Journalists Seeking Career Change: You’re Now “the man,” and Two Other Truths for Shifting Career Gears

With the traditional business model for newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets crumbling like autumn leaves in the gutter, thousands of journalists are trying to transition from ink-stained wretch to ….well, they’re not sure what. Here are three strategies for journalists who are need to lattice from the newsroom — and its mindset — to digital content. (If you are reading this before Nov. 7, 2013, consider joining us at Content Connections, the new conference that introduces freelance writers and editors to the digital content marketing folks who need those writers’ skills.)

Advertising and marketing money is thundering to content that is created by and for  corporations and organizations. As I learned at last spring’s Custom Content Council conference, some big companies, like McDonald’s, even have bona fide corporate newsrooms and daily editorial meetings to surf the crest of the content tsunami. Besides pushing out content through multiple channels for actual marketing, they are trying to reach influencers through soft-sell narratives and videos. And, they must be ready to respond to breaking news that changes the context for their content.

Gee, that sounds an awful lot like the traditional news function. And, in fact, corporate communications directors are considering former journalists for these internal positions.  For instance, Software Advice outlined many of those hiring considerations in this comprehensive article in The B 2 B Marketing Mentor. 

I made this transition when I moved from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where I was deputy business/real estate editor, to senior content producer on the business side at Tribune Digital. What I learned in the process helped frame my book, The Career Lattice.

These three strategies work for journalists with all types of backgrounds and with all levels of experience.

As you network and interview, present your experience in terms of the goals you accomplished, not just the number of words or stories you produced. Talk in terms of how you collaborated with others in the newsroom and with sources to achieve a thorough, accurate and relevant package. This will position you — to yourself and others – as a team player who respects everyone in the news gathering and production process. Everybody admires cowboys in fiction. Nobody wants to work with one in real life.

Create a portfolio that includes more than your staff assignments. Show how you identify, pursue and produce ideas and stories outside the daily list of assignments you negotiate with your managing editor. Yes, finally, volunteer and creative work counts! So does freelancing — big time, because it illustrates your scope of style and subject matter expertise. Your secret journal of poetry actually might illuminate a talent for writing tweets and PowerPoint copy. (Bonus! Now you can write off all those calico-covered journals!)

Finally, face up to the reality that that you’re not capitulating to ‘the man.’ News flash: you’ve ‘the man’ all along. Unless you worked for a completely self-funded publication or website that had no accountability to a board, funders, or investors, you have been part of a capitalist organization. You might like to think of yourself as a maverick, an iconoclast, beholden to no one. But if at the end of your week of iconoclasting, you cashed  a paycheck, you were not exactly the rebel you thought you were.

The truth is, journalists are accountable to editors, the editors to publishers, and the publishers to advertisers and shareholders. To readers who did not share your point of view, and who felt unheard and misunderstood, you were part of an impenetrable, frustrating institution. You were ‘the man’ and they were the outsiders.

When you think about it this way, the shift from one for-profit, word-producing organization to another isn’t quite so dramatic, is it?

The brave new world of content is a new universe of opportunities for former journalists. You don’t have to leave yourself behind when you make the career shift. Bring the best of yourself to your new position. You’ll find just as many characters as you enjoyed in the newsroom, and you’ll also find a new and equally engaged audience.