Job hunting

With my degree somewhat winding down (even though I still have about three months to go), I’m starting to look at and apply for grown-up jobs.

It’s somewhat scary, given that I’m on a bit of a race against the clock. Eventually I think I do want to study for a PhD, but I feel like I need to get some professional work experience first.

I’d like to work in some sort of writing or research capacity, but at this point I’m not picky. I have a wide variety of jobs bookmarked — mostly in the U.K., a few in the U.S. to keep my mother happy. Some are journalism-related, others are more about public relations, a few are research posts. I’d love to stick with government or politics in some capacity, but that might be a tall order for the immediate future. The important thing now is getting my foot in the door and paying for rent and my work permit expenses.

One great thing about having a journalism degree is that I will always have the ability to write and edit skillfully. I have critical thinking skills and a researcher’s mind. I have mad skills with InDesign and CCI (and I’m not even Danish). I know a lot about a wide variety of topics — history, art, politics, sports, popular culture, economics. And I’m a workhorse with a sweet business card.

Wish me luck. And also, if you’re hiring, please let me know.

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5 tips for the journalist in limbo

There comes a time in (nearly) every journalist’s career when she (or he) has to take a break from the profession, for whatever reason. I’m in that position now, with graduate school. I admit that at times, without a paper or news site for which to edit, design or write, I have something of an existential breakdown. Am I still a journalist?! Is someone in a trench coat going to revoke my membership card? 

That kind of a break, whether it lasts months or years, or is permanent or temporary, can be difficult to take. Here are some ways for the journalist in limbo to stay sharp (or more accurately, they’re how this journalist in limbo stays sharp).

1. Keep writing. I write all the time — blog entries, academic essays, dissertation notes, tweets, neurotic emails to my mother. It doesn’t have to be publishable or even journalistic. Stay used to writing as much as you can. It keeps your voice, grammar and mechanics sharp. If you’re in school, academic research is good practice for looking up public records. I’m looking up Hungarian electoral data; what are Sarah Palin’s emails compared with that?

2. Keep reading. I read and skim a ton of content every day. The New York Times, Washington Post, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, Guardian, BBC, Poynter, Telegraph, Gawker, Mashable, Slate, Salon and Kansas City Star form my core go-to links, but there are probably dozens more that I visit tangentially. Not only do I stay connected with global, national and local news, but I also get a good dose of quality writing and reporting. Good writing comes from good reading.

3. Keep practicing skills. This could be any one thing, or several small things. For instance, I’m working through HTML and CSS exercises in a workbook, and sampling some free online courses through News University. The code work is a refresher of basic skills I learned in J school, and the online tutorials offer a more theoretical approach to ethics, business planning and management. News University also offers inexpensive online help with several critical applications like InDesign and Photoshop, if you’re interested in that.

4. Stay engaged with social media. I tweet all the time, on a variety of topics — politics, sports, cooking, travel, movies — and it helps me practice brevity in my writing (see #1), engage others in dialogue, learn about different sources of news and practice filtering information. I’m also active in Foursquare (I love leaving tips) and maintain a LinkedIn account. You don’t need a steady journalism job to build an audience.

5. Network, as an extension of #4. Talk to people and follow people in a wide range of professions, not just journalism. Think of everyone as a potential source. Follow accounts that regularly link to job postings, maintain a website for your professional use and keep all of your contact information up to date. I created and ordered my own business cards, which I designed myself from scratch. Use the time when you’re not beholden to a media company to cultivate your own brand and learn how to sell yourself.

I’d be jumping the gun if I told you that the above points were guaranteed recipes for success (I’m still in graduate school and don’t have a job yet), but they’ve definitely helped me to stay in the loop and feel connected to my chosen profession.

I’ve worked for a newspaper of some kind in a staff capacity almost non-stop since I was 15: four years on my high school paper, four years on the University Daily Kansan and consecutive summers at the Indianapolis Star, Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star. It’s taken me a while to accept that while it’s awesome to get paid to write and edit and have an official press pass, my writing and opinions aren’t necessarily less valid if I’m not employed at a newspaper. Do I eventually want a full-time job in journalism? Yes, I think I do. But that doesn’t mean I have to sit and twiddle my thumbs until I get one, and neither do you.

Women in the newsroom

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (also known as “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels) features a tough heroine with chutzpah to spare. She makes no apologies for who she is, she never backs down from intimidation, she’s a consummate professional to the very end  and she regularly beats men at their own game.

I’m talking about Erika Berger (you thought it was Lisbeth Salander, didn’t you?).

Berger, with journalist Mikael Blomkvist, helped build Millennium magazine into a gutsy shrine to investigative journalism. Her tenure saw the magazine expose sex trafficking, corporate malfeasance and all manner of government corruption. She left Millennium to take the editor-in-chief job at Sweden’s top newspaper, only to return to Millennium at the end of the series rather than compromise her principles.

I can’t help but think of Berger when I read about Jill Abramson, who last week gained the crown jewel of journalism: leadership of the New York Times. She’s the first woman to ever hold the job; you’ll keep seeing this sentence over and over if you look into it.

