How do you launch a journalism career in the middle of a pandemic?

5 tips from The New York Times’ director of newsroom fellowships and internships

May 7, 2020

The emails arrive night and day, from every corner of the world, in every season, even on Christmas. As someone who helps find and cultivate early-career journalists at The New York Times, my inbox is full of students and others eager to find a job or line up the next one.

Lately, those emails have become more frequent and desperate. It can be hard to launch a journalism career in the best of times. The industry had been retrenching even before the coronavirus hit. But now, when the world is on lockdown? Many journalism job seekers, understandably, are at a loss. This includes the talented members of our inaugural New York Times Fellowship, which wraps up in late May. They all have tremendous skills and potential, but they are entering a difficult job market.

How do you build a career right now? Where should you turn? What can you do? Here are some tips I’ve been giving job seekers to navigate the pandemic job market. I’ve also added the wisdom of other top editors, including some that have been kind enough to connect by video recently with our fellowship class.

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Reset your short-term career expectations.

If you’re leaving school or are early in your career and you’re hellbent on landing that dream job by the middle of June, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Many newsrooms, even healthy ones, are intensely focused on covering the crisis and tackling other big operational questions, such as how to sustain a newsroom remotely.

Your goal should be to find a newsroom job as opposed to the newsroom job, recognizing that the position you get now might very well be a placeholder for the next thing. You’ll gain experience (and, hopefully, a paycheck) and you’ll position yourself for the future. More broadly, careers are long and tend to build in a way in which you least expect them to. Embrace the mystery even as you continue to aim for your long-term goals.

Nicole Frugé, director of photography for the San Francisco Chronicle, talked about how she has had to negotiate her career through multiple economic downturns since the 1990s. In those times, she has tried to focus on the smaller steps she needs to take.

“A lot of times, the mistake that people make is that they focus much of their attention on the very top,” she told our fellows. “One of the most practical pieces of advice I’ve gotten is: Look at the job you want. And if you didn’t get the job you want, look at the job that that person left. Because that’s a stepping stone for where you want to go.”

Continue to connect and network with people.

That networking coffee that you wanted to schedule? It can still happen on a Zoom call. Video chats and, I dare say, old-fashioned phone calls are a fine substitute for face-to-face conversations.

Of course, the same social graces apply to remote interactions as meetings in real life. If you’re talking to someone for the first time, asking for a job in that very first video chat is likely to be ineffective. Instead, ask for advice. Talk about the newsroom and how it’s structured. Discuss how to cover a beat. Have the person critique your resume and cover letter. In other words, strike up a relationship that’s not just transactional.

Paula Bouknight, assistant managing editor at The Boston Globe, advises people to return to contacts at places where they’ve worked or interned before. This is especially helpful when you might be short on time.

“Talk to the people that you know and ask, ‘What have you got?’” she said to our fellows. “Talk to the recruiters. Talk to the editors that you’ve worked with. Talk to the people who were around you. They’ll know you better than another place.”

Prepare.

How productive can you be during quarantine? Very, actually. Update your resume. Get a mentor or a professor to critique it for you. Collect new work samples and make sure they are ready to be shared. That simple website you’ve always wanted to make to showcase all of your work? Now is the time to build it. There really is no end to how much you can prepare.

Case in point: Melissa Kirsch, who is soon leaving her job as editor-in-chief of Lifehacker for an editing job at The New York Times, readied for her interviews by finding videos of the editors that she was interviewing with.

It was an especially important exercise for Kirsch in this time of social distancing since, as she pointed out, video chats begin instantaneously. Unlike in interviews done in person, there is no time to collect yourself. There’s no brief space where you are watching your interviewer walk down the hall toward you or enter the coffee shop. With streaming video, she noted, interviewers “are not there and then they are there. It just clicks on.”

“There is no time to do whatever you might do to make you feel comfortable talking to a stranger. You’re just gazing at a livestream that says, ‘The host will let you in.’… It was useful for me to get a sense of: What do they look like? How do they speak? What is their cadence? Do they smile a lot?”

Not all people have videos of themselves posted online, of course. In those cases, she advised finding whatever you can get your hands (or web browser) on: photos, writings, bios, anything to give you that extra familiarity with your interviewer for when the video or phone call starts.

Do good journalism.

The coronavirus crisis is that rare news story where every community and person is affected. Use what talents and forums you have (your campus newspaper, a community publication, a blog) to tell the stories that need telling. You’ll make an impact, you’ll get newsroom practice and you’ll grow your portfolio in the process. You also might pick up some new skills along the way.

Scott Klein, deputy managing editor of ProPublica, said that, sometimes, the best thing to do is to create your own value by obtaining new skills and working in the spaces that others aren’t. This is especially true of people with talent and interest in data, coding, graphics and other visual arts.

“A lot of times, you have to convince a newsroom that you’re a thing that they need and you’re a thing that they want,” he told our fellows.

Be empathetic.

Even as you’re reaching out to people and putting your best foot forward, remember that hiring managers, too, are confronting stresses (health, family, work anxieties). Recruiters are like anybody else. That call or email you sent to a producer or editor? Have patience. Be assertive, yes, but also be kind.

The job market may have changed. But whether we’re in a pandemic or not, how we treat people matters. It matters to recruiters. There’s no shortage of talent and ambition in the journalism world. What separates people is their ability, and willingness, to blend their skills and drive with compassion, humility, respect and a desire to serve and learn and adapt.

Do so every day, day after day, year after year, and I can promise you that you’ll not only do better journalism, but you’ll give yourself more career options than you ever thought possible.

Theodore Kim is the director of newsroom fellowships and internships at The New York Times.