By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Startup news leaders tell journalism students how to get that first job

Maya McFadden of the New Haven Independent interviews Victor Joshua, founder of the youth basketball program Respect Hoops. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

I’ll be part of a panel tomorrow discussing job opportunities for new and recent journalism graduates. My role will be to talk about opportunities at the rising generation of local and regional news startups. I am not quite sure what to tell them, but more than anything I want them to know that they need to be resourceful.

About a dozen years ago, Thomas MacMillan told me how he got hired at the New Haven Independent, one of the original nonprofit digital-only local news sites. He was working at a non-journalism job and started doing some interning. He asked the editor, Paul Bass, how he could turn that into a staff job, and Bass’ unconventional answer was that MacMillan should write a grant to fund his position. MacMillan did it, got hired and, in my 2013 book, “The Wired City,” talked about the rewards.

“It’s really fun for me to feel like we’re on a rising star rather than a sinking ship,” MacMillan said. “There’s just something exciting about feeling like you’re working on the new paradigm, where you can experiment and try different things and people will occasionally take notice of what you’re doing.”

What I will tell students is that jobs at these startups are few and far between, but if you can land one, they come with great mentoring and, in some cases, surprisingly good pay. From my conversations with people, I’ve found that nonprofit boards and independent operators take their obligation to provide a living wage and benefits seriously. At the very least, journalists at these organizations are often making more than they would at a chain-owned newspaper.

Students can’t just expect jobs to open up, because that doesn’t happen all that often. Identify two, three or five that you’d like to work at. Get in touch and stay in touch. Cover some news for them — not for free, of course, but in most cases they’re not going to hire someone they don’t have a prior relationship with.

To prepare for the panel, I contacted an array of startup news folks to see what advice they would give to students. I present their lightly edited answers in full.

Larry Ryckman

Editor and co-founder, The Colorado Sun of Denver, a nonprofit digital-only news organization.

I always tell students this story: When I was a student 40-plus years ago, a journalist came to one of my classes and spoke.

“Don’t do it,” he told us. “You’ll never make a living in this business.”

Of course I did what any college student should do: I ignored him and did it anyway.

It reminds me that this has always been a tough business, and it always will be. That reporter’s newsroom is now a fraction of its former size.

And yet there will always be room for people who are passionate about journalism and are willing to work hard. We need new voices, new ideas, new perspectives, new energy.

I encourage students to read a lot, of course, and find writers they particularly admire. Deconstruct their stories and dig in to why they work (or, sometimes, don’t).

In terms of landing a job, this is obvious, but get as much experience as you can, in a wide variety of subject areas. Take on a trial. Learn how to cover cops and file records requests. Try your hand at business stories or sports. You never know. Back when I was that student, I told someone that I had no interest in being an editor — why would I do that when I loved being a reporter? Now that I look back on my career, I’ve spent far more time as an editor than as a reporter. So never say never!

Final words of advice: Have someone proofread your résumé and cover letter. You’d be shocked at how many typos I see in both, sometimes from experienced journalists. Don’t give a prospective employer any excuse to toss your application aside.

Paul Bass

Executive director of the Online Journalism Project and founding editor of the New Haven Independent of New Haven, Connecticut, a nonprofit digital-only news organization.

Focus on the work, not the status. Find a newsroom you want to work in — where people care about doing good work, care about their community and each other — rather than focusing on the prominence of the publication or what older people tell you is the best way to climb the professional ladder. Avoid private equity/hedge fund-owned media at all costs. And don’t worry! There are so many places where you can do work that matters. There has been no better time than now to be a reporter.

Paula Routly

Co-founder and publisher, Seven Days of Burlington, Vermont, a for-profit alternative weekly newspaper with a vibrant digital presence.

There are still many newspapers out there — like Seven Days — that are thriving against all odds. One of the oddest of the odds is that there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between the number of students who seek us out, looking for work, and our ever-mounting pile of national and regional awards.

