Navigating career transitions: Key tips and advice

Apr 8, 2024 in Journalism Basics
Red sign reading "for hire" with white letters

Facing an increase in layoffs across the media industry, many journalists today are confronting the prospect of career transitions, including ones that may take them outside of the newsroom.

In a recent ICFJ Crisis Reporting session, Shira Center, general manager for newsroom initiatives at the Boston Globe, and Nicholas Whitaker, an intentional life coach for mid-life professionals and co-founder of the Changing Work Collective, shared advice on how to apply journalism skills to non-media jobs and adapt to new career paths.

“The key is to really recenter yourself, not move forward from a place of panic and scarcity,” Whitaker said.

Here are a few tips for journalists to keep in mind as they explore options:

Identify purpose and skills

Journalists have a tendency to view their profession not just as a career but as part of their identity, said Center. This kind of thinking can limit exploration of how their skills can apply to equally fulfilling work in non-journalistic roles, or even outside the media industry altogether. 

Instead, journalists should unpack why they do journalism in the first place, Whitaker said. He suggested journalists ask themselves, “Is [choosing journalism] about helping people understand the world around them better? Is it about telling people stories that are maybe unrepresented? Is it about being in community with others and helping build community?” 

If so, it’s worth looking beyond journalism for careers that can fulfill the same sense of purpose.

Before making a career transition, journalists should reflect and identify the impact they want to have in the world, and their values, goals and ambitions, Whitaker said. 

Center suggested journalists look at their current job and consider why they do it and what they enjoy about it. They should take note of the many skills they can apply to other roles, too. For Center, her ability to listen carefully, think critically, write well, and learn a topic quickly and with enough depth to explain it to other people were also useful for business development work in her current role.

“Even if you weren't the best writer in your newsroom, you're going to be the best writer in a lot of rooms going forward,” Center said.

Be proactive and look for inspiration

Countless people have successfully changed careers, Center noted. Journalists’ reporting skills can come into play here, too: they can strategically inquire about others’ journeys and research how they can expand their own options. 

“You are on a reporting expedition about yourself,” she said. “You are trying to figure out, ‘okay, what other things in this world could I enjoy?’”

A good place to start is LinkedIn, suggested Center. It’s possible to message people on the platform who hold positions of interest, and ask them about what they do and how they got there. Consider blocking off an hour of time each week to reach out to people to get the ball rolling. Professional conferences are also excellent places to connect with people to discuss their career paths, Whitaker said.

Be sure to ask pragmatic questions about the work-life balance, benefits and compensation, too, she added: “We can love a mission all day long, but if the day to day of the job is unsustainable or difficult or frustrating all the time, you’re not going to like it.”

Constantly developing connections can also help journalists quickly transition if they are laid off. After 13 years of working in tech, Whitaker received an email at 3 a.m. one day notifying him that he no longer had a position at the company he was working for. As he had spent the past several years networking and laying foundations to start his own business, however, Whitaker was able to use the layoff as impetus to finally launch it.

“Don't get comfortable, don't get complacent, always be networking, always be applying for roles,” he said. ”Really look at your career as something that you own and that you direct versus waiting for opportunities just to kind of tap you on the shoulder, because that only happens once in a while.”

Be patient and forward looking

When possible, transitioning careers should come from a place of clear thinking – and not from burnout. “If you don't have your well-being and your mental health, nothing else after that is going to be effective,” Whitaker said. Taking some time off can provide an opportunity to re-evaluate and look ahead.

Creating this space can sometimes mean finding a job that might not be perfect but that allows for a sense of control and room to breathe, Center added: “Our careers are 40- to 50-year-long journeys. Not everything has to be in place right away as long as the focus is set on how to move forward.”

Look at a transition as an opportunity rather than a setback. “We think about all the things we're giving up, but we aren't necessarily thinking about all the things we stand to gain,” Center said. “I would argue that there are parts of my job today that make me genuinely happier than many of my newsroom roles, because it's more collaborative, it's more creative. I'm not confined to deadline pressures in the same way.”

Keeping up with journalism

Changing careers doesn't mean giving up on journalism. Beyond working at a newsroom, there are other ways in which people can continue supporting the role of journalism in society. 

Former journalists can choose to use their free time to mentor young reporters, offer volunteer advising at a local journalism school or serve on the board of a local publication.

“Just because you leave a newsroom or a reporting position, doesn’t mean you have to stop loving journalism,” Center said. “It's okay to look at yourself in the mirror one day and say ‘I'm ready to try something else – I think this would be better for my life and my personal situation right now.’”

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.