Considering leaving journalism? I have some thoughts.

It’s one of the most iconic slogans of our time – “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” First launched in 1972 by the UNCF to raise scholarship funds for African American students, it’s a mantra that’s always remained with me in my ever-present, insatiable quest to know more. So, of course, I became a journalist.

In 2010, I wrote a about the digital collision with journalism, which was then resulting in the disappearance of 1,000 journalism jobs each month. I could never have expected the groundswell that would come next – journalists and former journalists all posing the same question. “How did you do it?”

I’d escaped, as we former journalists say, from the Titanic of occupations and everyone looking for the shortest path to a lifeboat had seemingly headed my way. And they still do.

My best advice: rather than search for a lifeboat, rearrange your deck chairs.

1. Refine Your Resume

Exiting journalism and entering the worlds of corporate communications, public relations or marketing (the most common fields sought by journalists) requires more than a journalist’s resume. It is next to impossible to expect someone to be able to translate your skills into what they’re looking for. If you are as I was, a television journalist, you’ll need to explain the work you performed on a daily basis if your resume or CV is to stand out. If you interviewed a sitting President, you did a lot of negotiating. This must be explained.

Reporter connotes reader or repeater, and that’s not enough. You must explain your acquisition of sources, your ability to build relationships, your ability to compel, and the way you manage or oversee the work of others. It is essential to explain your work in journalism. Instead of being a line producer, for example, position yourself as a news definer, or a news decider. There’s value in that. If you were an editor, surely you evaluated scores of news releases.

Every time I post a position for hire, about 90 percent of the resumes I receive are from former journalists, editors or producers. Very few sell themselves as something different, yet we know of the amazing life’s experience brought by journalism.

2. Find Opportunities Every Day

While I remained in television through 2008, my slow exit from TV began a decade earlier. For months, I’d scheduled my Wednesdays so that I was there to open the stage door and guide the unwanted Pet of the Week and her human rescuers to the set, an experience that eventually led me to adopt four of man’s best friends – and to a pro bono job promoting a rescue group.

My association with the rescue group afforded me the opportunity to build my contacts, which soon led to more pro bono work I deeply cared about. Several months later, a contact-of-a-contact phoned with an amazing ask – “Can you help us launch Blackberry?”

I was finally doing what I really cared to do. Or was I?

3. Make Certain that You’re Certain

So, I went on to help launch Blackberry, my first – and quite lucky – paid opportunity outside of journalism. And then I soon returned to television news with no idea of the impact of this near death knell decision.

I can still remember the compelling story I’d assembled for television involving a teenager whose doctors estimated had, perhaps, a month to live. All he wanted was to see his mother before he died. Without telling the story here, I vividly recall how I felt when the story was bumped for the astounding news of Lindsay Lohan’s breast augmentation.

It was, for me, the true end of my notion of journalism, and also a signal that there must be life after. But by that point, after winning two Emmy Awards, employers mistrusted my assertion that I was truly ready for a new career. Convincing was beyond difficult. If you’re not ready to leave, they’ll know it.

4. Let Luck Guide Opportunity

If Oprah Winfrey is right that “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity,” than I am, indeed, among the lucky. Take every opportunity. In time, you will have developed a unique skill set that absolutely will match a need in the real world.

Journalism with a capital “J” comes from within, from an innate need to share compelling stories that make people think. Because of the digital revolution, some of the very best stories are being told outside of traditional journalism.

5. Start Studying

If you’ve decided it’s time to abandon ship, you’ll find safety in books. In many of my blogs I mention books I’ve read and recommend. If you think a BOB is a person or an EIC is a set of call letters, you’ve got your work cut out for you, LOL.

Back to that inspiring UNCF slogan. It was amended in 2013 with, as we say in PR, a call to action.

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste… but a wonderful thing to invest in.”


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