So, You Want to Work in the Media Biz?

I have to be honest. If a fresh-faced college graduate asked me today, “How do I get a job in the media business?” I would reply, “Have you considered a career in health care? How about accounting?”

I can’t imagine encouraging someone to enter a profession that’s struggling to keep its head above the economic waters while trying to catch up with changing consumer habits–and I don’t see things getting any easier through the end of the year. (Of course, I am no economic pundit, and my father always tells me I’m a glass-half-empty-kinda girl, so you can take that prediction with the proverbial grain of salt.)

When these clouds do clear, I think the media world is going to look much different than the one I signed up to be a part of way back in 1986, when I joined the staff of the Boulder High School Owl (I don’t know why it was called that, but it’s kind of Harry Potter-prescient, no?) and reported on such things as trends in locker decoration.

By the time I entered graduate school in 1993, the world of journalism was just starting down the digital path. I had a fellowship in American University’s computer lab, and I still remember the first time we all sat around a Mac, launched the Netscape browser and checked out the World Wide Web for the first time.

We knew it was cool then, but we really didn’t know what we were in for. We certainly didn’t know we would soon be facing a time when local TV news and newspapers would be endangered species or when missing an original episode of your favorite TV show didn’t mean you’d have to wait until the following summer to catch back up.

In 20 years-and probably sooner-I suspect our children and grandchildren will think all of the news delivery methods on which we’ve relied are precious but pointless. Then they’ll beam the news of the day into a chip in their heads and know everything they ever needed.

So, if the abovementioned fresh-faced graduate came to me wanting to know how to get a job in this fickle business of information gathering, the first thing I would ask is: How do you get your news now and how do you expect you’ll get it in the future?

Whatever your answer is, then go do that. Don’t tell me you only listen to podcasts but that you’d really like a job at your local news radio station. Or that you’ve never read one story in the New York Times but that you’d really like to work there.

People entering today’s media workforce need to become multimedia content producers. The wisest will never leave the house without their HD Flip camera, and they’ll use it for all it’s worth. They will learn how to edit on the fly on Final Cut Pro and how to set that video to narration and music. When they think of stories, they will think in terms of packages, with audio, video, text and still photos.

Several TV stations have been onto this one-man-band trend for a while, deploying so-called backpack journalists who can report, write, shoot and edit their own video packages.

Beyond being incredibly diverse and creative producers of content, they’ll also be voracious consumers of that content, always the first with the latest gadget at their hip. They’ll also be fluent in the languages of the Web, whatever those are at the moment. Posting a package to a Website will be second nature.

I ran all of this by Colleen Eddy, director of the career center and business development at one of my favorite alma maters, The Poynter Institute.

“Media companies are operating on limited budgets,” Eddy says. “They want the most they can get for the least they have to spend to produce good media. If someone is a good writer and a good reporter and has good multimedia skills, then that’s the person that’s going to the front of the line.”

That said, the basic rules of journalism still apply, perhaps more than ever in a media world where one Tweet on Twitter can spawn an uncontrollable epidemic of rumors.

“You need to get a good grounding in the basics and get your journalism skills under your belt,” Eddy says. “That’s good reporting, and good editing.”

She also encourages aspiring journalists to know their ethics, an area of journalistic education in which Poynter excels.

“Ethics are so important to the trade, and they are additionally important in today’s world,” she says. “Things on the Internet are often not vetted. The more quality journalism of the future will be that which is edited.”

Eddy, like me, agrees that there will always be a market for solid, in-depth, investigative journalism. It seems to be sleeping right now, what with the endless celebrity gossip stories that dominate the Internet. But in the end, a democratic society still requires a free press to keep it honest.

“We did a study here at Poynter, and the end result was that people will read in-depth journalism if it’s relevant and compelling,” she said.

Before Eddy even starts giving any of the above advice, however, she wants to gauge a person’s passion for the craft. If the inquirer in question could see herself doing something else, and she doesn’t have a lot of support, Eddy advises her to go in a different direction.

“I ask her, ‘What’s driving you to do this? How strong is that passion?’” she says.

If those questions reveal that this advice seeker really is die-hard enough to push forward, Eddy then asks, “What’s your backing and support, both emotionally and financially? If you have to go back to graduate school will you be supported?”

Speaking from my own experience, even back in the early ‘90s, landing a reporting job usually required working for free in order to generate the clips that every publication requires before you’ll ever even get a foot in the door. (As I learned the hard way, stories from your high school or college newspaper don’t really count.) It can be incredibly hard to keep feeding yourself and paying your bills if you don’t have a little financial assistance. In my case, that assistance is known as debt, and I’m still paying Sallie Mae for the privilege.

Finally, Eddy tells us to start doing what all job-seekers dread but know they must: Network, network, network.

“It’s the only way to get jobs, frankly,” she says. “There’s so much competition out there, and the Internet has really put a buffer between us and real people. Networking is relationship-building, and you have to keep it going, follow up and stay in touch. Sending an email is not the same thing as you and I meeting for a cup of coffee and staying in touch.”

Once you land that coveted and hard-earned job, the real works begins: “Be really good and develop a reputation through your work, clips, and work ethic,” says Eddy. “In the end, it’s a lot of hard work.”

Amen.