I’d suggest graduating seniors do some proper research to find out where reporters are practicing great journalism. It won’t come up in a simple Google search, which will favor whatever outlets are in vogue right now. Look for hardworking newsrooms, wherever they may be. It might be in rural Iowa, on the Mexican border or in northwestern Vermont. My best advice is to go where you can learn from great editors and fellow reporters who can teach you how to find and shape stories, talk to sources of all stripes and write compelling tales that will impact the local community. Being a reporter in a small place proves what journalism can do. It’s hard work but you’ll make a difference: Nothing is more fulfilling.

To keep going, papers like ours need energetic young writers like you.

It took a while but we’ve got some good pipelines in place now that are supplying summer interns. We’ve got a good rep at Middlebury and have had a steady flow of students from there. Last year a sophomore from Yale found us by googling: “Great alt weekly in Vermont.” (Google “Great alt weekly in New England” and Seven Days doesn’t come up.) She turned out to be a very talented culture writer.

Currently we have a Report for America corps member, Rachel Hellman, who is about to start year #3 with Seven Days. Recent J-School grad Hannah Feuer came to us last summer from Northwestern on the recommendation of my friend James Bandler, who works at ProPublica. I don’t think she would have found us otherwise.

This summer we are expecting an intern from Swarthmore, also thanks to James Bandler, and finally, a student from Northeastern! A lit professor from Wellesley, who also happens to be a poet and critic, is trying to set up a funded internship too, specifically to help us. He knows and loves the paper.

Jennifer Lord Paluzzi

Veteran hyperlocal editor and publisher and, until recently, editor of The Concord Bridge of Concord, Massachusetts, a nonprofit print and digital news outlet.

My advice before senior year is to try to intern at one, naturally. I had an NYU student from Concord set for this summer. Be fluent in WordPress — chances are, the platforms are built on them. It wouldn’t hurt to show off your own work on a site you’ve built yourself.

There is no single model for a start-up. You may fall in with a group of frustrated journalists who want to reclaim former territory. It might be a bunch of older ladies from the League of Women Voters or a concerned group of suburbanites — there’s no promise that they know what they’re doing.

Have an idea of how municipal government functions. Learn about the crazy rituals of a New England town meeting. Know how to take pictures — for the love of God, shoot horizontals.

When you have the interview, go in with three story ideas. Do your research. Talk about ways to get the readers invested.

Bill Forry

Editor and publisher, the Dorchester Reporter of Dorchester, Massachusetts, a for-profit, family-owned weekly newspaper.

We certainly have a lot of experience hiring from graduate schools and undergrad. Here are a few concise thoughts:

  1. It helps when a prospect is familiar with the outlet. Spend some time reading their content and be somewhat conversant in their style, mix of stories, and the geography of the community they serve. It helps to set you apart from the pack. Don’t come in cold or send impersonal, boilerplate email intros.
  2. Have a portfolio easily accessible and curate the links so you self-select clips that will appeal to that outlet or editor.
  3. Be ready/willing to do a tryout. I prefer not to commit to a hire until I see in real-time how someone performs and fits-in to our flow, especially in a smaller shop.
  4. Know thyself. I like to ask prospects what they see as their strengths and weaknesses — and areas of interest. People tend to report/write better about topics that they are truly interested in. Generalists are always welcome, but if someone has a special interest or skill-set (language, cultural affinity, hobby, etc.) it’s a value-add.
  5. Don’t wait for a pitch. Even better, come in the door with a story you’ve already sketched out that could be a starter piece for that try-out. Editors like a self-starter, because (A) it makes our jobs easier, (B) it exhibits hustle and imagination, and (C) it can make for a fast turn-around for content. It doesn’t mean will swing at the pitch, but it shows me that you’re serious about scoping out your own story ideas from day one — which is super appealing in a prospect.
  6. Be persistent. Editors/publishers at all levels are swamped. Polite, persistent inquiries (emails and phone calls) show me that a reporter won’t settle for a no-response which is key to the job itself. Don’t harangue, but don’t give up either.

