotives and shoveling in more coal. And you just don’t want to ride with Casey Jones.

Back to the car analogy, you want to ride in a Tesla, not a vintage Pinto with a new hemi poking out of the hood.

Question what you need

If you like old school, or don’t know the difference, you might be OK at a paper that doesn’t care much about its website or, worse, has no idea how to integrate it and social media into both a business and a news coverage plan.

You’ll be OK, as long as it stays in business. Then you’ll be busy catching up on all the things you missed while working in 1999.

My last paper was full of innovators, people who lived to get it right. People who wanted to offer new things to their readers. People who attended webinars and listened to the consultants we brought in. People who spent about year making a strategic plan and then implemented it.

If you’re an innovator and you’re jumping into a stagnant pool of old ideas you’ll probably drown. The process may be sucky enough that journalism won’t be your next career option. Look for evidence of growth and innovation, or be the person they hire to bring that about.

If you’re highly visual and enjoy creating videos, be aware that not all photo departments want reporters shooting video. You may be relegated to the Facebook page. If that. Also be aware that a paper with high visual arts standards has a reason for employing world-class photographers, and you might not be there yet.

Not all papers are created equally, so instead of looking at the offices or counting on reputation, location, pay or prizes, here are key things to consider:

  • What do you want to learn? Are you the kind of reporter who loves to shoot video? Can you put together a slide show or a multimedia timeline? When you see a fire do you grab your iPhone or your notepad? If you like that visual part of the job, make sure freedom to shoot and edit or design web projects is allowed where you’re interviewing.
  • Do your editors believe in staff development? Have reporters been sent to conferences, or encouraged to study webinars or attend live webinars on topics of professional interest? You’re supposed to join the team as a competent professional and keep learning. It shouldn’t be a completely do-it-yourself project.
  • Are you a storyteller? Does your target paper prize long-form journalism? Study the website; ask for a free week or month subscription if there’s a pay wall and you’re a serious candidate.
  • Is there a social media plan? No? Are the reporters and editors using Twitter and other forms of social media? No? Oops. Is the Facebook page stagnant? Unless you’re the new director of audience engagement and you’re going to fix all this, run like hell back to the wormhole and hope you pop back out where you were before you entered their offices. (But if you’re stuck  in 1975, get ready to buy Apple stock and for God’s sake don’t ever wear a disco shirt.)
  • Don’t judge your editors by their age, judge them by their acumen. Some people are as clueless at 25 as they are at 50, but senior editors who have kept up with the times may have pioneered the things you take for granted. Study LinkedIn profiles and any write-ups in professional journals. Yes. Cyberstalk, in a benign and legal manner.
  • Do you seek advancement? Make sure there’s room for you, and a culture of promoting from within that will allow you to rise if you deserve it and your talents are recognized. (Those are two different things.)
  • Will you be rewarded financially if you grow and become a better reporter, perhaps even a mentor to others? If there’s a merit-based pay scale that judges you for what you do, you’re in a good and perhaps uncommon place. There should be reviews with goals set and accountability for those goals. (If an editor surprises you at an annual review by saying you didn’t reach your goals, you’ve both failed.)

Those are just a few things to think about. No job will be perfect, no editor always on point. Small organizations will demand more and likely have and offer less. High level newspapers will expect the moon, and you’d better deliver.

But whatever you do, go in with your eyes open and your expectations and understandings clear. The publications that will survive and thrive will be multimedia newsrooms. If that’s not for you, know that, too.

But if a company’s plan is to deliver the paper and then publish the breaking news story online, be kind. Before you politely leave, do a short video documentary of their newsroom for the local historical society to preserve a record of this rare creature for future generations of that community.

John R. Moses is a longtime newspaper editor and a former publisher of a monthly rural newspaper.

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