Ask a Mentor is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The goal of the section is to provide advice to journalists and journalism students who may not have direct access to a mentor or subject matter expert on a particular topic.
I've been an editor of a small-town paper for more than a year and a half, and it's great. I love the job, I love doing what I do and the best part is that I'm basically my own boss with little supervision. But—and this is a big one—where can I go from here? I'm living in my parents' basement because I can't afford anything else and I'm on track to have my student loans paid off by the time I turn 30 (I'm 24 now). How can a journalist make it in a world where you need at least seven to eight years of experience to get any kind of decent pay cheque? I would love to have a family and buy a house and live the Canadian dream, but I can barely take a girl on a date without breaking the bank at this point. Is it worth waiting until my 30s to get a well-paying journalism gig, or would it be better for me just to jump ship now and move into another industry that can use my many journalistic skills, while paying me enough to live the life I want? I understand there's a lot of uncertainty in the industry and I'm honestly running out of hope for a decent future in journalism, and I'd really appreciate some guidance.
Hugo Rodrigues is the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists. He was most recently a multimedia journalist at The Expositor in Brantford, Ont., covering city hall and whatever else needed to be covered in that nine-person newsroom. He was laid off in December 2013 and will join the new managing editor for the Standard-Freeholder in Cornwall, Ont. on March 17.
Many of the available entry-level journalism positions have poor wages and working conditions. With thousands graduating from recognized journalism programs every year and others in the field without this formal education all clamouring for employment, the market will always be a buyer’s market where there is usually someone able or willing to do it for less.
That being the case, I’d ask you to consider the reasons why you got into journalism, and why you’re still doing it. Given the work and salary situation you’ve described, you’re not in it right now for the money, even though you need some money to cover your expenses. I understand we’ve got to pay the rent (or a mortgage if we’re lucky) and have a few bills left over for various forms of nourishment. As dark and depressing as this career choice may seem at this moment, keep in mind there are still decent jobs in this industry.
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Those with the right combination of talent, drive, experience, luck and connections still get noticed early in their careers and still find their way into Canada’s largest and most reputable newsrooms while in their 20s. Others find their way to something they can be happy with via different paths. I worked in a small weekly newspaper and then a small daily newspaper for almost 10 years. At one point, I and most of my colleagues were working part-time jobs or freelancing to bring in some extra cash. I almost bailed out twice in those years—once for teachers’ college and the second time because I, too, had reached the point of saturation you’ve described.
But then I was fortunate enough to be selected for a prestigious fellowship program that reinforced the reasons why I love journalism and I realized I wasn’t ready to walk away from it yet. Afterwards, I was able to get into a larger newspaper with a decent contract where I could have easily stayed until retirement. That job was one that would never have been open to me if I hadn’t taken the steps I’d already walked.
You’re fortunate to have a job and kudos for recognizing it’s not your forever job. You might feel trapped, but ask yourself what you’re willing to do to free yourself. All is not lost or hopeless.
Take the steps to build the foundation that will get you to where you want to end up. Apply for all the jobs that interest you when you see them and build your networks so you can tap into positions that may not be posted in public. Submit your best work for awards programs—they help your resume stand out from the pile. Attend conferences and other events where you can network with other journalists. Keep learning new skills that you can use in the job you have today and the one you’re aiming to have tomorrow. If you work in a chain environment, be honest with your supervisors and let them know that you want opportunities to advance within the chain.
These are some of the things that can help open a door that seems locked to you right now. Lastly, be prepared for some detours and unexpected layovers along the way, but if you’re committed to journalism, don’t let them distract you from your goal.
Got a question? The Canadian Association of Journalists will consult its members across the country to find the appropriate expert to craft a response to your question, which will then be posted on J-Source. Tweet @jsource your question with the hashtag #AskMentor or email your question to email@example.com.
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