April 17, 2015

Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome didn’t last long. But the journalists there learned a few things both while working and while leaving. Here are four of them:

1. Get used to this.

“If you’re in journalism, you know it’s an industry that gets shaken up a lot, and it’s tough to deal with,” said P. Kim Bui, now with First Look Media’s reported.ly. “I had some very low moments, but I had a support system that made sure I didn’t stay down for too long. It’s not that journalism is dying, it’s that projects, sites, ideas, live and die, much like they do anywhere.”

“Having been through a promising startup being abruptly closed down before, when I was at TBD in 2011, I pretty much go into every journalism job knowing it could disappear tomorrow,” said Mandy Jenkins, now Storyful’s news director. “Thunderdome was no exception.”

“My general advice, hard as it can be to hear, is to always be prepared for a layoff,” said Meena Thiruvengadam, now editor at Yahoo Finance. “Build up a savings account, continually work to build and strengthen your networks, keep your resume up to date and keep your eyes and ears open. Also, don’t give up, especially when your job search feels most hopeless. A layoff can open a door to new and better opportunities, but luck is where preparedness meets opportunity. You have to prepared when opportunity arises, even it comes out of something that may feel like the end of the world.”

“Don’t be surprised anymore about anything that happens,” said Jim Brady, the founder and CEO of Stomping Ground. “I think if you ever take a job and you say ‘This is where I’m going to put down roots for the next 10 years,’ you’re fooling yourself.”

2. Be kind.

We’re in a small industry, Bui said, and people need to take care of each other.

“If someone does you a favor, be grateful for it. Call a friend who had a tough time with a story, whatever it is. Write thank you notes. Email that student back. The little things like that, even the one line DMs of ‘I hope everything is OK, let me know what I can do to help.’ meant a lot to me during that time, not to mention the mentors and friends that had to listen to me freak out over job offers, interviews and all of that.”

Yvonne Leow agreed.

“Be kind. Always. Be a kind person with integrity,” said Leow, who’s now a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford. “People see that and recognize that. Things come around in amazing ways.”

“The biggest lesson I learned from all of this was that the relationships that we make in this industry really matter,” Jenkins said. “When news of the Thunderdome shutdown got out, we all had so many offers of help come in. It felt like every person I’d done a favor for or met at a conference or shared a panel with seemed to come out of the woodwork with a job lead for me or one of my employees. We called in a lot of those favors to get the Thunderdome staff into meetings at the organizations they wanted to work for next. It goes to show that those friendships are worth making (and keeping) and those favors are worth doing to keep that sort of good karma going. You never know when you’re going to be the one that needs a hand.”

3. Take risks.

Try the things that make you uncomfortable, Leow said, the things that make you scared.

“Take risks,” she said. “Go for stuff that you don’t think you can do and do it anyway, because everyone’s trying to figure it out right now.”

“Be innovative. Be aggressive. Try new things. Don’t be afraid to fail,” Brady said. “People are always looking for optimism.”

“The biggest lesson for me was about the value of taking risks,” said Robyn Tomlin, now vice president of digital and communications at Pew Research Center. “I had spent the previous decade as the top editor at several community newspapers, and while I had developed a real specialization in digital storytelling, workflows and products, at the end of the day I was still a newspaper editor. Getting the opportunity to work with Jim Brady and build a digital newsroom from the ground up was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And while it was hard to have that door close, I was humbled by many the new doors that opened as a result of that experience.”

“Be open to trying anything, even if for a little bit and talking to anyone,” Bui agreed. “Some of the things I tried didn’t work out at all, but I tried them anyway to know. I met up with Andy (Carvin) in a hallway at AAJA and he said we should talk about a project he was working on. I had no idea that was reported.ly, but I’m glad I said ‘of course, call me anytime.'”

“As depressing as it sounds to have been a part of a promising startup that didn’t make it – twice in my case – I wouldn’t trade that time for anything,” Jenkins said. “Taking a risk on a new job – whether its a whole new company starting up or a new role you aren’t sure you can do – is worth it. There’s so much you can learn, so much room for you to grow and roles you can try on – it’s a chance you don’t get very often. You have to go in knowing it could all disappear tomorrow, but so could anything else.”

4. Hang in there.

“After my second layoff, I thought it was a ‘sign’ that fate didn’t want me in journalism, but really none of this has anything to do with us,” Bui said. “It happens – a very Buddhist take on that, I know. But if something fails, you pick yourself up and you try again. Failure, layoffs, all of that, aren’t the end. They’re an excuse to try something new and crazy.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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