There Is Life After Journalism

My phone rang last week. Different person — similar conversation to one I had just last month — and the month before — consistently over the past few years, to be honest. Conservatively, I have had this exact same conversation with at least 25 journalists across North America in the past 3-4 years.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this, man,” the voice on the other end of the line said exasperatingly, “You left journalism and seem to be doing well. Can you help me get out?”

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So — first — a little about me and why I’m getting these calls.

In 2009, after almost two decades at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) — and arguably in the prime of my career — I walked away. It wasn’t a Jerry Maguire moment of pure lunacy and passion. It couldn’t be. I have four children who depend on me. The fact is I had a plan (more on that a bit later). I had a wonderful career in journalism and worked with some amazingly professional people. The CBC was a great place to work and provided me with great training and mentoring. Many of my best friends today are journalists. At the end of the day, I was 39 years old and couldn’t see myself doing this for the next 25 years.

So, I made the change in 2009. There were offers to join some organizations in a communications role, however, I really wanted to do my own thing. So, I started a consultancy and started pounding the pavement. More than six years later, I’ve worked with clients across Canada, the United States and even some in Europe. It hasn’t been easy. Far from it.

And, since I’ve left journalism, the industry has been hammered with declining revenue, which has led to cutbacks and layoffs, which has been widely reported around the world. Those who have survived the cuts are wondering how long it will be before they get laid off. These are tough times. So, that’s likely why I get the calls I get from journalist friends.

So, I figured there may be some value in sharing the common questions and issues that come up during that chat — and the kinds of responses I give. At minimum, the next time I’m called to discuss this issue, I can forward them the link to this blog and hopefully answer 99% of the questions quickly.

“I’m not sure what transferrable skills I have outside journalism?”

Okay. Let’s get this out of the way. You have skills and you need to start believing it. You have excellent skills. You have skills that companies and organizations want and desperately need.

Those skills include:

  • expert-level knowledge of the media
  • advanced-level research
  • critical thinking on tough issues
  • able to formulate tough but fair questions
  • strong, efficient writing & storytelling
  • strong communications skills in a communications era
  • ability to work independently
  • experience working in teams
  • track record of making deadlines in a high pressure environment

What company wouldn’t want someone like this on their team? These are very specific and valuable skills in today’s society.

Now, clearly, the most logical non-journalism career to consider is PR, marketing and content marketing. However, you have to truly ask yourself if PR is for you? I do know one thing — journalists are journalists for a reason. It’s not a career for them — it’s a calling — it’s a lifestyle. They are passionate about the idea of telling both sides of the story and digging up injustices and reporting that to the public. That’s journalism. It’s not PR.

So, although you may have transferrable skills, the real question is — and I ask it often — are you sure journalism is out of your blood? In my case, I felt like I left it all “on the field” so to speak. It was out of my blood. But, there’s nothing worse than a communications director who still has journalism in their soul. They tend to be the kind of PR people who tell journalists how to do their jobs (they love that). The fact is not all journalists transition well into PR. And, many leave it shortly after making the move. I have personally seen people get into communications and then struggle as they begin to realize they miss the journalism world. So, you need to have a very honest conversation with yourself about what you truly want to do as a career.

Consider this, the skills you have are transferrable to many sectors — not just PR. Give great thought to what will make you happy. The transition will be difficult enough without having to worry about whether you’ll be happy. I have had journalism friends go back to school and become successful lawyers. I know some who have started retail businesses and used their communications skills to boost the shop’s image. Some have become authors — others real estate agents, mining companies, tech-start up companies. Whatever makes you happy. However, the key it to know and believe you have applicable skills.

That being said, the vast majority of people leave journalism for PR.

“How much money can i make in Public Relations?”

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Any move from journalism to the so-called “dark side” of public relations (I really don’t like that term), inevitably begins with a conversation about money.

When asked this question, I always tell people they shouldn’t leave journalism strictly for money. It may be a factor and we all have a mortgage to pay — but do factor in job satisfaction.

Look, don’t make this move strictly for money because that can be risky. Of course, there are PR jobs that pay big money — just like there are some media/broadcasting jobs that pay big money. The gap in pay between journalists and people in PR is growing as media revenues decline. But, also consider you are leaving behind any seniority you have. You are leaving behind a more artistic, liberal, unstructured environment for, likely, a more corporate scene. You do give up some fun aspects. You cannot put a price on job satisfaction. When you’re putting in a 70-hour work week or dealing with a PR crisis, you better love what you’re doing.

