An Open Letter to Underemployed Journalists


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BEST PRACTICES SERIES

A remarkable convergence is upon us right now, bringing a perfect opportunity for open-minded journalists: You have an amazing career opportunity on the Dark Side.

Sadly, many mainstream media outlets are reducing their staff journalists. Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television outlets face tough economic challenges and, unfortunately, that means that many talented reporters and editors have been (or will be) laid off. I've had a chance to speak with several dozen journalists over the past few months, and many are downcast about career prospects.

At the same time, many organizations—corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and educational institutions—finally understand the value of what I call "brand journalism," creating interesting information online that serves to educate and inform consumers. People in companies now realize web marketing success comes from creating content-rich websites, videos, podcasts, photos, charts, ebooks, white papers, and other valuable content.

However, many of the companies I speak with are trying to figure out who will create the content that they need for their online initiatives. Marketers, executives, and entrepreneurs say things such as, "David, I need help. If I knew how to create great content, I'd already be doing it."

At every keynote speech I deliver, I tell corporations one of the best ways to create great web content is to actually hire a journalist, either full-time or part-time, to create it. Journalists, both print and broadcast, are great at understanding an audience and creating content that buyers want to consume-it's the bread and butter of their skill set.

Here's what this convergence means to you, a smart journalist: You went to journalism school to learn how to tell a story in words and images. Yes, the employers who traditionally hired your skills are shrinking fast. But there is an entirely new world out there for you to consider. Please keep an open mind about this.

I'm not talking about PR and media relations here. This isn't about writing press releases and trying to get your former colleagues to write or broadcast about you. Instead, I'm talking about creating stories as you are now but for a corporation, a government agency, a nonprofit, or an educational institution instead. You probably haven't seriously considered that there are potential employers outside of media companies.

Yes, there are new potential employers. And they need you and your skills-now. You've learned that you need to look at all sides of a story. You wonder how you can be balanced if you work for the Dark Side. I get that. I worked alongside Pulitzer Prize winners at the late, great Knight-Ridder for 6 years myself, so I understand. However, if you realize that your skills are in demand right now, you've got a new and exciting opportunity.

You don't need to compromise your integrity. You still tell stories. You still practice your craft. You still have followers who care about what you do. You still change people's lives.

Please realize that I am not advocating the old-school "advertorial" model. Advertorials such as those late-night cable TV shows about a product or the full-page product information "reports" found in trade journals are not what I'm talking about here. The idea of using your journalistic skills should be to educate and inform, not to overtly sell products. While some of you would rather wait tables than work for "the man," others of you will find the opportunity refreshing.

It may even make you more marketable for traditional gigs with publications, as long as you continue to create quality content while pioneering this new form of corporate journalism. Consider Ben Edwards, who went from Tokyo bureau chief of The Economist to director, new media communications, at IBM and back again to publisher of Economist.com.

If you are a broadcast journalist, you could find a gig like the one Kathy Saenz landed: She is a former TV reporter for WFTX-TV, the FOX affiliate in Ft. Myers, Fla., turned marketer and corporate communications manager at Neighborhood America.

Editors are in demand by companies that create terrific online media rooms such as Cisco Systems'. You could find yourself running the online media efforts of a billion-dollar company. Is running the Cisco newsroom really that much different than running a newspaper site?

Sure, web marketing represents a dramatically different job description from, say, beat reporter. Yet times (including The New York Times) are changing. Should you?