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.