How laid-off journalists can stay afloat while the industry moves ‘to new moorings’

When Patch laid me off along with many other editors last May, I remember thinking I should have left sooner.

I received a severance but then faced tough competition from dozens of downsized journalists, all chasing after what seemed at the time like precious few journalism jobs.

Economic conditions have improved since last year. I see more listings on Poynter, JournalismJobs, Mediabistro, Gorkana and other job boards. Still, the number of opportunities won’t match the hundreds of Patch and Time Inc. workers laid off lately.

Journalists who have not sought employment recently may be shocked at how drastically the jobs landscape has changed. The market they are walking into won’t be the one that greeted them when they first got their J-school degrees.

Digital skills these long-timers told themselves they’d get around to learning are often what employers are seeking today. Beyond writing for the Web, video editing, and social media knowledge, employers want those with high level technical skills like programming, data visualization, mapping and other abilities that require concentrated study to acquire.

Patch employees accustomed to the daily demands of multimedia reporting might have an advantage in today’s job market. But I suspect they, too, may want to pick up skills that are more in demand now than even three short years ago.

Lars Schmidt, a former NPR recruiter who in December started his own firm, Amplify Talent, said while the contraction in the news industry has hit print more than any other sector, the disruptions in media distribution and consumption have enveloped everyone.

So what’s a laid-off journalist to do? “I think it is important that in addition to being great writers, journalists have a comfort level and curiosity around digital platforms,” Schmidt said by phone. He advises journalists to focus on displaying their digital skills in their portfolios.  Strengths in that area are important as consumers migrate away from print toward Web and mobile.

“For me personally, social media is an important tool,” he said. He advises job-seekers to follow great journalists on Twitter and tap into groups like the Online News Association. Resources like Robert Hernandez’ #wjchat can help jobseekers keep up with digital tools and trends.

While it may all be new for some among the recently laid-off, creating a solid LinkedIn profile, learning to connect with hiring mangers, building a website for clips and other work, and networking online as well as in real life are all part of today’s job search. Schmidt offers other tips for job hunters on his company’s website.

Writing and editing skills are still valuable, even if programming is not in your skill set. News organizations may not be hiring in the numbers to absorb everyone, but corporations and nonprofits need good writers and editors, too. Get past the notion that it’s journalism or nothing and more opportunities will open up to you.

Moving from news to a corporation takes an adjustment, but Poynter’s senior faculty Butch Ward said it proved easy for him. Many of the skills that journalists possess — writing well, asking tough questions, and thinking analytically — are highly desired by businesses, he said in a PoynterVision interview.

Salary levels may also surprise job-seekers. Employers have discovered they can get talent for less money. So negotiate hard for top dollar, but be prepared if the job offer comes in far lower than expected.

Warren Watson, the executive director of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, made a similar point in a recent Poynter live chat. Watson interviewed journalists who, because of downsizing and other circumstances, stepped out of the business. In all cases, Watson said, “people have moved in the direction where they’re making less money.”

Because they now may be able to get health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, journalists can opt out of full-time employment and instead build “portfolio” careers, cobbling together writing and editing, teaching and consulting jobs, for instance.

But should you even stick it out in journalism? The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics is not encouraging. It estimates that between 2012 and 2022, employment for reporters, correspondents and broadcast analysts will decline an estimated 13 percent. In its latest report on job outlook for journalists, the bureau also notes:

Declining revenue will force news organizations to downsize and employ fewer journalists. Increasing demand for online news and podcasts (audio or video digital media files that can often be downloaded from a website) may offset some of the downsizing. However, because online and mobile ad revenue is typically less than print revenue, the growth in digital advertising may not offset the decline in print advertising, circulation, and readership.

Perspective about the recent layoffs can help, said Joe Grimm, a journalism professor at Michigan State University as well as the leader of Poynter’s jobs chats (and a one-time Patch recruiter).

Reductions have been sweeping the industry for half a dozen years and those for Patch and Time Inc. won’t be the last. “There will certainly be more waves of layoffs at other companies as journalism continues moving to new moorings,” Grimm said by email.

Indeed.com, a search engine that collects listings on employment boards, has a tool that shows trends in words and phrases in job postings, he said. “Social media,” for example, rose from about zero in January 2008 to about 1 percent of postings in the spring 2013, declining slightly since then. HTML5 has climbed while Flash waned; Android is up, iPhone down.

These keywords reflect the changing needs of employers and the skills they are seeking. “All journalists, not just those trying to recover from a recent layoff, have to pay continuous attention to where media are going,” Grimm said.

Looking down the road is an important point. Ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s much-attributed quote may be overused, but it’s appropriate here as many journalists step back into the job rink: Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been.

Best of luck in the days ahead.

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  • Kenneth W. Keuffel Jr.

    This article speaks the truth, unfortunately.

  • http://www.falconvalleygroup.com Gayle Falkenthal

    Storytelling must remain central to your skill set. However, journalists must also demonstrate the ability to learn new technical skills. Those of us who started using IBM Selectric typewriters, then progressed to text-only computer processing, to the Web, to HTML, SEO, podcasting and video, mapping, etc., have learned and discarded dozens of “technical skills” over the years. Be more than willing to learn. Be EAGER to learn. You will remain a valuable person to any organization.

  • SamRoe

    Young journalists should focus on producing first-rate stories. That’s the quickest way to landing a decent job. Not sure technical skills matter much.

  • Edward Ericson Jr

    The word “reporting” appears exactly once, and there appended by “multimedia,” in this article about the skills that journalists need. Where the puck is going, indeed.