What to do when your career path is uncharted territory

November 26, 2019
Category: Business & Work

Masuma Ahuja is a freelance journalist whose work has been featured on CNN, Vice and the BBC. She is also writing a book about girlhood around the world based on her series in The Washington Post’s The Lily. Ahuja graduated from Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media in 2015.


Every time I’m asked to write a 150-word bio, I freeze. 

My professional life has had a lot of iterations, ranging from launching newsrooms on Snapchat and Kik to covering politics and breaking news with voicemails and, most recently, reporting and writing a book. 

For years at the beginning of my career, I was simply the internet kid. I began working in large, legacy newsrooms. At my first few jobs, my titles were fluid, my duties unspecific. I was defined, mostly, by the fact that I knew how to internet. The range of my responsibilities included helping older reporters clear their cache and convincing established editors to download Snapchat. 

These newsrooms gave me a solid foundation for learning and understanding how to do journalism well.  

But the fact that I was a digital person meant that my path was distinct from the reporters I worked with, sat near, and looked up to. Because I didn’t want to write for print or produce for TV, the options available to me often sat at the intersection of strategy, editing and programming — finding ways to take existing journalism and put it in new places. 

But the thing I love doing best is reporting and telling stories. I often use the internet and technology to help me do this better, but the journalism remains at the heart of what I do.

My path has been winding and included many unexpected turns, but here are some lessons about carving your own path that I have learned along the way. 


This article originally appeared in an issue of The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter for women kicking ass in digital media. Join the conversation here.


1. Do the thing you want to do now.

I’ve always done two jobs: the one I have and the one I want. The former because I was paid to do it, the latter because I wanted to show that I could do it. 

For example, at CNN, while my job officially entailed working on emerging platforms, I also pitched and wrote feature stories about the human impact of policy. I wanted to prove that I could be a reporter in the field, and eventually these clips helped me place my first stories from the field.

There’s power in taking the reins. Lam Thuy Vo, a senior reporter at BuzzFeed who’s reported and told stories across mediums with data and video and words, agrees. “There’s a power in not waiting for permission,” she said, “for people to give you the job to do the content you want.”

We need recognition to be hired for the jobs we want, but we don’t need external validation to be the filmmakers and reporters and podcasters we want to be. 

“Remember that no one will give you permission to be the person you want to be,” agreed Alex Laughlin. Alex is a friend and former colleague who has made a lot of journalism and made a lot of internet. Her official job title is producer at Transmitter Media, but she’s produced and hosted podcasts, written stories, created a Slack community, built bots and more. Her career path is an example in pivoting gracefully and carving new roles expertly.

 

2. Make a list of things you do. That list is your job.

I don’t like nouns as job titles. Perhaps it’s imposter syndrome. Perhaps it’s the fact that I was never considered “a real reporter” even though I was doing the real reporting. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m trying to change the definition of words to include people like me. 

I prefer verbs — nobody can argue with what you have already done. It’s hard to argue with the fact that I report and tell stories, that I write and edit and produce. Even if I don’t fit the most widely imagined definition of reporter, producer, or editor. 

 

3. Use your side projects to play.

You don’t have to monetize them; they don’t have to be for work. But they’re a way to explore new spaces, to find low-pressure ways of experimenting. Most of my most creative and groundbreaking work has been done on the side of my “real job.” 

For example, long before I used disposable cameras to create a multi-country, multimedia project about motherhood at CNN, a friend and I made a Tumblr featuring our own disposable camera photos. And months before I used voicemails to cover the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, I put flyers around New York City with a phone number, asking people to share their love stories.

“It’s my side projects that help me figure out which parts of journalism I really thrive in,” agreed Vo. For example, she created a Tumblr looking at her social media and digital footprint after her divorce; she received a fellowship at BuzzFeed based on that Tumblr and side project.

It’s the same for Laughlin. “Every meaningful step I’ve taken in my career so far has been because of a side project. It stems from the fact that I’m very easily bored, and that extends to the way I define myself. I never, ever want to be one thing,” she said.

 

4. Your adaptability is an asset.

I used to often worry that the fact that I bounce between mediums means I didn’t have an area of expertise. I became very good at jumping onto new mediums, finding new ways of telling stories. But newness often meant that I didn’t have years of experience doing a thing or a comprehensive portfolio. 

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

Pivots to new platforms are all-too-regular in our industry, with teams created (and then dissolved) to create new content for new platforms and in new formats, be it messaging apps, livestreams, or social video. If you can make journalism across different platforms, it only helps you in our ever-evolving industry.

“If you can adapt to change in an industry that’s constantly figuring out its business model … when you learn early on to adapt, that in itself is a skill,” said Vo. 

 

5. Uncharted paths are terrifying, but full of possibility.

I admire a lot of established reporters who have spent decades in the field around the world, but I know few who have told stories in all the ways that I want to. I sometimes get frustrated that there’s nobody whose career I can look to for guidance about what to do next or how to get where I want to be. 

But that also gives me unique freedom to forge a path all my own. After working as a digital journalist at The Washington Post and CNN, I spent the last two years working as a freelance reporter and living out of a suitcase. I was reporting a few big projects on women’s lives, wandering through villages dotted across South Asia, and spending my months talking to women about love, life and migration. 

Now, I’m taking another turn: unpacking my suitcase in London, and finding all the different platforms to tell the stories I’ve been reporting.


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