Putting a fledgling journalism career on hold and coming back to it later?
August 8, 2014 12:09 AM   Subscribe

How do I stay in touch with journalism in a meaningful way while pursuing an athletic career for the next 4-5 years—or longer? And once that's over, how do I re-enter the field? My background is in news journalism.

To be clear, I think journalism’s great, and I see it being what I want to do later in life (mainly photo and/or longform print). But I’m 25, and if I don’t do go all-in on this athletic pursuit now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I’ve already been pretending for the last six years like I haven’t wanted to do this, and that shit just doesn’t work.

Given the effort journalism tends to demand, and that my life is already starting to revolve around my new reality, I don't see it being realistic for me to pursue both at the same time—hence the question.

To illustrate the journalistic position I’m in now, it’s fair to say that I was a good collegiate journalist: I quickly made it to the editorial staff of my paper, won state-level awards, etc. That was this last academic year, and now I’m working a prestigious journalism internship that, upon completion in late September, will see me putting my notebook away for a while. So at this point, I'll have a good track record and good clips when I make the leap.

I'm looking into doing freelance editing work which, while not easy, will at least allow me to stay in touch with written words while making a few bucks between my other obligations. While dabbling in journalism or blogging related to my sport might make sense, I've really got less than zero interest in sports journalism. I could live with it for a while if I had to, but for drill I'd like to pretend it's not an option.

Is there a good way to do this?

And as far as this decision is concerned, it’s made, done, finito. I know it seems like a harebrained move, but I'm not new to this sport, I've been very fortunate in going after it this time with the support of my family and friends, and I've got a realistic shot at getting somewhere with it. I’m giving myself until I turn 29, at which point I’ll evaluate my progress and consider my next move.
posted by Chutzler to Work & Money (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Keep your skills sharp with a blog or through dabbling in journalism - but do it in something you enjoy. There's no need to let your sport take over every aspect of your life - keeping it out of your writing could make you more likely to keep up with the blogging/journalism. It could be your daily (or whenever) break/escape from the athletic world.

You may also find sports journalism more attractive after you've had an athletic career (and not necessarily before/during). If so, it'd probably be the best way to depart from your athletic career and use it as leverage to slide into journalism.
posted by stubbehtail at 12:54 AM on August 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh, honey. I am going to say some things you really do not want to hear. But I really hope you'll listen, because I am trying to save your life here.

Of the various options you're presenting, I'd strongly encourage you to pursue sports journalism. I know it doesn't thrill you, but if you have a little momentum going now with your fledgling journalism career and you have an "in" to the sports world, it's possible you can combine those things and make something happen there. If you can establish yourself as a pro athlete/sports journalist, it's possible that in 5 years you'll really have something solid to build on.

That's the good stuff. Here comes the part where I step on your heart.

Journalism, especially print, is in truly dire shape. Believe me, I know. I was a full-time freelance journalist for many years, and I finally had to leave the field after too many of my long-term employers went out of business. I lost three publishers, in one summer. Things are bad, and they're getting worse. Most of the action has moved online, and people there are scrambling for paying work. To make a living as a journalist, you have to be really good and reliable, absolutely dedicated, way too optimistic about the industry's future, and lucky.

When you talk about coming back in 5 years, you have to face two harsh truths. First, by then there may not be much of the industry left to come back to. Second, you are just getting started in the field, and if you drop out now you may have to start from scratch when you're 30. I wouldn't recommend your plan to an established journalist, and you really aren't established yet.

Have you talked this plan over with your teachers, or any working journalists? If not, you really need to do so. I am not saying you are absolutely doomed here, but to protect yourself you do need to plan for some worst-case scenarios.

If your main focus for the next few years is going to be athletics but you want a future in journalism, for now I really think you should pursue sports journalism as a sideline. It will get you some contacts and some clips, and you don't have to stick with it forever. I'd also strongly suggest shifting your focus to the web. TV is difficult to get into, but again your insider status as an athlete could open some doors for you. Whatever you decide, plan to work hard.

Good luck.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:56 AM on August 8, 2014 [12 favorites]

make a living as a journalist, you have to be really good and reliable, absolutely dedicated, way too optimistic about the industry's future, and lucky.

Former journalist, then PR person here. Not to piss any further on your parade but to add to this list, you don't have to be any of those things, if you're prepared to a) do the shittiest, sloppiest work you could ever possibly imagine. The kind of work that just thinking about now makes you recoil cause it's so shitty, and so unprofessional, and so lowest-common-denominator. The kind of work you may even view as unethical now, that skirts so close to the line of plagiarism, laziness or sheer press-release publishing. AND if you're prepared to live like a student, a poor one, for at least another 10 years from when you start your career. I'm not even joking.

I wouldn't be focussing just on what being a working writer gets you, but also what being a working writer means you don't get. You don't get to take overseas holidays. You don't get to own your own home, or car. You don't get to start a family. You don't get to live by yourself cause you can't afford the rent. You don't get to do a lot of things that a lot of people want to do by time they're thirty.

You might be different, you might not want those things. You might be okay with not having those things, and having a writing resume that makes you embarrassed when people ask you who you write for or what you're writing.

You might also be one of the lottery winners that makes it. But please do remember there is a real bias with journalism/non-fiction writing: You only see the "winners". You don't see the vast, vast number of people that check out and start doing other things for work because it's too hard. I work, not in PR, but in corporate comms now, and you wouldn't believe the number of former freelancers and journalists filling up the sector (and it's like triple that in PR. Literally every second or third PR person is a former journo). I am always meeting people and we can talk about publications we used to write for. It's telling on two counts: everyone agrees that our current jobs are better, and hardly any of those publications exist anymore, or exist in the same form.

