Will Sullivan's guide to global mobile, tablet & emerging tech ideas

32 of the best real world career and life tips for new journalism graduates entering the newspaper industry

Graduation cake  Photo courtesy CarbonNYC on Flickr

Spring is upon us! And with it, another crop of enthusiastic, bight-eyed, bushy-tailed journalism graduates hatch from their cocoon of schooling and flutter to the market. For all of you students out there (and anyone else looking for advice), let me save you some bumps and give you some of my career advice that they didn’t really tell me in journalism school.

First, make sure you’ve read:

…Now on with the journalism career advice:

Go with your gut.
I’ve found that about 80-90 percent of the time, the gut is right. When doing this though, be sure to recognize the difference between fear and your true gut instinct. Just because you’ve lived in Little Town, USA all your life and leaving may be scary isn’t your gut instinct. Trusting a boss is.

Your boss matters way more than where you are working.
Horrible, stifling, untrusting, unengaging, uncaring bosses will crush your soul faster than anything. Choose your boss wisely. I’ve been pretty fortunate throughout my career to have bosses that gave me some leash and threw me some bones.

Your coworkers / your environment matters a lot too.
Surround yourself with people that inspire and encourage you that you can learn from.

Toxic environments will destroy your life faster than Crystal Meth.
Avoid them like the plague. This isn’t your high school boyfriend that you may think you can ‘fix him and he’ll be a keeper.’ Maybe you can sometimes, but by the time you do you’re finished fixing it, you’ll be going to be bitter and old. Get out as quick as possible and read the No Asshole Rule if you’re stuck in a toxic environment or if you see one forming.

Research your job and compensation package like you would preparing a legal argument to keep your mother out of jail.
Call in favors, references, background checks, the whole 9-yards. Be unrelenting and meticulous when your interviewing. Document everything possible. Save emails, notes and if it’s legal (and they consent) record the phone conversations. Hold people to their word. (We do this for reporting stories, why would you do anything less when it comes to making decisions about YOUR life and career?) Find out how that organization works inside and out. Go through the benefits with a fine-toothed comb. Know what “vested” means (Because that dollar-for-dollar matching the HR rep is touting doesn’t really become your money until you’ve worked there for 2-10 years, depending on your corporate overlord’s ‘generosity.’ I actually had an HR rep laugh and say “Too late, we gotcha now” when she explained to me what vesting was.) Understand the market and city you’re going to live in and what the clear cost of living is.

One. page. resume.
Seriously. You’re not that cool, yet.

Save the cutesy cover letters.
You have about 5-7 seconds to sell yourself, starting… now.

Seriously. Put one up. A bio. A portfolio. A contact page. A resume. Blog if you want. [Some people say this mandatory, but I’ve found it sometimes hurts my view of some people, rather than helps. I think it’s like editing a photo portfolio — you are judged and remembered by your worst work. So actually, I guess that’s helping me out from hiring idiots, right? Then blog away! 😛 ]

Work in a city/place that you love (or can learn to love).
A job is a job. It’s only 8-12 hours a day. Don’t live somewhere you hate or you’ll start to hate your life. Also, don’t be afraid to try something new though. Florida was a state that I’d scoffed at most of my life and genuinely hated for giving Bush the presidency in 2000. Having lived there for three years, I can now say it was an interesting place to live. I have a lot of friends there still and many fond memories. I’m happy to have moved on but it was perspective changing experience that I’m glad I had.

Awards don’t really matter. (But they really do.)
They shouldn’t. But if I’ve got dozens of resumes with similar previous experience, skills and portfolio between candidates, someone who’s won half a dozen awards for their work versus someone who’s won none will probably get them put in the ‘to check out further pile.’ Outside of ladder climbing, winning awards just feels good. Recognition for hard work is important. Just don’t stress about it too much, because awards are so random and subjective depending on the panel of judges. (Watch as many contest judging events as yLittle pink dress Photo Courtesy Dave \'Coconuts\' Kleinschmidt on Flickrou possibly can and you’ll learn this quickly.) One thing to remember: You can’t win awards if you don’t enter. I’ve judged a couple dozen contests, and I gotta say, sometimes people win just because there wasn’t really any competition and they paid an entry fee, so someone has to win.

