reporter+academia: is the best of both worlds possible?
May 1, 2015 1:01 AM   Subscribe

After finishing my dissertation, I successfully applied to become a reporter at a newspaper. I'm liking the work as well as the flexibility and connectedness that allows me to apply what I researched (political theory/discourse analysis) in my writing--I'm wondering how I can better conceptualize my future career path. (Details within)

A few months ago, I finished writing my dissertation. It will now take the committee more than 3 months to review it before I'll have a oral defense. During the protracted time it took me to finish (5 and a half years) I ended up reevaluating my prospects in the academic world. I wanted some fresh air after submitting and became a reporter for a medium sized, English language paper in my country.

For the last two months I have done well as a local reporter- my pitches are usually accepted; in addition to more mundane stories I write political analysis and will also join the editorial rotation soon. For most days, I leave work tired, but feeling a sense that I'm doing something meaningful--much more so than when I was in the ivory tower. My boss also has incorporated a few of my insights to the organization.

However, I never imagined journalism to be part of my long term career plans--I hardly know anything about the field, and though I like my current work arrangements, I don't imagine I will stay there forever (turnover is quite high). To me, it so far has been an opportunity for growth and I'm grateful that it the work has continued to pique my curiosity.

My very general question is: how do I navigate the journalistic career path, besides learning by doing, improving my writing, expanding my sources? What should I be keeping my eye out for aside from positions at more reputable organizations?

Perhaps more specifically: other than using the theories that I used in my doctoral research, is there a more concrete way I can use my (hopefully soon to be) doctorate degree to my advantage?

Thank you for your insights!
posted by wallawallasweet to Work & Money (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you're thinking you actually want to continue as a newspaper reporter, the ideal would probably be to stay where you are for a year or two until you are rock solid on the basics and could write a perfectly-structured news story in your sleep. Also continue to develop your skills as a comment writer while you're there.

Then either take any reporting job at a bigger paper in your country as a step in the door and make it clear that you have expertise in political analysis and are aiming to work your way up to that, or use your combined political/academic background and expertise in your geographical area to punt yourself around as an expert to papers elsewhere in the world, most likely as a stringer (freelancer). I might not have this right, but I'm imagining, for example, that you're in Moscow, writing for the English-language Moscow Times, and could sell stories about Russia to papers in the UK or US.

That kind of work is generally freelance so might be something you can combine with academic work, but I've no idea how common/feasible that is so will let others weigh in. I'm afraid I also don't know how much of this work there is/what it pays but start looking out for the names of the people writing about your locality in major national English language papers around the world and see how often their names appear.

Can you tell us where you are?
posted by penguin pie at 1:59 AM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sarah Kendzior is a good person to look up. She finished an anthropology PhD. And is now freelancing for a number of magazines, papers, and websites about her research area, academia, labor issues, and a lot of stuff about systemic racism and inequality, especially in St. Louis where she did her PhD. She's written some advice for making that transition as well.
posted by ChuraChura at 2:58 AM on May 1, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips so far~
@penguin pie, I'm in the Asia-Pacific, so maybe the Asian Wall Street Journal?
posted by wallawallasweet at 6:50 AM on May 1, 2015

Best answer: Hello, are you me? I've recently made this exact same career transition, and have been working full-time as a journalist for about 18 months after almost 10 years in academia.

I still teach about one class as an adjunct every semester, to "keep my hand in the game," and that's worked out pretty well. A little extra money for not too much work (I've only taught classes that I'd already prepped; I don't get enough money as an adjunct to create new classes), and my editor has had no problem with it, so long as I submit my stories on time. Which I do.

My field is film studies, and my editor has encouraged me to play to my strengths, so I've created a film column for my paper. That's been really fun for me. I've enjoyed the challenge of doing occasionally "advanced" film analysis and presenting it in an accessible way.

While I can't speak for my editor, I think she appreciates the fact that I, like many current and former academics, am inquisitive about many subjects and have good research and time-management skills. So I've been able to propose stories on many and varied topics, and have been given some de facto managing editor tasks to undertake, as well. I see both of these things as increasing my value to the company.