There are lots of gig doing writing that exist outside the popular edifice of journalism. And you can carve out a successful career doing it. But if you wanna be a successful journalist/writer in the current climate, I say to you: Specialise, specialise, specialise. That's where the money and opportunities are, writing niche topics, for niche publications that people may not even register as "journalism" as such.

Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 4:04 AM on August 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

Put yourself whole-heartedly into your sport. For sure, write a blog. Husbunny is a big noise in the world of Women's Basketball. He votes in the press poll, what he writes gets attention. When he writes an article about who to watch in college hoops, the universities named link to the article. Recruiters call him for his opinion. Our WNBA Franchise sends him thank you notes. It's crazy. Know what he gets for it? Free parking and a place at the press table for home games.

The traditional journalism model has collapsed. There may be a few newspapers left in the world, but they're dying quickly. The fact that you were able to accomplish all of what you did in college is sad to me because it's a fraud that is being perpetrated by academia. They are selling a career that for all intents and purposes doesn't exist in the real world any more.

Think about it, there were folks like you in your program. Every year a handful of students were shining stars. There are thousands of universities with journalism departments and each year there were a handful of shining stars in their programs. There isn't enough work for the tens of thousands of existing journalists, let alone any NEW journalists who are graduating.

Right now journalists are following their passions either for the fun of it, or they're scrapping around for any work they can get, supplemented with other jobs that actually pay.

Who knows what will be left of the journalism landscape when you're ready to pick it back up again? Keep an open mind, keep your options open. But don't expect that journalism will be a realistic option.

Good luck to you!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:44 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

The comments above are spot on and should not be dismissed.

With that said, the only helpful thing I can suggest is to keep in touch with people you have made a connection with during school and your internship. Not just a social media "friendship" with a happy birthday posts and likes here and there. Make an effort to maintain a relationship. Invite them to lunch or coffee when you are in town. When you decide to return to journalism, it won't be awkward when you send out feelers looking for an opening.
posted by spec80 at 6:32 AM on August 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

The answer is really to keep freelancing and pitching stories to either regular ol' newspapers or websites that have good readership and are professional. You can keep your portfolio from looking outdated and stay in touch with being a writer. Freelancing hard news might be tough, but perhaps you could try writing some columns. I personally think keeping a blog is sort of useless. Get your work published somewhere, and then you can host a website of your portfolio. And I think other commenters are harping on a bit much about the state of newspapers. I am pretty sure OP knows this by now. But people can and do make a living writing for websites. It really depends what sort of writing you'd be doing, which I can't really tell from the question. And freelance editing is a line on your resume but does nothing for your portfolio.

You really should look at sports journalism though. After your athletic pursuits, you will be in a unique position to write about the sport you love and stay in touch with it. You don't say what sport it is, but if you love it so much, why wouldn't you want the option of being able to write about it and stay around it after you're finished?

For the record, you can come back after a break. I wouldn't listen to anyone who says it's impossible...
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:46 AM on August 8, 2014

I'll echo the above, especially the comments about the growing divide between a tinier-than-it-used-to-be set of journalists who write for markets that have money to pay for that quality of work, and the rest of the markets where rates are being driven down dramatically. Niche/trade is falling less swiftly than general journalism.

But things may change in 5 years and it may not always be bad. I have some practical advice to either highlight or add:

- echoing that sports journalism is probably your ramp back in, and there's a good long tradition there for that move. The good news is you can do longform sports and there's an online market for it from what I understand

- build your contact list as you go including all the PR people you deal with, anyone you have an interview with, producers, editors etc.

- build your portfolio whether that's through freelance or maintaining a professional site (doesn't have to be a blog.) I hope you are including video in that portfolio and keep up with the latest tools as you go. The Chicago Sun-Times laid off all its photographers in 2013 (29); this year they hired back 4 -- as multimedia journalists.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:15 AM on August 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm the editor of couple of niche publications that have nothing to do with sports, and when we had a staff writer and editor vacancy a couple of years ago, I was amazed that I got four or five responses from longtime sportswriters.

That may be anecdata, but I think it's a sign of what's happening in sports journalism -- if you're that active in your field, I'd say keeping a blog or writing occasional freelance pieces about it, just to keep your hand in.
posted by vickyverky at 12:00 PM on August 8, 2014

Can you say which sport? There's a huge difference between taking a hiatus for say, a career on the running track versus a pro football career.
posted by Borborygmus at 5:05 PM on August 8, 2014

No idea which sport you're pursuing, but could you write a longer form piece about your efforts, say a book?
posted by learnsome at 2:05 PM on August 10, 2014

Thanks, all. Sorry for the delay, dropping back in with some details. Some good help so far!

I'm keeping the sport close to my chest to try and help the conversation stay focused. That said, I can see how knowing which sport I'm in might help. It's not one of the big American sportsballing pastimes—it's a reasonably well-known of endurance sport.

And yep, I do for sure know how legacy media have been faring these last few years, and that's part of the reason I feel comfortable bailing on it for a while. I'm not too interested in working for a daily paper forever, anyway, and if / when I come back to journalism I'd ultimately be looking to do longform / magazine -type stuff—not that that's going to be any cake walk, either. Freelance writing has been on my mind for years, and double yep: I'm consigned to an unpredictable future of nomadic poverty.
posted by Chutzler at 10:22 AM on August 11, 2014

*details clarifications
posted by Chutzler at 10:56 AM on August 11, 2014

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