Life after J-school

Photo: Kheira Morellon

Photo: Kheira Morellon

Being a young journalist in Halifax is hard.

Damn hard.

Salaried jobs are non-existent. Freelancing seems to be the only source of income. Second or third jobs are often the only way people make ends meet. And all of this you wish you had known when you were 17-years-old, applying for journalism schools, taking out thousands of dollars in loans and making major life decisions before your adolescent mind reached maturity.

I don’t mean to sound like your parents, but what the hell were you thinking?

Now you’re in your final year and the end is near. Honours project, workshops, internship, then graduation. Four quick, easy steps and you’ll be an honest-to-God journalist in no time.

Yes, no time. Because by the time you finish reading this story, it’ll be May and you’ll be walking across the stage at the Rebecca Cohn, wearing your fur-hemmed gown, trying your best not to fall off stage.

Then what?

Well, if you’re lucky enough to find reporting or editing work elsewhere in Canada, I’d really like to hear about how you did it. Because trying to make it in Halifax has been the most depressing experience of my entire life.

I’ve been living in the “real world” for four months and does it ever suck.

Nothing they taught me in the J-school could have prepared me for the cut-throat world of daily reporting in Halifax. Internship and two work experiences later, and I’m finding it harder every day to be excited about the one thing I’ve devoted my life to: the art of story telling.

With all that said, I’ve gathered a list of things I wish I knew about journalism and the real world before chuckin’ up the deuce at King’s.

If you’re a potential journalism grad, and – for whatever reason – want to make it as a journalist in Halifax, take note:

1) Have a plan.

This can be said about anything in life. But if you’re used to floating through school and having your life handed to you, having a plan is pretty difficult to conceptualize and put into practice.

Really, all you need is a vision in your head of where or what you want to be by the time you walk out of the A&A building for good.

It can be overwhelming to think about the future. I had never imagined my life after J-school and in the final year of my undergrad I shielded my mind’s eye from visions of an eminent future as a non-student.

School was the only constant my whole life.

From the moment I could read and write, I was thrown into the assembly line; a conveyer belt that would carry me until I was a product ready to enter adulthood.

It can be especially difficult to plan your future if you’re feeling jaded and distant in your final year of university. I call it J-school burnout.

But if you still have that glimmer in your eye for telling stories, then I suggest you start thinking hard about what you want your life to look like after graduation.

Work toward that goal little by little every week, whether it’s putting money into a trip fund, or applying to a four-month summer internship, or figuring out a budget for when that student loan runs out.

And always adapt to changes in your plan when shit happens.

2) Network.

Like many small cities, jobs opportunities arise from local connections.

Your buddy’s buddy is a producer at CBC? You might want to give him your email and phone number. You’re on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook? Like, follow, retweet and direct message local journalists.

You might even be lucky enough to have friends in the field already. In this case, go get drinks with them. Talk about story ideas or projects you’d like to work on. Ask if you can volunteer or freelance where they work.

Find ways to make yourself useful. Put yourself at the top of everyone’s list of go-tos.

Ask local producers and managing editors if you can have a tour of their workplace. You’d be surprised how many news stations are eager to suss out new talent.

Make yourself a LinkedIn account and update it often.

Most importantly: know what’s making headlines in this city.

Keep up to date on current events, follow court cases, go to city hall for shits and gigs, snoop around Reddit for hot topics and emerging stories. Talk to your bartenders, baristas and bus drivers. Talk to people at the bus stop! Find stories no one else has and guard them with your life. Pitch them, freelance them.

Whatever you do, don’t stifle your curiosity.

If you’re timid and have trouble putting yourself out there, now’s the time to find ways to step out of your shell.

Editors are looking for outgoing, proactive, and self-motiving people who aren’t scared to pitch ideas, chase stories and work overtime.

3) No one is going to hold your hand – for real this time!

Say you get the job – wow congrats!

That’s the easiest part. The hard part is working and meeting your editor’s demands.

You think J-school profs are hard markers? Try working with some of Canada’s best senior managing editors on a busy news day in the middle of the hottest summer.

They couldn’t care less about your GPA or your extra-curriculars. They don’t have time for your belly-aching.

