A ‘Plan B’ guide for journalists — before they need it

I heard this often, somewhat skeptically, before I left my job and have truly come to believe it since then. And now I’m hearing others who who have stepped out of the newsroom say the same thing.

Not only is there a great “Life After Newspapers,” as the panel title expresses rather clearly, but the skills journalists possess, especially editors and reporters, are in tremendous demand in what I regard as other knowledge industries.

That was the main thrust that I and several other former print types discussed Sunday with attendees at a one-day workshop of the Southeast Chapter of the American Copy Editors Society in Charleston.

The other three panel members and I, as well as moderator Andy Bechtel, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina — all former reporters or copy editors — stressed thinking beyond the confines of a newsroom existence. The other participants have gone on to public relations and publications editing at medical schools and another is earning a master’s degree to become a high school guidance counselor.

Yet I understand how difficult this is to digest for journalists still working in newsrooms, who’ve never wanted to do anything more than that, and who now face the prospect of having to leave them behind, probably for good, and in a rotten economy. A few months ago I was one of them.

Said one of the panelists: “Journalism still runs in my veins.”

I’m the lone wolf in the group in trying to recraft a working career in journalism outside the newsroom, and explained that I was quite aware how Promethean a climb this was going to be.

My advice, whether journalism is a final career destination or not: Naturally, getting digital skills and in a big way. And of course, my standard line, which I believe more and more every day: “If I can do this, you can do this.”

The primary highlight:

“Don’t wait to start your Plan B.”

Please, please, please think about what you might do should you be laid off or leave voluntarily — before that happens. Certainly don’t do what I did, which is not to update my résumé and lay out some concrete steps to take after my departure. I’ve been blessed with plenty of freelance work that came my way and I am building some good relationships with people on the cutting edge of online journalism. I revel in the more free-wheeling nature of all this. But I recognize that copy editors and other journalists used to a more predictable routine might be overwhelmed by my example.

Judy Stark, a former homes and gardens editor at the St. Petersburg Times and my classmate from the Poynter Institute’s first “Standing Up for Journalism” workshop, has compiled a terrific guide to prepare for the Great Beyond. Here’s Part I of her Journalists’ Survival Guide on what to do before the ax falls. Part II is devoted to what happens after the fact.

There are tremendous ideas and nut-and-bolts offering here — from dealing with your benefits package to setting up freelance opportunities to developing an online presence. Please read and take heed. And I love Judy’s parting thought:

“Oh, let’s don’t get maudlin.

“You can yank a plant out of the ground, and if you do it roughly and rudely, it’s called uprooting, and the plant seldom survives. Or you can remove a plant from where it’s currently growing, carefully transplant it, fertilize and water it –- and it thrives and grows in ways it never could in its former too-small pot with too little nourishment. We’d like your job change –- and ours -– to feel more like a transplant than an uprooting. May we all thrive and blossom.”

At lunch, Queens University School of Communications dean Van King, a former reporter, editor and publisher of the Greensboro News & Record, underscored to the ACES attendees the importance of thinking, and acting, in advance:

“If you want to get out you can get out and you need to prepare. What you have is valuable but it is going to be different. I don’t think in my lifetime newspapers are dead, but get ready to do something else.”


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