How to find financial security in a volatile journalism industry
Financial security isn’t easy to come by in a volatile media industry with tight budgets and an average salary of around $41,000.
We know should live within our means, save for retirement and prepare for whatever economic headwinds may blow our way. But low salaries and frequent layoffs can make saving even a few months worth of living expenses a challenge.
Julia B. Chan, director of audience for the nonprofit Mother Jones in San Francisco, countered a low bank balance and a high cost of living by creating a career safety net.
“What was feasible for me was to make sure my career life was always on point,” she said.
Chan keeps her resume up to date, takes advantage of affordable professional development opportunities and is involved with several journalism organizations.
“You never know what’s going to happen, so you always want to be as prepared as possible,” she said.
Chan works to stretch each dollar she does have — she shops at Asian grocers, pregames before going out and limits restaurant meals. She doesn’t max out her 401(k), but she does contribute enough to earn her full company match.
“At a lot of newsrooms, that’s a pretty small amount,” she said.
She also turned an inheritance into enough of a down payment to pick up an affordable mortgage during the housing crisis in a region where rental prices are soaring.
She also worked through school and didn't rack up a mound of student loans to pay off, which helps.
“I went to community college and to state school after, both very affordable,” Chan said.
But sometimes even low expenses aren’t enough to counteract the financial effects of a career in journalism.
“I know a lot of folks who have second or third jobs,” Chan said. For a while, she was one of those people.
Aissatou Sidime-Blanton was laid off from the San Antonio Express-News in 2009 but quickly landed a new job outside of journalism. She’s still working outside of journalism, but she hasn’t let go of her side hustle, the professional writing and media consulting firm MediaWrite.
“Try to base it on something you enjoy doing,” she said. It’s important to make sure your side hustle doesn’t present a conflict for your day job — like providing media relations services to potential sources — but you may not need to disclose the details of your business.
“If you’re doing woodworking or providing personal chef services, your boss doesn’t need to know that,” Sidime-Blanton said.
Chan worked as a DJ on weekends early in her journalism career.
“Not only was it extra income, but it made me part of the service industry,” she said. Being part of that community meant discounts at restaurants and bars that allowed her to stretch her entertainment budget while generating new story ideas for her day job.
Sensible financial decisions, particularly during times of crisis, can help journalists to stretch salaries and successfully navigate careers in a volatile industry.
“If you know you’re facing a layoff, you may want to figure out some way to reduce the impact of your mortgage on your budget,” Sidime-Blanton said. That could mean taking a roommate, renting an owned property and moving into a smaller rental or becoming an Airbnb host.
Because savings tied up in retirement accounts can be costly to tap, San Antonio financial advisor Doug Sehres recommends keeping a cash reserve to cover unexpected expenses or circumstances — “it’s important to have liquidity that’s accessible,” he said.
Keeping credit cards paid down can provide a valuable lifeline if your job disappears before you’ve hit your savings goals.
“You always want to have a line of credit or available credit on cards you can use in the event you need it,” Sidime-Blanton said.
And it’s okay to use it when you do. Rachel Schallom, a Wall Street Journal digital strategist, leaned on credit cards after a 2016 layoff from Fusion, paying them off more than 530 days after she lost her job.
“Getting laid off impacted my finances in a huge way. All of my financial goals were pushed back by at least two years, and it takes constant self-reminding that it’s OK,” she recently wrote in Poynter's The Cohort newsletter.
Deciding not to make certain investments — like buying a home you’re likely to move from in a couple of years, can also be a wise move.
“Generally home ownership is promoted as the American dream,” Sidime-Blanton said. “But it may not be the best thing for everyone, especially if you’re in an industry that’s insecure.”
Sometimes, the best financial decision may be one that leads you outside of journalism.
After nearly 20 years in journalism, Sehres left a position as the director of photography at the San Antonio Express-News to become a financial advisor.
“For me, it really did start with taking a look at the financial side of things,” he said. “I had a daughter who was ready for high school and college, and I wanted to be prepared to help pay for that.”
Wondering about layoffs or when he might be forced to take a pay cut just wasn’t working for him.
“It’s a terrific industry,” he said. “If it doesn’t quite meet or check all the boxes from a lifestyle perspective, journalists should feel confident enough in their skill set to try something else.”