They are brutally honest, notoriously curt, and unapologetically impatient. If they don’t like your lead, they will tell you to rewrite it. If they don’t like your story idea, they will shoot it down.

They’re not being mean, they’re just making sure that you know what they expect and that you’re delivering it.

Working in a fast-paced, demanding news room can be tiring and, at times, downright discouraging.

You will work 10-hour days.

You will get frustrated with your editors.

You will re-write. And re-write. And re-write.

But, if your editors are worth their salt, they will buy you a coffee or a sandwich, give you a pat on the back, and reassure you that you’re doing an excellent job.

Failures are expected when you’re making it in this city (I mean how can you possibly expect me to remember how to spell Tatamagouche?). Editors are there to teach you how to correct those mistakes and become better journalists.

4) Know your worth.

There is a huge difference between healthy criticism and being treated like shit.

If you’re in J-school because you want fame and glory, this field is NOT for you. Journalists, especially today, are targets of intense scrutiny and abuse. And it’s not just from online trolls or Halifax councillors. It also happens in our news rooms.

Be attentive to how you’re being treated by your editors, publishers and older colleagues. Know when you are being taken advantage of. Know when your needs are not being met. Know your worker’s rights.

It’s okay to take your hour lunch break. It’s also okay to run to the bathroom seven times a day because you shot-gunned an extra large medium roast at nine in the morning.

It’s okay to ask to be paid fairly and to be compensated for working overtime.

Consult your human resources department if you’re unhappy, and stand up for yourself if you feel attacked for wanting your basic needs met.

Confide in co-workers you’ve developed a close friendship with. Talk to your family and friends.

Sometimes your dream job turns out to be a nightmare.

If you’re lucky enough to land a decent paying job as a journalist in Halifax, quitting seems like the most counter-intuitive thing to do. But, for the sake of your health and well-being, know that…

5) …It’s okay to quit.

If you’re genuinely unhappy with what you’re doing, where you’re working or who you’re working with – quit. If you have exhausted all possible resolutions to no avail – quit.

Journalism is a gig-based industry. Many publications in Halifax rely on freelance contributions. Freelancing provides convenient labour for companies that aren’t looking to pay wages or salaries. But it’s also a way for journalists to make a living and network within the industry without an allegiance to one publication. And in a place like Halifax, you can make up for lost wages by freelancing for places like The Coast, Halifax Magazine, The Chronicle Herald, The Canadian Press and Halifax Examiner.

There’s also no shame in working a full-time or part-time gig at the mall while you’re in between jobs.

If you aren’t already subscribed to Google Job Alerts, I highly suggest you do so now. Be on the lookout for new positions in this city on a daily basis and make sure your resume is up to date.

As long as you have the skills you need and the curiosity that fuels compelling stories, you’ll be successful no matter which publication or website you work for.

But, what if journalism just doesn’t do it for you anymore?

6) It’s okay to choose another career.

Remember what I said about J-School burnout?

You’ve made it so far, and yet, you feel absolutely unprepared. You feel incredibly stagnant and stale. Your well of creativity is completely dry. You couldn’t care less about big-J journalism, nor honours project. You couldn’t care less about graduating and you’re feeling resentful of your school, your professors and yourself.

Four years of J-school could never prepare you for this dreaded feeling. In fact, you may feel like four whole years of repetitive lessons, tireless work and unappreciated effort may be the cause of this funk you’re in.

That’s okay. That’s expected.

You owe Journalism nothing.

You owe your professors nothing.

You owe your friends and colleagues nothing.

You owe King’s nothing.

But, you owe yourself everything.

Take the LSAT. Take the MCAT. Get another degree. Get a job at the mall. Get a job in PR. Go live with your parents this summer. Pick up reading or the guitar again. Find yourself again.

But whatever you do, do not be disappointed in yourself if being a journalist isn’t what’s best or right for you.

You are not a failure.

The skills you’ve learned in J-school, believe it or not, are incredibly useful and in demand in other industries.

You owe it to yourself to find out what makes you happy, pursue that happiness and live your best life. If that means quitting journalism entirely, then so be it.