Launching a new venture is an excellent time for reflection. Before you look ahead, it is a nice opportunity to look back on how you got to this moment. It may be surprising, but I truly believe beginning my career as a journalist was the best way to prepare myself for the marketing, content, and comms work I am now doing. In fact, for any young person just launching their careers, I highly recommend community journalism for a lot of reasons including:
As a community journalist you don’t get paid a lot. My first job in 2005 paid me $23,000 a year. You learn very quickly what motivates you. If you’re only doing your job for a paycheck then you won’t last long as a community journalist because it is a demanding job. But if you’re motivated by shining a spotlight on the truth, telling people’s stories, and having an impact at a young age then it is a perfect fit. It teaches you just how rewarding the work itself can be.
A lot is asked of a community journalist. When I worked as one I would often work a regular 9-5 and then eat my dinner at my desk before going to a school board or planning board or town council meeting until 10 p.m. I would often work weekends and holidays. In a community, the Fourth of July includes a parade – who do you think is covering that parade?
And a parade would be considered a plum assignment! I remember sitting in a town council meeting for a rural New Hampshire town where they debated, for no joke, two hours on whether to buy a $300 printer to the point where I finally said I would just buy the damn thing (of course, I actually couldn’t afford it per the first lesson)!
But that grind teaches you work ethic and responsibility. Every week a new paper comes out. What you did last week no longer matters the moment the paper hits the newsstands. You can’t rest on your laurels because a new paper needs to come out and you’re already on deadline.
I worked that first job for 14 months. I never took one vacation because I knew the paper needed to go out and the words needed to be written. If I went on vacation that burden would just fall on one of the other staff writers who were my friends. I didn’t want to be responsible for making their life more difficult so I didn’t do it. It was a great lesson on putting your head down and putting the team ahead of yourself. (I should note it also eventually led to burn out so it might have been smarter to actually have taken a few days off.)
It’s hard to explain the bond that is created between the staff within a newsroom. It is special because you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself and everyone is sacrificing for the good of the community. Early in my career this taught me the importance of team and aligning yourself behind a common goal and checking your ego at the door. As I’ve gone on with my career I am always trying to recapture that magic, which is why “who I work with” is as important to me as the work I am doing.
When you’re a community journalist you cover every topic from education to government to bake sales to interesting people to literally anything. You have to constantly context jump as you talk with a doctor about a new cancer treatment right before running to interview the inventor of the dog toothbrush. This is the single greatest training you can have when it comes to marketing and communications because you have to absorb information quickly, digest it, and then articulate it back in a clear and concise manner that can be understood by everyone. That ability – to cut through the noise and communicate clearly – is perhaps the most valuable skill you can have in life. If you stop and take notice, you’ll realize so many arguments and disagreements in our lives are simply the result of poor communication.
And as a community journalist everything you write is scrutinized. People are not reading all of the 10,000 words across the 12 stories you wrote that week. They are reading, with a fine tooth comb, the one sentence you wrote that references them and then they are calling you out over it. This experience to write like a machine across a breadth of topics and then be held accountable for everything you wrote because it is actually in print and can’t be easily updated without a printed correction has helped me immensely.
As I just mentioned above, communication is important. But what’s even more important is comprehension. When you write or say something you lose control over its meaning. Its meaning becomes how it is comprehended and understood by your audience. The sooner you can realize and understand that the better for your career.
The competition from outside
When you’re a reporter and you’re trying to score an interview with a high profile person it is much easier to land one when you tell them you write for The New York Times. That status means something and it opens doors. It is a much more Herculean task when you tell them you’re from a paper they’ve never heard of. In those situations, you can’t rely on your newspapers’ reputation. You have to earn it. You have to be more creative and better prepared. Simply put: you have to be better than your competition in trying to land the same interview.
This is an essential lesson for anyone who wants to work for a startup. I have seen talented people who were very successful in larger companies not be able to acclimate to the startup life. They learned quickly that maybe they got all those meetings because of the name on the front of their jersey not the name on the back.
The competition from within
At a community newspaper everyone is overworked. And so you need to step up. Each week the paper needs stories and you have to go find them. At first this is daunting but eventually the freedom becomes empowering. The better story you go and find, the better placement you get in the newspaper. It is easy to be creative on one task. It is very hard to be creative when you’re overworked and under deadline, which is why we often default to the status quo.
Competition can force you to look at the community around you through a different lens. If you can harness that ability to find the unique POV than it will serve you well in the startup world.
As a young, community journalist you learn quickly the power of storytelling and the responsibility entrusted upon you when you tell someone else’s story. When we think about our lives, they’re really just a collection of events, memories and stories. So when you tell someone’s story you’re doing more than stringing words together into sentences. You’re opening the curtain and allowing your readers a backstage pass into someone’s life. I have been fortunate enough in my career as a journalist to tell funny stories and empowering stories and stories of heroism and stories of defeat. Each one taught me something about life and I know, and can be proud, that I put a little piece of myself into everyone of those stories.
In a society where we’re urged to rapidly communicate with little thought into what we say, we have to remember that words have power. They have the power to hurt and they have the power to heal. I learned that lesson, along with many others, in those formative years as a young, ambitious community journalist. And I am incredibly thankful for that experience.