October 12, 2017

The Cohort is a Poynter newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

Megan Greenwell is a smart, kind and meticulous editor. Kim Bui is a visionary leader in social newsgathering. Rachel Schallom is a tenacious and strategic project manager. Anita Li is an infectious agent for change. Mandy Velez is a hungry and scrappy reporter.

All of these women were accepted into Poynter’s leadership academies for women in digital media and diversity in digital media — both extremely competitive programs. They are the type of hardworking and conscientious people you want working in your newsrooms.

They all also know the awful experience of being laid off.

Layoffs are nothing new in the journalism industry. But that doesn’t mean that getting laid off is an easy ride. The experience is often stressful and shameful. And looking for jobs, in an industry undergoing so much turmoil, can be a frustratingly long and uncertain process.

Not surprisingly, being laid off and facing rejection after rejection during the job hunt takes a toll on your self esteem. This is especially true for women, who regularly struggle with confidence in the workplace compared to their male counterparts.

Bui, Schallom and Li have thankfully all landed jobs since being laid off. As of this week, Velez is back on the employment hunt. And Greenwell, who lost her job as executive features editor at Esquire in early August, is still looking.

“These days when layoffs are so common in digital media, I feel like nobody knows how to deal with them — especially women,” Greenwell said. “I've had so many conversations with women who are embarrassed to say publicly that they were laid off, and we all struggle with how to think about what we want to do next, figuring out which meetings to take, etc.”

Greenwell said she wrestles with three big questions while unemployed: How public should you be that you were laid off? How do you figure out what you want in a new job? And how do you stay confident?

For journalists who are laid off, announcing that news on social media is a given these days. Tweet threads that you can pin to your profile can be especially effective. Be careful to not badmouth your former employer — it can burn past bridges and hurt future opportunities — but instead look for ways to highlight what you’ll miss most about your job. Then share what kind of work you’re looking for and passionate about.

If you find yourself still looking for work months later, it makes sense to go back to social media with an update. Finding a “news peg,” like a certain amount of time since you were laid off or a specific amount of interviews you’ve been on, gives you a framework and reason for posting, instead of just looking frustrated. Again, try to keep these posts positive. Sharing a jokey “It’s tough out here!” or a list of new life skills you’ve picked up during your unemployment will benefit you — who wouldn’t want to work with someone who can handle a tough time with humor and grace?

Then there’s the challenge of figuring out how to best spend your time off. While the average job-search process in the U.S. lasts around six weeks, finding employment in media can take about six months. That’s a lot of time to worry — about money, your future and the future of the industry, self-worth and so on — and it takes a toll.

Before you dive right back into the job hunt, take some time (how much is up to you and your financial situation) to properly say goodbye to your past gig. Just like it doesn’t make sense to jump from a big breakup to a new partner, it’s not healthy to hop straight into a serious commitment with a new employer. Allow yourself to mourn, to acknowledge endings — of your job, your daily routine, your work identity, your friendships — before transitioning to new beginnings. Taking time to reflect on what you’ve lost and what you learned about yourself will help you to identify your priorities as you look for a new gig.

Staying confident isn’t easy, but there are a few things to keep in mind that can help during the long haul. Don’t blame yourself. Remember that layoffs are more and more common in our industry today. They usually have nothing to do with who you are or the quality of the work you do. Know that you’re not alone and look for people in the same unemployed boat that you can connect with — hearing others’ stories and frustrations will give you perspective and comfort.

And take this unexpected time to take care of yourself. Go for long walks or learn a new hobby. Catch up on all the sleep. Take luxurious bubble baths. One of the unexpected benefits of my three-month sabbatical was how much more healthy I felt and looked, thanks to devoting my time away from work to healthy eating, sleeping and exercise. That helped my confidence levels during a period when my self-worth was pretty rocky.

Stay kind and patient with yourself, friends. You can do this.


Mark your calendars

Applications for the 2018 Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media are opening on Nov. 1! Keep an eye on future issues of the Cohort for faculty announcements and other details about next year’s program.

Things worth reading

There’s so much to dive into about the Weinstein sexual harassment allegations, like why they’re happening now and what this could mean for Hollywood. Then there’s this depressing look at the unintended consequences of reporting harassment. If you need a laugh, this trick to avoid sexism in the workplace will do it. “Burnout is the 21st-century challenge that we do not talk enough about.” The New York Times just announced a gender editor, and she’s awesome.

Meet Kim

Kim Bui is one of those people who seems a bit superhuman — how does she manage to get so much done? In the past few weeks, 34-year-old Bui launched a large real-time reporting project; traveled to, presented at and campaigned for the board of ONA; listed a ton of new jobs at NowThis; and did several interviews, including with yours truly.

When I asked Bui about her productivity secrets, she was humble and helpful. “I generally use a trick a therapist recommended,” she said. “Every day I wake up and do a little scan of my energy. It’s then I decide how much I have to spend (emotionally and physically) on different tasks.” I also asked about her advice on handling layoffs — an experience she’s unfortunately well familiar with. Our discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

You’re the editor-at-large of NowThis. Tell me what that means. What’s your day-to-day like?

Editor-at-large is one of the weirdest titles because it means different things to different orgs. It’s like the big kid version of “web producer.” I have several projects I’m working on but I was brought in with Andy Carvin to fulfill three missions: Get and give better training, improve our breaking news progress, and focus on original reporting, including special projects. Because most of our office is in NYC, I spend about an hour on my phone around 7 a.m. checking email and Slack (I know, not healthy). I usually spend part of the day working on whatever comes up — breaking news, a producer who needs help, editing scripts, watching videos — and the other part (usually the end of the day because NYC is sleeping) working on long-term projects. I’ve got about two right now. That part of the day is spent with Post-it notes mapping things out, making giant Google docs, conducting interviews, that kind of thing. I try my best to stop working around 6 or 7, but if breaking news is on, I end up taking a break and then signing back on around 9 p.m. to check on things. I work from home, so signing off means closing the office door and sitting down to dinner (sans phone if I can) with my fiancee or friends.

