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.

The Six Words That Derail Any Career, on The Lattice or The Ladder

Gender miscommunication started in the Garden of Eden and has been tangling understanding ever since. When your career is at stake, it takes on a whole new dimension.

Through the Accounting MOVE Project, which measures and supports the advancement of women, the Wilson-Taylor team listens to women accountants who don’t understand what they don’t understand about making partner.

Here’s the thing: they lean in till they are nearly falling over, but when they simply ask their sponsors or mentors “What do I need to do?”, they inevitably get back a cryptic, opaque response: “Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

In this piece that ran August 2, 2013 in the Chicago Tribune’s opinion section, I tell the bosses of America what they need to do to turn this conversation around.

But here’s what women need to do: be more specific. It’s not much more risk to get a lot more information. Ask, “What specific skills or experiences do I need to master to fill in the gaps that qualify me for partner?” or for your next critical career step.

When you ask a detailed question, you get a detailed answer. And just like that, you understand what you need to do next. Then, of course, you need to do it.

Keep Your Telecommuting Deal!

Never go on automatic pilot — especially when you are the only one in the car.

Telecommuting deals are much-coveted for a reason (just ask the Yahoo employees about to start the daily slog into the office):  You can use little breaks throughout the day to get housework and errands accomplished; you don’t have to commute, freeing up two productive hours a day; and you can get a lot done.

But you have to make sure your telecommuting arrangement works just as well for your boss as it does for you.

As outlined in this RetailMeNot article, the single most important factor is — surprise — communication. That’d be communicating with your boss and communicating with your co-workers. We’d all like to think that others notice all the work we shovel, but when you’re sweating it out in the privacy of your home office, they notice the results, not necessarily the effort.

And the effort counts. That’s where we bond with co-workers — over the shared frustration and small daily triumphs. Yes, document your results to your boss. But be sure to share daily with your co-workers, too.

Give It Up to Get Ahead

In this New York Times magazine profile, Wharton professor Adam Grant comes across as a compulsively generous guy who has fueled his professional advancement with a mixture of altruism and wisdom.

The brilliance of his approach goes beyond calibrating generosity to help others while stoking your own sense of satisfaction and self-worth. Grant’s research also exposes what truly motivates people at work: a mission that actually makes a measurable difference.

When people see that their work genuinely improves someone else’s life or situation, they are deeply moved to strive for similar results.  They are both more productive and more satisfied with their work. Because their work means something.

We got at this dynamic in the 2012 Accounting MOVE Project, which showed how community service advances women’s careers in accounting. Women who merged volunteering aligned with strongly held personal values, with professional development, not only created their own fast tracks for advancement. They also reinforced the core meaning of their work, making for a fulfilling balance.


Inc yourself a new career

Desk jockeys and cubicle dwellers yearning to go free, start your own companies now.

Yes. While you’re still employed.

In fact, ramping up while you’re still staff gives you the advantage of choosing a niche that has long-term potential, instead of just running from a tedious or odious job. Minda Zetlin outlined my Career Lattice strategy for managing this transition in her January post at

The strategy pivots on mining your remaining staff days to understand how you can leverage your industry knowledge and skills in a new direction that will be more apt to support some of your other priorities, such as flexibility or working remotely.

The key dynamic is one that you’ll keep using once you are on your own: tracking trends and interpreting them as market opportunities. If you aren’t sure how to do that, you’d best figure it out while you are still employed. And if you do know how to do that, now’s the time to start creating and connecting the dots that convert trends to  clients.


And if you live within 150 miles of Chicago, consider signing up for the “Lattice from Staff  to Entrepreneurship” workshop I’ll be leading later this year at Chicago’s Women’s Business Development Center. 

Go, ERG!

In a recent webinar  on latticing I presented for Canadian Women In Communications, a participant asked how to detect good lateral opportunities within her company.   Her question is a common one;  opportunities can be opaque to rank-and-file workers, according to the most recent Accenture Skills Gap study.  While bosses presumably have a bird’s eye view of short and longer-term lateral assignments,  it’s frustrating to hear about them only after they are filled.

Here’s the silver bullet: the Employee Resource Group, or ERG.  “Affinity groups” took root about 15 years ago, mainly as a way for women and minorities to find each other in large organizations.  Smart companies realized that ERG’s were built-in focus groups. Smart employees realized that the horizontal nature of such groups meant that they had a great chance of meeting higher-ups with whom they already had something in common, as recently explained in the Wall St. Journal.

