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March 25, 2009, 9:18 a.m.

Marci Alboher on navigating a disrupted journalism career

Last weekend, the Nieman Foundation hosted its annual Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, which was great fun for all involved. In the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing you a taste of the conference — more accurately, the parts most aligned with our topic here at the Lab, figuring out the future of journalism.

We’ll start with a quick video interview I did with my friend Marci Alboher, who was one of our speakers at the conference. You probably know her best from her work for The New York Times, where she writes regularly about modern work and career issues.

I wanted to get Marci’s thoughts on how journalists might be rethinking their careers — both those worried about their jobs and those considering a voluntary reinvention. We discuss:

— The special dangers of having a side job as a journalist;
— The kind of skills assessment necessary to thinking about new options; and
— Why laid-off staff writers have more experience pitching stories than they may think.

As always, there’s a full transcript below for those who like reading over listening. And I apologize to you, dear viewer, for the fact that I’m looming and swaying on the right side of the screen throughout the entire video — I could have sworn I was off-camera.

Josh: We are here with Marci Alboher and you are the author of — what’s the name of your book again?

Marci: One Person/Multiple Careers.

Josh: And describe that for me — give me the thirty-second precis of that book.

Marci: It’s that more of us need a slash to describe what we do in the world. So, I’m an author/journalist/writing coach/speaker — and I think more of us are going to be living this way, including journalists, who weren’t knows for their slashing traditionally.

Josh: You could just have the nice perch at The Washington Post or wherever.

Marci: Yeah, and journalism is tricky — because it is a field in which having another vocation can be complicated. It can present conflicts. So, I think of journalism as one of the fields in which you have to think quite carefully about how you are going to set up slashes — if you are going to do more than one thing in addition to being a journalist.

Josh: I know when people ask me about doing something on the side, that ethical question always comes up. What advice do you give someone who has that question and is trying to figure out, “Will my bosses at newspaper X get upset if I do something on the side?”

Marci: Sure. First of all, if you have a boss, you always have to factor in what’s appropriate and what’s allowable under the contract that you signed with your employer.

But we had actually the opposite question in the panel I was just sitting on, which is really interesting. This man in the audience worked for internal communications for an academic hospital. And he found that when he left his newspaper and took that job, he now has all this free time to write. And he wants to pitch stories, but a lot of the stories he is coming up with relate to what he learned though his job. And we all agreed on the panel that the answer for someone like that is to write on different subject matter. So he can write long-form narrative now, he has time. He can freelance. We all suggested, why doesn’t he write about sports or travel or music or some other thing that he is interested in and passionate about.

And I think that’s one of the best ways to do it — is to kind of think about subject area and make sure there’s not going to be any appearance of conflict or conflict in what you do.

Josh: But it’s so unfortunate that the gaining of expertise means that you can’t write about it. I mean, he certainly knows more now about hospital life now than he did when he was a reporter. And it’s still kind of verboten.

Marci: Right. We also pointed out that he also knows a lot about research. And maybe he can write about research — but not the research that is being done by his own hospital. Or maybe not even in the same niche. Because if you are going to do serious journalism — now obviously you can do writing for publications that don’t care. But we here at Nieman are focused on writing for the New Yorkers of the world and The New York Times, and those institutions do care.*

Josh: For people who — there are lot of journalists, thousands of journalists who have either recently been laid off or in the process and might be laid off very soon. A lot of them are rethinking: “Okay, what kind of careers are open to me if the journalism job that I’ve had for the last 20 years isn’t going to work anymore? What are the other possibilities?” If you were advising someone who was in that position, what are the questions would you want them to ask themselves to see what other options might make sense?

Marci: I would say there’s two paths they should go down. First, I think you need to look at your skill set. What are you known for? Are you a great investigator? Are you a great interviewer? Are you a great studier of character? What are the things, as a writer and as a reporter, that are your gifts, and that you have always been told you were good at, over time? Because then we can think about, and you can think about, how to apply those things to something new.

But the other thing I always — and I’m really practical, Josh, so one thing I always think about is you should alway be doing like a two-part analysis. If you need to make money immediately, you have to start thinking about, “What can I do to make money right now?” Can I get a corporate communication job, or can I get a job in a organization that I really care about, but where I can get a salary right away? There is always this short-term/long-term issue. Short term, you are going to have to figure out how to support yourself, while longer term you may be working on a more serious reinvention. So, I always encourage people people to go through both processes.

I mean, if you have a severance package, maybe you have a little luxury to think about that. And I’ve been walking around, talking to a lot of people at this conference who are like, “Oh, severance package is the new book advance.” Now is the time to kind of think about: Maybe you can write that book youv’e wanted to write.

Josh: You mention this transition. One thing that for people who have been in the world for not having to sell their stories and not having to be aggressive and market themselves — as a freelancer has always had to be — that can be kind of a jarring transition. It leads to questions of: Does it make sense to for me to be writing things for free, say, on a blog that might be a marketing tool for me? For someone who hasn’t had to market themselves and brand themselves, what are the steps that you recommend they do to think about — “hey, I used to write for a living, should I just be writing for self-promotion now?”