Even entry-level full-time jobs aren’t easily found or secured. The intern track remains a reliable way to get in the door with us. It’s frequently led to heavy freelance and part time roles and that’s the bench we look-to first when we make a hire. It’s a nerve-wracking journey, particularly for those without means and parental support, etc. We do offer monthly stipends to our interns, because even students shouldn’t be expected to work for free. Still, candidates at that level should expect to sacrifice and probably have a part-time role somewhere else and be ready to catch on at another outlet that does have an opening.

Anne Galloway

Founder and editor-at-large, VTDigger, a statewide digital nonprofit covering politics, public policy and accountability in Vermont.

I’d recommend that recent graduates demonstrate to potential employers, in interviews and application materials, an overriding sense of curiosity, a commitment to thorough reporting, and enthusiasm for learning the ropes from editors. Learn everything you can about the organization you’re applying to and be ready to ask questions about the company’s operations, editing process and training. Good journalists listen deeply. Show you have that capacity in interviews with potential employers. If internships are available, grab those opportunities and prove yourself along the way.

Howard Owens

Publisher, The Batavian, a digital for-profit news site that covers Genesee County in western New York.

When I interview anybody for a job I’m looking for the things I can’t teach:

  • Initiative.
  • Resourcefulness
  • News judgment

In today’s world, you will be working on your own a lot, perhaps even remotely (our next reporter position will likely be remote, from anywhere in the country, covering Batavia. So you have to be able to manage yourself, like an entrepreneur, take ownership of your job, and care deeply about getting it done right.

One thing I learned early in my career, not many reporters know how to get information if the first avenue proves closed. When blocked for access, a resourceful reporter says, “Who else can I ask?” “What documents can I seek?” “What other questions can I ask?” I’ve found that kind of thinking isn’t natural to every reporter and I think it is essential to be a good reporter, or a good employee of any kind.

I’ve also encountered young reporters who have no natural news judgment or who don’t have the burning desire to tell somebody something they don’t know. If those talents don’t come to you naturally, I don’t know how you’ll develop them.

I strongly believe every employee isn’t really an employee. They are the owners of Me Inc., their own company. They need to be willing to invest in themselves—read books, seek out further training, and never stop learning. It isn’t just about being more valuable to their current employer. It’s about being more valuable to yourself, putting yourself in a position to advance your career and earn more money.

At GateHouse, after I made that statement about “slackers,” I had to travel to New England and meet with the editorial staff. People were complaining about their new internet duties, and they didn’t seem to know how to do certain things, like process a photo for publication. I started to explain how you can download a trial copy of PhotoShop and teach yourself on your own time. An editor, a supporter of my efforts, cut me off with a warning that I was going in the wrong direction under the circumstances. [Owens at one time was director of digital publishing at GateHouse Media, a newspaper chain that later merged with Gannett.]

In hindsight, that’s bullshit. If you’re not willing to invest in yourself — read a book, learn new skills, do something anything that will help you do your job better, you’re not a professional. In that same meeting, a reporter made a statement along the lines that they shouldn’t have to learn new stuff because they already went to four years of college. I was flabbergasted. I don’t want “slackers” like that working for me, and I interview candidates to weed out the slackers. I’m happy to report all three of my current employees are great at managing themselves and eager to learn.

Ellen Clegg

Co-founder and co-chair, Brookline.News, a nonprofit digital-only start covering Brookline, Massachusetts. Ellen, of course, is also my co-author and podcasting partner.

My advice is this: Be open to taking risks at the outset of your career. Consider jumping into a startup news site, whether nonprofit, for-profit or a co-op. Stay as long as you’re learning and compiling a portfolio and getting your stories indexed on Google. Then plan your next move. This business has always been a bit precarious, but you’ll have an unparalleled chance to make an impact on a local level.

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1 Comment

  1. austinbulldog

    Since I get asked this question myself from time to time, this one’s a keeper. Thanks for sharing all this great advice.

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