“I know that douche bag” syndrome.
Journalism is a small world. And people take all sorts of crazy paths. You’ll probably find that some people who absolutely abhorred the web, who wouldn’t talk to you at all in school, let alone make eye contact, will come around. And sometimes even start drinking your Kool-Aid. Ethan Plaut, an origami ninja master and really fun, quotable guy from Northwestern, one time made an observation to a group of us grad students that, “One day, we’re going to look up on TV and see another of us and go, ‘Hey, I used to know that douche bag!'” (I’m totally butchering that quote and am not really delivering it’s meaning correctly but this kind of realization has happened to me several times. And every time I think of Ethan.

Ladders lead to loneliness.
The higher up you climb in this business, the lonelier it gets because you don’t know who’s really your friend, who’s trying to use you and what they’re trying to get out of you.

Say “thank you.” All the time. And mean it.
It’s two words and it means a lot. Especially to people who give you advice, their time and help you in your career. It’s a small world. This is a thankless job. Don’t be an ingrate.

Make organization and the elimination of clutter (especially information clutter) a life long process. Twitter is neat, but addicting and dangerous. We lost a lot of good men in the war to Twitter.

There are a remarkable amount of independently wealthy journalists.
Let’s be honest. Wages in journalism are bad for many reasons, one of which is there’s a lot of journalists that can afford to take horrible pay because their parents/trust funds/husbands/wives can support them. It’s not fair, but that’s the environment.

People are really busy. Don’t freak out if they don’t get back to you immediately.
I used to take it personally when someone didn’t respond to my emails, but I’m getting to the point where I can’t answer everything (although I’m trying my best). Respect people’s time. Speaking of which…

Get back to people as quickly as reasonably possible.
Comeuppance is a bitch.

Doing stuff by committee isn’t cool.
Don’t be afraid to be a tyrant if you have the vision. Design, writing, any creative process by committee is a horrible process. BELIEVE ME.

Being really good looking helps. A lot.
(Believe me, I know!) But seriously, being attractive (in any industry) counts more than it should. And unfortunately it often helps much more than actual talent or experience.

Being really nice helps. A lot.
Because who wants to work with a jerk? Even if the jerk is more competent, most people will pick the nice, less-skilled person.

Being good at ‘networking’ helps. A lot.
I’m not a fan of this either, but it’s true. Deal with it and evolve accordingly.

Keep studying.
I’ve said this many times before. NEVER. LEAVE. SCHOOL. (Or rather, never stop learning.) Congrats on your degree. Now you have a lifetime of learning to do. Keep reading. Keep researching. Keep growing. You just finished the first swimming leg in an Iron Man triathlon around the world. Get on your bike and start peddling.

Get ‘fuck you’ ‘peace out’ skills.
Note: The pursed lips, and cocked head and hand. there\'s a little too much smile here, but we\'ll let that slide. People always ask me what skills I think they should have. Everything is an answer, but I’m not sure it’s the best because truely, the jack of all trades is the master of none–especially as evolving technology continues to make basic-level skills obsolete. My real answer used to be: “You need ‘Fuck you’ skills. Like a hand with a raised middle finger, you need to have a bunch of little fingers of skills in many different areas like flash, social media video, writing, audio, programming, CAR or whatever, but one area that you’re really awesome in (the middle finger). So if things are really bad somewhere, you’re awesome at that skill and you can say, ‘fuck you’ and move on.” (Kinda like FU money.) But recently, I unveiled a new theory while rappin’ with some Mizzou j-students: It’s a little risky to put all your eggs in one basket. So I’m thinking, “Peace out” skills are better. (It’s also less vulgar than ‘fuck you’ skills.) So my advice is: Be familiar with as many aspects of journalism as possible — have a little of your fingers in everything — but have two disciplines that you’re really awesome with. Hence, the “Peace out” sign. When it comes time to say “Peace out” it’s best done with the body slightly askew, throw the peace sign rapidly in a downward motion sideways, cock your head, scrunch your lips, blow out your cheeks and enlarge your eyes. Practice in the mirror before actually doing this on the job, to make sure the effect is totally perfect. You don’t want to be “That guy who was really great in Flash and Video Animation, but when he left he awkwardly poked himself in the nose and make a farting sound with his mouth. What was his deal?”