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One more thing, remember when you entered journalism? Most of us had dreams of winning a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times and making crazy money. The reality, however, is that the majority of journalists make crap money working for small to mid-sized news organizations in relative obscurity. They do it for the love of the job.

Well – in PR and marketing — it’s the same thing. Everyone enters with a romantic, glamourized version of what it’s going to be like. Maybe they’ll be the next Don Draper? The fact is much of the time it’s sleeves rolled up, bad coffee and long hours. Again, make the move for the right reasons.

If you’re looking to leave journalism and your main priority is better pay and job stability — you should probably go to medical school. If you truly want to help companies and organizations tell their stories better, then public relations is most likely a good move.

If all this makes sense to you and you’re still thinking PR is the move for you — then the next part of our conversation is some homework to develop a plan.

Plan B 3-Ring Binder Revised

Once we’ve concluded this move into PR is the right move for you, it’s time to start talking about a game plan. I physically wrote my plan to transition into public relations in 2005 — a full 4 years before I actually made the move. I wrote it during a lengthy labor dispute when I had lots of think time on my hands. You likely don’t need four years — however, honestly you may want to put a 1-2 year plan in place (if you have that much time). If you don’t have that much time, I have helped people do it much quicker.

  • List Your Dream Jobs – I start here and it’s not an easy phase. Forget credentials. Forget geography. If nothing was an obstacle, what would your 5 PR dream jobs be? Apple? NFL? World Wildlife Fund? Facebook? Doctors Without Borders? The Bank of Canada? Pepsi? Don’t hold back. Be true to yourself in this process. I recommend having this conversation with your spouse or partner — or a very close friend — someone who truly knows you. The purpose of this is it will give you clarity in exactly what kind of PR job you want — what sector. Non-profit? Politics? Finance? Tech?
  • Start Building your External Personal Brand – Start with cleaning up your social media. Journalists are passionate. Don’t ever lose that. But, those Twitter wars you had with the communications officer for the City or customer service for Google last year will turn up in any environmental scan a potential employer does of you. The context of the moment may be lost on them. Yes, you have the freedom of speech. And, they have the freedom to not hire you. Get on LinkedIn and get active in building your followers on other social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. While you are an important journalist, you will grow your audience quickly — something attractive to a potential employer. Caution: don’t add everyone on LinkedIn at the same time. When I see someone suddenly adding hundreds of people on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter, I know they’re either running for political office or applying for a new job. Do it slowly over time. Furthermore, start networking after hours. Attend key events where major influencers and stakeholders will be. Inject yourself in the community outside of work. Once you leave journalism, you’re just another person with an account. You lose much of your voice. Start building that brand now while you’re more in demand.
  • Improve Your Internal Brand – When you decide to make the leap into PR, your future potential employers will do their research. That means calling your editor, your manager — maybe even your colleagues. They will want a sense of what kind of teammate you will be. If you have any rough edges to smooth out at work, now would be a good time to start. You may be the best journalist at your news outlet, but if you’re difficult to work with — no one will want anything to do with you. You can’t change the past — you can start improving and building your reputation at work right now. Don’t kiss ass. Just be better. You also want to ensure you leave on great terms with bridges in tact.
  • Look For A Financial Incentive – As we know, newsrooms are cutting back. And, in many situations, those layoffs come with buyout packages for people to leave voluntarily. Keep your ear to the ground and watch for an opportunity. Leaving a career is hard enough — leaving it without a safety net is terrifying.
  • Clean Up Your Resume – Expectations and styles for resumes have changed dramatically since the last one you wrote in 1998. There are resources online or you likely have a friend you can trust who is up on the latest style trends. Clean it up including a template cover letter.
  • Do Your Research – You have some time — and although you may not have experience in PR and marketing — you are a storyteller. You can add to that by doing some reading on the world you are about to enter. There are many good books out there and online resources. One I recommend to people is “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” by David Meerman Scott.

I hope this helps in some way. I know how difficult a transition it can be. Also, I am sure this blog may create more questions than answers as there are often many follow-up questions. If you post your questions below, I will do my best to answer them. Every situation is different.

And, not to sound like a broken record, but the first step is believing in yourself and your skills outside a newsroom. Good luck!


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How To Prepare For a Public Relations Crisis

The New Politician’s Guide To Not Getting Killed By Reporters

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