Marci: I think when it comes to writing for self-promotion as the way to get work, I don’t want to overplay that too much. Because I think that it takes a lot to write enough that you’re going to get noticed in the blogosphere. If you’ve never blogged before, as we know, like there is a learning curve to making sure that — so I’m not sure that’s the best and quickest way. But one thing, if you’ve been out there for a while, you probably have editorial connections. And I would say start talking to the editors you know. because they will be hiring freelancers. They have holes to fill, so figure out what they need and if you can be helpful.

And also I think — I’ve had a regular newspaper gig even though it is as a freelancer, but you always have to pitch. You always have to persuade your editor that there is a story there. So I think people are reluctant to think of themselves as knowing how to pitch, but any time you’ve persuaded an editor that you’ve got the story, I think you have been pitching — even if you’ve been doing it outside of an employment relationship.

Josh: Right, even if you’ve been on staff and you still had to get your way on page one — that sort of process. For journalists who have been making this transition who you’ve been talking to and interviewing for your stories, what are the career paths that you are seeing as some of the most common? What are the directions that people are heading?

Marci: So people are using their writing skills as corporate communications — both external and internal, at places that have to do sometimes with their subject-matter expertise. Like nonprofits, businesses that relate to the area that they use to cover. academic institutions of any kind, foundations like the Nieman Foundation. So that’s like a really common one.

I see people going into education — teaching, coaching, working on helping other people communicate, perhaps even as a speaking coach, not necessarily just in writing. Speechwriting is a big one also.

But I do think it’s important to think outside of all of these kind of expected ones. And if you are an investigator, are there ways to take those investigative skills and go in another direction with them? If you were really interested in uncovering the wrongs of business, is there some role in the new social business movement where you would find a lot of passion and a lot of ways to achieve the same things?

I think one thing that’s hardest for journalists — and I saw it so much going around here — is that people can be journalism as a career because they’re mission focused. They really want to uncover the truth, do something that they feel really personally good about and connected about.

And I think it’s really important to make sure that where you go next meets those goals, even if it takes a while to figure that out. And you might have some stops along the way. I said on this panel: A career is an evolution, it’s not a destination. And understand that you might have to have some stops before you get to the place that’s exactly right.

Josh: Let me ask you one last question. Obviously folks who’ve been laid off were in one position. But there are also lot of 22-year-olds, fresh out of college who worked on their college newspaper, had a dream of getting that newspaper job — maybe that dream isn’t as available as it used to be. Are the questions different for someone who is fresh out, who doesn’t have experiences good or bad to push him or her in one direction, who is sort of starting anew?

Marci: Well, one thing that always comes up is young people’s facility with technology. And if you are young and if you fall into that camp, you have to make that work to your benefit. I talked to a bunch of former journalists who are not right out of school, but who are here, working for Yahoo, where I’m going to be blogging soon. And they have really interesting jobs at Yahoo that use exactly the same journalism skills that they were using as journalists. But they’re doing it in a technology company — in a search company which is also a content company now.

And we have all these blurry lines of what is going to be, I think, the new kind of journalistic entities, the new content providers. So, I would say like think expansively about that, about what entities really fall in the definition of content creators, even though that sounds really like jargony. That’s where you’re going to have the right skills.

Josh: Yeah, it’s really hard for people who do have the mission-based goals to then turnaround and say “I’m just filling space on a site, I’m not going to dig up any dirt at this job.”

Marci: Right. And I think there are watchdog organizations, there are criminal justice organizations — like if that’s where you are your bent is, go there. I had a young writer in my class who really really is passionate about books and publishing, and he knows technology. Ended up working for Google, and he is one of the people who founded the Authors@Google program in his 20 percent — Google has this 80/20 time where you get to pursue your dream project for 20 percent of your time — and he was one of the people who built Authors@Google. Under 25. Because he followed his passion and he found an organization that let him nurture that.

Josh: Where can we find your work on the Internet?

Marci: Well, always go to heymarci.com, that’s Marci with an I. And starting next week I will be writing a blog on Yahoo! Shine. I write a lot for The New York Times and a bunch of other publications.

Josh: And what’s the blog for Yahoo going to be focused on?

Marci: It’s called “Working the New Economy,” and that’s what it’s going to be about. I’m focusing on bright spots — smart moves that people are making today and how the rest of us can replicate them.

Josh: All right. Thank you very kindly.

* As much as I love Marci, I’d push back against this on a couple fronts. First, our interests extend quite a ways beyond the Times and The New Yorker, fine institutions that those are. And second, there are any number of people who work for both institutions who would qualify as “slashes.” In The New Yorker, for example, the medical reporting is done primarily by Atul Gawande and Jerome Groopman — both physicians/writers. If you extend into the opinion world, Paul Krugman is the very definition of a slash. Personally, I think news organizations are going to have to get a lot less strict about the division between doers and writers — precisely because that holy divide keeps a lot of talent out of their pages. —Josh

POSTED     March 25, 2009, 9:18 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Nieman Narrative Conference 2009
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