Journalist’s Survival Guide: What to Do Before the Ax Falls

Here’s one thing we know for sure: The layoffs, buyouts and general downsizing in journalism last year weren’t the last. Chances are good that some of you who are reading this now won’t have jobs at the end of 2009.

Spacer SpacerWe know. We’re the journalists who were laid off, took the buyout, or otherwise became redundant in 2008.

Our group of 14 journalists –- editors, reporters and photojournalists who are graduates of a Poynter seminar offered for the first time last November, “Standing Up for Journalism” -– swapped stories about why and how we left our jobs, or they left us. Some of us were helped out the door in generous and gracious fashion, with thanks and assistance. Others were told to turn in their company IDs, laptops and tape recorders at once and vacate the building. We talked about what we wished we’d known before we lost our jobs, how we wished we’d prepared for life outside the Mother Ship.

With that thought in mind we offer you this, part one of the Journalist’s Survival Toolkit: What you need to know and do, starting now, to prepare for your next job and your next life, which may come sooner than you think.

Even if you believe your job is secure -– and maybe it is –- pay attention. “You’re always looking for your next job,” Distinguished Poynter Fellow Butch Ward told us. Maybe that job will come and find you, a wonderful plum, a great step up. When you get that phone call, you want to be ready to respond in the right way.

Photojournalist Sid Hastings, formerly of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, says, “I’ve been laid off three times. With the first two layoffs, each time I landed at a new place that offered some great opportunities to do exceptional work. I’m still working on the third one, but I’m sure it will happen this time, too.” We’re as cranky and crusty as journalists anywhere, but we’re still optimistic enough to believe that our next job is out there. We want to be prepared for it, and we want you to be prepared, too.


Start Doing This Right Away

If you want it, take it now.


  • Make a copy of all your source names and numbers. Print them out, or e-mail them to yourself, or put the list on a CD or flash drive. Get extra copies of industry directories.
  • Don’t assume you’ll have the luxury of days, or even hours, to gather your personal belongings, weed through your files and pack up your desk. Some journalists were informed they were being laid off and were immediately escorted out of the building.
  • Get anything remotely personal and/or sensitive out of your desk.
  • Ditto for anything on the company computer. Yes, your hard drive will haunt you to your grave, but there’s no point in leaving behind a file slugged WHYMYBOSSISAJERK.
  • If you have any work preserved on a company computer that you want to save, send yourself a copy now. Or “keep anything you want on a flash drive,” one newly-out-of-work journalist advised.
  • Take home copies of your last few years of performance reviews.
  • Take home all your award citations, complimentary letters and e-mails from readers and bosses, and other recognitions. Sharon Stangenes, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, treasures a thank-you letter from then-unknown attorney-author Scott Turow for her profile of him on the eve of publication of his first blockbuster, Presumed Innocent.”
  • Compile a list of the personal e-mails and cell phone numbers of colleagues and bosses. You never know where they’re going to end up, so personal contact information is more valuable than office numbers or e-mails, says Mary Massingale, former newspaper reporter and editor/writer for an education association in Central Illinois.
  • Start working on a new resume. Begin to think about what you might do other than daily journalism (there are such jobs, we hear), and learn to create resumes that show how your skills translate.

Create Your Online Presence

A paper resume and photocopies of clips? That’s so old media!


  • Your personal Web site is an absolute must. Prospective employers will assume you have one. They don’t want to fiddle around accessing the archives of your former employer trying to find your stories. Your job: Make it easy for them to find out about you; create a professional-looking Web site that shows you at your best. A Web presence you control gives you a voice in what prospective employers find when they start to look for you online.
  • Some employers won’t even look at paper clippings, or will look down on them. Visual journalists are accustomed to displaying their work digitally; the word people are getting there too.
  • There are lots of places where you can create your own Web page (Google, for example), but many of us are partial to WordPress. It lets you link to your stories rather than attaching them, as Google does. Take a look at the site created by our seminar colleague Mike Wells: links to his clips, his resume, references, more. For visual journalists, visit Sid Hastings’ site to see how he displayed his own photography as well as projects he edited.
  • Create your own URL at GoDaddy and LunarPages. Be professional, people: is preferable to, no matter how good you think your clips are.
  • If you’ve got anything even remotely embarrassing, incriminating or stupid on Facebook or MySpace or YouTube, GET IT OUT OF THERE NOW.
  • Create a presence at LinkedIn, where a couple of hours’ work will generate a site that highlights your professional and educational experience and lets people find you.
  • You’ll want JPGs or PDFs of your work –- the front-page stories, the feature-page splashes. Figure out who at your company can help you obtain these: your boss? a designer? the news library staff? Access to this material may be something you need to insist on; your boss may not think of it unless you ask.
  • No digital copies? Grab as many paper copies as you can of your big stories. (See, this is why you should start doing these things before the end is near.)

Part II: What to do when the ax falls.


Sid Hastings, Denise Lockwood, John Markon, Mary Massingale, Jane Norman, Pete Skiba and Sharon Stangenes contributed to this report. Judy Stark took early retirement in August 2008 after 22 years at Poynter’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, the last 17 as homes and garden editor.

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