First of two parts.
Regaining your career footing after being laid off from a newspaper job as a writer, editor or photographer is a particularly daunting challenge today, for two reasons.
First, in most cases, there is only one major newspaper in a geographic market, meaning that if you want to find a staff position at a different employer, you will probably have to relocate. Second, of course, is the overall decline in jobs in the newspaper industry, which has seen editorial staffing fall to its lowest levels since the 1950s.
So, if you’ve been laid off as a journalist or photojournalist, what should you do next?
- Don’t say it; count to 10 first. One characteristic that distinguishes many journalists is candor; you like to say what’s on your mind. If you’ve been laid off, however, it’s just not worth it to point out on your Facebook page that your job could have been saved if the CEO had trimmed his exorbitant bonus, or that your editor is a two-faced schmuck for not warning you in advance. (I give these specific examples because I have actually read rants on these topics online by laid-off journalists.) Remember, burning bridges will never help you. This is particularly true if you are considering an alternative career like PR, where diplomacy is king. So count to 10 — or 1,000 if you have to. Just don’t say it.
- Accept that things have changed. Tens of thousands of journalists have been pink-slipped in the past two years. Now Editor and Publisher is reporting  that there is little chance the industry will stabilize until 2013, with no growth forecast until the year after that. Even then, total spending is expected to be around $37 billion, just over half the $66 billion spent in 2005. How have these trends affected career decisions by journalists? Surveys  suggest that fewer than 10 percent of photographers and reporters return to full-time newspaper positions after being laid off. You need to ask yourself if you are determined to be part of that small minority — or if you are ready to look seriously at other opportunities. Even if you do want to remain a staff reporter or photographer, it’s never a bad idea to step back and think about your options.
- Assess your marketable skills. I meet so many journalists who have been beaten down by their work environments — the constant stress of layoff rumors, buyout rumors, changes in ownership, pay cuts, budget cuts. But here’s the good news that you should never lose sight of: your skills have value. Good writers have the ability to organize and communicate ideas. Good photographers are able to do the same thing visually. Good editors have strong management and leadership skills, earned by managing staffs and budgets, often under intense pressure. Most journalists I know are incredibly resourceful in researching a story; they are highly knowledgeable of current events; and they are good at selling themselves and their story ideas to their editors. Just pull out the descriptives in the previous sentence — “resourceful,” “knowledgeable,” “good at selling” — and you can begin to see a resume for a second career coming together.
- Run a personality self-check. If you’re like many journalists and photojournalists, you have a strong personality. And it may be that one of the reasons you went into journalism is that you have issues with “corporate” jobs. For example, maybe you distrust authority; maybe you don’t like the idea of promoting a “company line” in your work; maybe you like working on your own rather than in a team; maybe you like taking photographs but don’t really like dealing with people. If you have any of these concerns, I would strongly encourage you to take them into account before accepting a job outside of journalism. Otherwise, you’re dooming yourself to unhappiness and, ultimately, failure. If you are a photojournalist, for example, spend a few days with a friend who has a portrait studio. See how he or she talks with clients on the phone, interacts with subjects on shoots, seeks new business. Then ask yourself honestly, “Can I learn to do this?” And if so, “Would I be able to enjoy it?”
- Identify and research three specific opportunities that interest you. The bad news after a newspaper layoff is that you probably can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing for a different employer. The good news is that many laid-off editorial staffers are much happier in their new careers, according to survey results. Writers often go on to work for public relations firms as account managers, to corporations as writers, to non-profits as advocates, or to academia as teachers. Photographers can have success starting their own businesses — shooting weddings, for example, while still taking editorial assignments on a freelance basis. So narrow down the field of possibilities by identifying three target opportunities. Then do something that almost all journalists are good at — research. Work your contacts. Identify new contacts. Find out everything there is to know about target companies and positions. That will put you well ahead of most other job applicants.
- Close the qualifications gap. So, you know you have marketable skills and you’ve found a new career where you’d like to apply these skills. You believe you have the right personality fit for the job. Now what? Your next step is to determine if you have the specific qualifications to land the position. What does the job description ask for? Can you simply rewrite your resume with the target opening in mind, or do you need additional experience or training? Many colleges and technical schools are tailoring programs for adults who need new skills or certifications, working with companies to match their needs. Find out what you need to do to close your qualifications gap — then start doing it.
Tomorrow: the next five things you should do.