As I outline in The Career Lattice, ERG’s are a rich lode for self-promotion, especially if you need to cultivate skills that are outside your official job description.  Here’s how to aim the silver bullet that is an ERG:  look for new connections in adjacent functions or departments.  These are the folks with whom you will naturally intersect on a project at some point.  Use the ERG to get to know them before your work responsibilities collide – so you can be each other’s friends in lateral places.

How to Lattice an Encore Career

Make a career and life switch to extend your satisfaction mainly, and your income, if you can, advises Marci Alboher in her upcoming book.

She’s one of many voices in a chorus urging baby boomers to shift down, not out, of the workforce.  It sounds like great advice – until you start peeling back the assumptions. Here are three fallacies about late-midlife career shifts and how to avoid them.

Money doesn’t really matter.  Maybe it doesn’t to hedge fund managers,  investors and others who have piled up a cushy nest egg that can insulate them from the economic realities of a new career. Here’s Alboher on  transitioning from being a lawyer to being a journalist – which took, by the way, a decade:  ”I earn only two-thirds of what I was making in my last law job. But the trade-offs are worth it.”

Ok, it’s worth it to her…because she can afford it. But most working Americans have endured eroded home equity, spells of un-or-under employment in their families, and paltry returns on their retirement funds. And, the longer they work, the more they will reap from Social Security when they finally start tapping it. So, yes, Marci, money does count.

Keep earnings consistent by shifting within your industry, not abandoning all your accumulated contacts and wisdom to pursue something completely new. Build on what you know, and it shouldn’t take you ten years to find a sweet spot where you can work for love and money.

  • Taking some courses will reposition you. If you concentrate on rebuilding only technical expertise, you will likely move yourself back to square one. By midlife, employers and clients assume that you bring wisdom, people skills, and get-it-done skills that actually supersede your technical skills. Instead of getting a certification in a particular skill, become conversant in the technical milieu and concentrate on project management and business skills.
  • Age discrimination is illegal and pervasive. You’re unlikely to persuade someone to overlook a number you consider irrelevant…which means that many boomers will become self-employed. Instead of concentrating on finding a new job, focus instead on doing the new job. That might mean traditional employment, but it also might mean contract work, short or long term.? If you keep landing contract work, you’re self-employed. Mission accomplished!

Twenty-Something Career Wisdom

Baby boomers, listen up: the things that annoy you about how Millennials manage their careers are exactly what you need to emulate.

They don’t stick around. They get training on their own terms — inside work or outside — and use it to cherrypick the best new jobs — yeah, before you even hear about them. They’re ok with cycling in and out of staff jobs, freelancing, and contract work. They align their careers where their values are — that’s right, they’ll work harder for less, if they believe in the cause.

Gee, this is sounding kinda of like the career aspirations that boomers had, oh, about 40 years ago when they  were the newest kids at work!

No less a luminary than CNN’s Ali Velshi has detected millennials’ propensity to lattice from the start. The best insight from his recent Money magazine article about how millennials are managing over as much as up:  “Focus on the experience, not on the job itself.”  You won’t be around for long, they figure, so why not make a run for a job that expands your skills in a totally new direction? Not a bad thought for a new year.

Why the Lattice, Now?

That’s one of the main questions that career coach and radio show host Bonnie Marcus had for me in a recent interview for her show Career GPS.

It’s a good question. Immersed as we all are in economic uncertainty, concerned about the stability of our companies and of our careers, it’s easy to overlook the sweeping realignment that is crystallized in the lattice.

Three long-term trends are aligning to replace career ladders with career lattices.

  • Baby boomers have to stay on the job longer, effectively blocking promotions for 40-somethings. Strategic lateral moves can equip valued middle managers with operational experience while they wait for promotions  to open up.
  • Boomers themselves are finding satisfaction in late-career lateral moves. Some progressive companies, like Time Warner Cable, create internal consulting or project-based positions for pre-retirees. That creates a channel for sluicing the boomers’ knowledge back into training, talent development, and information systems, while opening up operational slots for rising managers.
  • Millennials, observing the two trends outlined above, assume that their careers will be just as much over and up. And, that feels right to them, the first workforce generation steeped in social media. They already know the power of peer relationships; latticing gives them a career structure for the connections and opportunities they gather through social media.