Plenty of journalists are unfortunately familiar with the experience of being laid off. Can you tell me what that’s been like for you?

I’ve been laid off four times. It’s horrible. I take it in stages: mourning, anger, re-evaluation and then the push to find something new. After my first layoff someone gave me advice to use it as an opportunity to do something completely different. Each layoff I’ve been through I’ve done that and really tried to think through what is next before I start job hunting. I wouldn’t be where I am without the layoffs, oddly. I wouldn’t have jumped into web, nor into social reporting had it not been the time to reassess where I’m going and what my goals are. I am lucky, really, to have so many amazing people around me. They buy me lunch, help me find jobs, cheer me on. I credit many friends and mentors I met through professional organizations with a lot of my success, and many of those have been women.

Looking for employment can take a toll on your self esteem. How do you stay confident while you’re on the job hunt?

I don’t! I would love to say I planned my career trajectory, that I went into each job interview confident, but I’m usually pretty terrified. I suffer from pretty bad imposter syndrome, so before a job, I try to touch base with someone and talk through the job and why I fit into it. That person has varied, but it’s a little pep talk I always need.

I do however try to stay focused and incredibly transparent. I’ve written Facebook posts and blog posts about what I want to do and offered to talk to anyone who may be interested. After Thunderdome, a colleague brought in an HR professional to help us with our elevator pitches and I keep those tips with me (mostly don’t sell yourself short!). It helps for me to have a bit of a mission and then empower everyone I know to help me fulfill that. I also take everyone’s recommendations really seriously. I don’t want to let anyone down (one of my major flaws is putting others before myself), so if a friend links me with someone, I do whatever it takes to make it known I appreciate that. I try to return that favor later, and push people I know to new great heights.

Last tip: Take time off. After reported.ly folded, I was absolutely crushed and took some of my savings to stay at a cheap little retreat in Idyllwild. I spent three days drinking wine and writing fiction and poetry again, as well as meditating. I also slept for what felt like the first time in three years. It was so restoring.

Is it possible to leverage being laid off? What are the pros and cons to sharing openly on social media that you’re looking for work?

The reason I post about my layoffs and talk about them if because I rarely know what job title I want. I’m a little indecisive, so I only try to think of what I want to achieve, and the culture I’m looking for. Last time I said I wanted to continue doing a mix of editorial and some product, with hopefully some management. I found that job in reported.ly and had the existing job description redrafted a bit to fit me.

The cons are that it’s emotionally tiring. All of a sudden you are getting a lot of emails, especially if you go through a public layoff. It takes a moment to reply to most people and be honest with them if what they are pitching doesn’t really fit what you’re looking for. I turned down many interviews and offers because they didn’t fit my mission and goals and that was so scary. I often questioned why I would turn down a job when I have none, but it works out to accept a job I wanted, not a job to have a job.

What has the experience of being laid off taught you? Do you approach new jobs in a different way now, or do you think differently about future plans?

I learned I can’t plan. I used to have five- and 10-year plans but now I only try to think the next job ahead. I like the adventure of journalism and to keep that going I have to be adaptable. I never, ever imagined I’d be doing what I do today five years ago. Social media didn’t even exist when I was graduating from college. As long as the industry and the world keep moving at this pace, it makes no sense to say exactly where I want to be in 10 years. But I do have values, and I have beliefs. I always want to be on the edge of journalism. I always want to be at a place that takes care of their people. I value workplaces that have a real, not just stated, commitment to diversity. Those kinds of things end up defining my path a bit.

More practically, I try my hardest to save money and take advantage of every employee benefit I can because you never know when you’ll be laid off and now sick because you haven’t taken care of yourself. I also always hustle for a bit and remember a tip from Robert Hernandez: Always be Flirting. No matter how happy I am, I’ll take a coffee with someone else to hear their pitch. Just in case.

What have you learned about negotiating over the course of your career? What negotiating advice do you wish you knew earlier on?

Everything is negotiable. No one told me early on that it’s about more than money. You can negotiate for more vacation, paid training, flexible schedules, anything. No one told me you don’t have to sign that contract as-is.

I still need to learn to be more firm about my pitches back and get more evidence to back them up, which is why projects collecting salaries and benefits are so important to our field.

The journalism industry is in flux — layoffs aren’t over. What can journalists do to feel more stable in their careers? And what can we do as managers to support our teams in times of uncertainty?

This is going to sound so zen, but we all need to accept that the age of loyalty and working somewhere for 25 years is over. You have to watch out for you because no one else is. That’s your job, to make sure you’re constantly growing and changing and if you are growing too fast for your organization, you need to talk to them about that or leave. The sense of stability I have is from the community, not from my job. I spent so much time building a great network of people, I know without a doubt they will catch me if I fall because I’ll do the same for them.

As for managers, we need to be more empathetic. Kinder. I’m trying very hard to make sure I remember part of my job isn’t just running projects but helping people grow. You can’t get a plant to grow if you don’t water it. We have such fewer people, tighter resources, less wiggle room as an industry. The only thing we can do to combat that for our teams it so give them our reassurances and our time.

The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media.

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Katie Hawkins-Gaar was Poynter's digital innovation faculty member. She ran the Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media and was one half of the duo…
Katie Hawkins-Gaar

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