I'm not sure if I've addressed your questions, though. Can I answer anything more specific?
posted by Dr. Wu at 6:52 AM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: (promise I'll stop thread sitting after this)

Dr. Wu~ that's just what I wanted to hear: that it's possible to manage teaching duties and also to be a reporter at the same time, except that you have much more experience academia than I do~ I wonder if it's possible to come at it (both being a reporter and teaching at the university level as an adjunct) while one is still relatively green at both ends. Perhaps I'll have to choose one over the other, at least at first? Does your role as a reporter also factor in a bit with your teaching?

Thanks again!
posted by wallawallasweet at 7:12 AM on May 1, 2015

Best answer: You don't seem like you're threadsitting! Just having a conversation.

I wouldn't think you could be both a reporter and a prof if you were doing both full-time. At least, that's not my experience, and, as I say, I'm a fairly good manager of my time. I think it'd only be tenable if you were a full-time prof who freelanced as a reporter, or a full-time reporter who, like me, teaches on the order of 1-2 adjunct classes per semester. I taught 2 adjunct courses about a year ago, and found myself pretty stretched thin, but it was doable. Again, though, I have not designed any new courses in this context, because that's a huge time commitment. I've also been fortunate that all my classes have had fewer than 16 students.

I wouldn't say that my role as a reporter has had much to do with my teaching, no. My journalistic work hardly even comes up in the classroom.

At this stage of your career, you're doing yourself a favor by developing a diverse set of professional skills. The academic job market is a foul-temper'd beast, and it's a great boon to you to have another career to "fall back on." I'd imagine you'd find rewarding full-time journalism work before you find a rewarding full-time academic job: first college teaching jobs are often short-term. So my advice would be to stick with the journalism (if you enjoy it, of course!) for now, and apply to any academic jobs that interest you whenever they are posted. If you can make a living with journalism, you'll be covered in case you have bad luck on the academic job market. And, hey, if you find that perfect academic job, it sounds like you'll be OK with leaving journalism.

Ultimately, as one of my grad school profs said, the main responsibility of an academic (depending on your field) is writing. If you are at ease writing in different modes and for different audiences, it can only help you develop your overall writerly skills. Lots of academics write for popular publications that intersect with their areas of expertise.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:36 AM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There is a real need in journalism for people who can translate academic ideas into readable, engaging prose (often narrative.) That's how Malcolm Gladwell makes his living, because he does it so very well. It's true it's harder to do that in traditional formats, but in reality (in my experience) editors are really hungry for great ideas, told well, and that's still true. I've gotten assignments from big magazines based on little more than an idea and evidence that I can write! (Sometimes that worked out, in one major case, it didn't, but hey! I got my foot in the door!) A lot of editors will just hope you can execute it. AND you don't always need the gatekeeper -- there are awesome websites and platforms (Kindle Singles, etc.) that always appreciate great writing.

Where this is leading is that you can try to freelance pitch an idea (not sure what your area is, so this might matter) that's in your field that you think you can translate somehow to journalism. So if your doctorate is in biology, you may be able to report in a really interesting way on some intriguing aspect of your work. Think Radiolab in print! And you'd be surprised how you can get attention from magazines like The Atlantic, by emailing with a good pitch. Good pitches take a LOT of work, but it's do-able.

Also, I've been told (don't know from personal experience, so YMMV) that it's actually easier to get a book contract than a feature article in a big magazine. Is your doctorate something you could turn into a book for the popular culture?

In short, on the side, considering trying to reach bigger to get a better platform, and still maintain your academic street creds.
posted by caoimhe at 8:39 AM on May 1, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much, your responses have given me a boost of confidence on how to approach the next year or so to hone my writing skills.

Finally, if anyone is still out there, what are the prospects of publishing articles on academic journals when one isn't affiliated with a university/academic/research body?
posted by wallawallasweet at 2:44 AM on May 2, 2015

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