If you’re unfamiliar with Abramson, I recommend this succinct but informative profile from the Guardian. What you’ll find is an impressive journalist — a former Washington bureau chief and managing editor with a love of in-depth investigative reporting and eye for the digital age. Her past friction with authority — digging deeper into Ken Starr’s motives during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and butting heads with the Bush administration — makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Rock-solid credentials.

So why is it a big deal that she’s a woman?

While I know it’s an obvious milestone that can’t help but pop up, I’m leery that putting so much emphasis on Abramson’s sex might subtly be sending some hint of affirmative action or condescension. This is clearly not the case, but it’s troubling that in addition to explaining her background (which would be the case for any new editor, man or woman), Abramson seems compelled to defend her vision of the Times. In perhaps the same way that a female presidential candidate may once have had to prove that she wouldn’t push the Button during menopausal mood swings, Abramson has stated that “soft news” won’t overtake the Times’ front page.

Would a male executive editor have to iterate that?

While the Kansan is obviously not the Times, it is in its own way a microcosm of a broader journalistic culture. My second semester as managing editor, the entire upper echelon of management was female: the editor-in-chief and three managing editors. By May, after dealing with a bomb threat, stabbings, robberies, an alcohol-related death, an accidental death, a bizarre animal cruelty case, a fatal hit-and-run and numerous other crises, I’d have dared anyone to tell us we were “too soft.”

The Kansan (which lately has male and female editors in roughly equal measure) isn’t alone here. Of the 17 winners of the Associated Collegiate Press Newspaper Pacemaker in 2010, 11 papers had female editors or co-editors. Of the 11 large-school winners of the Associated Collegiate Press Online Pacemaker in 2010, six sites had female editors (including the awesome Lauren Cunningham, who managed Kansan.com that semester). So not only are women running college newspapers more often now, but we’re apparently running them very well.

We admire great male journalists simply as “great journalists.” Eventually — and here’s hoping Abramson’s tenure helps — I hope we can also look at great female journalists simply as “great journalists.” Both young men and women in the profession need role models and mentors. I’d like young women (and men) interested in our profession to admire seasoned ladies based on their qualifications and accomplishments, not because they got as far as they did despite the fact that (or because) they’re women. Focusing disproportionately on Abramson’s gender, and not on her record, doesn’t help.

I wish Abramson the best of luck, and I hope she knows that she has a whole fleet of young women journalists coming after her. Someone had to be first, after all. But not the final.

I was an intern, hear me roar

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Words of wisdom, if from an odd source (Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight”).

As we get further into June, so begins that magical summertime stretch of Internship Season. Each year, thousands of high school and college students get experience in their industries of choice. Some get paid, some don’t.

Recently, there’s been a big to do about unpaid internships and the ethics involved in them. Seeing many of my friends go off to their own summer gigs, it got me reminiscing and thinking about my intern days.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my summer work. I didn’t have the time to intern the summers before and after I studied abroad, but the summer after my junior year, I earned a Dow Jones editing internship at the Indianapolis Star. A Dow is pretty much the gold standard in editing internships, and I had a great summer in Indy.

My next two internships — in the summer of 2009 after I graduated from KU and in the summer of 2010 before I came to Canterbury — were also with large, respected newspapers: the Columbus Dispatch and Kansas City Star, respectively.

I will point out two critical features that all three of my internships had in common: I did actual hands-on, deadline-based work, and I was compensated.

Apart from getting some technical help and one-on-one critiques, I was expected to do the work of anyone else on the copy desk. Often I was responsible for front-page or front-section displays, and at the Kansas City Star, I often had an entire page to put together from the dummy up. After clearing my content choices with the slot, getting it done was on me.

So it’s with some dismay that I now read stories about unpaid interns, desperate to get their feet in the door, who trudge through their summers doing mindless, menial tasks. I was trimming AP wire, editing house copy, writing headlines and cutlines and posting stories to the Web. Many of them are fetching coffee and running the Xerox machine.

I’ve noticed that journalism, particularly the magazine industry (not all magazines, certainly, but many of them), is a career path rife with unpaid and unchallenging internship work. Many outlets apparently think that working for them is enough of a reward in and of itself.

I have two serious problems with this.

The first is that not every college student can afford to go two and a half months without a paycheck. Internships often require you to pull up stakes for the summer (two of mine did). Valuable experience or not, it’s a big burden to bear, needing food, rent and living expenses with no income. This puts more affluent students at an unfair advantage, regardless of skill sets or talent. This annoys the hell out of me; I value fair play.

The second is that I think students should feel that their work is appreciated. A hard-earned paycheck is a great thing to hold in your hand. It is a clear message that your employer finds you valuable. I don’t find anything greedy about people wanting compensation for their work. I do think it’s greedy when employers use unpaid college students to do grunt work and try to explain it away as “valuable work experience.” I received valuable work experience at all three of the newspapers for which I worked; they still saw fit to pay me.

There’s evidence that the tide’s turning away from unpaid internships. Many colleges refuse to list them in career center postings, a position I enthusiastically support. More media attention is focused on them now, and there’s also some naming and shaming going on. I know some people who simply refuse to apply for them.

I think that last point is the key. As long as droves of students sign on for unpaid work — some companies even charge students to get them internships, which I frankly find kind of tasteless — the trend will continue. But if the talent pool starts drying up and students hold out for internships where they’re appreciated and compensated, maybe employers will wake up.