In an era when newspapers and magazines are making news with buyouts, layoffs and closings, journalists entering the job market are going to learn quickly that it is no longer enough to be “good on paper,” or good in a paper, for that matter.
Even if he or she brings good grades, internships, college newspaper experience, recommendation letters and a mountain of tear sheets to the table, the industry’s gatekeepers will not just be looking for the right candidate. They will also be looking for ways to whittle down the competition to a more manageable number of candidates.
Consequently, a lot of highly qualified people are going to be among those turned away, wondering how they missed that “secret handshake” that would get them in the proverbial door.
Back in 1992, even with a degree from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, I was one of those bewildered people. What I didn’t know then was that I needed something more than what conventional wisdom dictated. While I presented my achievements in two dimensions, the mistake I made was not recognizing the need to repackage myself as a three-dimensional product — promoting my skills and achievements as if I were a publicist for an A-list celebrity going for the cover of Vanity Fair.
During college, I earned straight A’s in my communications classes, co-founded a campus newspaper, freelanced for several Chicago publications, interviewed dozens of rock stars and actors, did an internship at an upstate New York newspaper and got a master’s in journalism from Newhouse. Then reality bit, and I essentially relived the plot of the infamous Winona Ryder Gen-X weepie, minus the cute guys and the happy ending. School employment centers were no help. After a couple of dead-end jobs and humiliating job interviews that really weren’t, I went to Los Angeles with nothing to lose and fell into public relations.
So where did I go wrong? I thought about that a lot, even as I wrote effective press kits and pitched a variety of clients to writers and editors. I secretly envied the people I pitched to, and yet I learned a lot more about the journalism game from writers and editors I called every day than I did in a classroom. Some were supportive and helpful, while others were bent on getting me fired. But I gained wisdom from all of them.
After seven years of selling other people’s dreams and ambitions, I decided to rediscover my own. I went to my first journalism job fair since college in late 2001 and was rejected for a variety of reasons: not landing a daily paper gig right out of school, “selling out” and going into PR or not having current clips. However, the day was not a waste, as a guy ahead of me in line suggested I write pro-bono articles, rebuild and rethink. Effectively, he was advising me to promote myself.
Writing for free was a tough sell. This time, however, armed with confidence and a carefully thought-out pitch, a neighborhood paper serving L.A.’s San Fernando Valley bit. They asked me, “What do you have to offer us?” My answer: More than a decade of solid experience in journalism and public relations, a Rolodex full of valuable contacts, the power to persuade and my unique personality. That persuaded them, with nary a tear sheet in sight.
Having worked in PR, I knew how to brainstorm with publicists and develop salable stories out of their pitches. Having dealt with editors and writers, I had an understanding of the do’s and don’ts when presenting a story concept. Networking is at the core of this science, and every relationship, good or bad, serves a purpose. Asking a lot of questions is also a given, as every answer — sincere or snarky — helps you refine your approach. Doing your homework and knowing your prospective publication and subject is also a necessity when presenting yourself to the world.
However, flacking yourself does not stop with your first major breaks. A few months after publishing fashion and community-oriented stories for the suburban bi-weekly, I negotiated paid work at two of L.A.’s better-known lifestyle magazines. I pitched myself as a food writer to one publisher, explaining that my PR job writing food industry press kits taught me the ins and outs of restaurant kitchens as well as the minds of chefs and sommeliers. For the other, which needed help with all of its sections, I sold myself as “general lifestyle,” citing my entertainment-focused PR work as “experience,” as that magazine was aimed at an affluent, celebrity-studded audience.
Both times, customizing myself to the needs of specific publications worked. Consequently, when my name became linked to those magazines, doors continued to fly open with publicists (superb, very salable pitches) and in publishing.
In times like these, the advice is the same, only more so: always be ready to ask questions and receive answers — snarky and sincere — and keep your “package deal” fluid, so it fits the times like a glove.