Have a backup plan.
Seriously. This industry is in a massive transition. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

“On the job experience” is still more valued than “Technical or skill experience.”
Unfortunately, there’s still a culture of ladder climbing and ‘putting your time in’ at many organizations. Most really skilled, smart tech people aren’t going to sit around doing web monkey producer work while they ‘put in their time.’ This is one of the reasons newspaper journalism in it’s current form will continue to fail unless it gets corrected abruptly

Competitive markets are fantastic.
Most people don’t realize this because in newspapering, you can probably count the number of truly competitive mid- to large-sized markets on your two hands. But it’s absolutely critical to keep evolving and doing great work. The Internet has basically (in theory) made every market infinitely competitive, but most of the folks wearing ties in the nice offices don’t realize or acknowledge that yet. And they won’t until it’s too late. (Honestly, it probably has already passed that point.)

Corporations, in general, are horrible, horrible things.
They are built to minimize risk and maximize profit. By doing so, they generally choke out most attempts at innovation, inspiration and new ideas.

Freelance like your life depends on it.
…Because at the least, your livelihood does. It’s very likely at this early point in your career, you’re going to get stuck doing the lower-level work. Freelancing often allows you the opportunity to pick up jobs and learn skills that you otherwise wouldn’t because you’re working third shift night cops. Or copy-and-paste web producing. Or shooting mugshots of buildings. It also requires you to have some business sense, which is critical for all journalists in this age.

Get a life, hobbies and friends outside of journalism.
I need to follow this more, but it’s so important for your health and perspective on the world.

Give back.
You may be young, but you can always contribute to the profession. Here’s more info on why you should.

You should really be trying to get fired.
Ok, don’t seriously try and get fired like throw-an-M80-in-the-bosses-coffee-mug fired. But do speak out with passion, vigor and conviction to any and everyone, regardless of rank, when you see your company doing stupid things in the dying, old media way. Your company probably needs you more than you need them. You can either speak out now and try to save both your butts, or sit back, fall in line and wait for them to cut your job to save theirs.

If you don’t have it in you, get the fuck out of the way.
Sorry to be so blunt. But seriously, step aside if you’re not in it to win it.

Never relent.

Got any advice?
Post it in the comments!


  1. Fantastic post, Will.

  2. Building a bit on “Corporations, in general, are horrible, horrible things,” I’d just add that ownership matters more than most freshly minted grads seem to realize. If you’re going to go work for a gigantic media corporation, some really are less evil and/or soul-crushing than others. We all know that certain companies were terrible to work for even before the internet started eating their lunch, and they’ve only become that much more miserable today.

  3. Thanks, Adam!

    Sorry about all the profanity. 😛

    I guess I brewed my tea too strong last night; I’m going to need to put a 20 spot in the swear jar.

  4. I just read about a new service that matches a job seekers unique set of skills with open positions free:

    Maybe it helps…maybe not.

  5. Great post, Will. I could feel your passion for journalism through this post which I greatly admire. I agreed and loved so much of what you said, in fact I was going to go through and clip some of your comments here and tell you that I agree, and so true, and that sort of thing, but then I realized I’d be cutting and pasting practically the whole post. So overall, you made some excellent points. Especially about going with your gut. And choosing your boss (SO important to remember that an interview should be two-way). And avoiding toxic environments. And having “peace out” skills (I’ll have to practice that later b/c I am clumsy and probably would poke myself in the nose). And to always keep learning. And, and . . . you get the point, great post.

  6. Thanks for this list. I still have another year in school, but this will be immensely helpful when it comes time to graduate. Keep it comin’!

  7. Pingback: how to write a cover letter

  8. Wow. I wish I’d read this 25 years ago. But I’m not too old to learn something new. I’m off to the public library to get The No Asshole Rule right now. I’d order it from Amazon but I want to read it before I get back to work on Monday, before I get (more) bitter and (more) old. Thanks!

  9. I agree. These are some good tips and thoughts.

    Remember, although times are tough for the industry, a journalism grad isn’t an industry. Hiring is happening. You may have to be smart or lucky, or both lucky and smart, but hang in their if that’s your dream.

    People did make money and get rich in the midst of the Great Depression.

    The No Assholes guy, Bob Sutton, also has a pretty good blog:

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Hartnett & Lail–Both very true.

  11. Hi Wiil,

    i´m a brazilian journalist and this was the first time i visisted your blog. I wanna say congratulatinons to you for the verry helpfull advices you gave. I´m graduatted since 2006 and now i work in a advertising company, where i do the newspapers.

    From now on i´ll be your reader!!!!!



    P>S- sorry about my english!

  12. I know this is wicked late, but I just came across this post. Excellent stuff. I’m adding it as a link to my advice for journalism students, because this takes it beyond education to the real world. It’s great advice.