Next month, thousands of college journalists will graduate and start looking for work. Most of them won’t find any – because they listened to their professors.

Meanwhile, the editors at the student newspaper I advise regularly find media jobs, even though they attend a mediocre university with no journalism school.

Florida Atlantic University isn’t even the best institute of higher learning within an hour’s drive. That’s the University of Miami, which has a renowned j-school, an established SPJ chapter, and the Knight Foundation. FAU has better nicknames, though – the students call it “Find Another University” and “Finished and Unemployed.”

Yet the senior staff at FAU’s University Press finds just as much professional media work – and often more – than UM’s staff. How is that possible?

Simple: We know we suck.

Thinking your school doesn’t suck is actually the first big mistake college journalists make…


1. Believe what your school sells you.

While some universities are better than others, they’re all tied for first place in one category: Best Shameless Self-Promotion.

Every school in the country has “a rich tradition” with “respected faculty” whose “research will lead to the next generation of medical cures and technological advancements.” (That’s from just one page of the FAU website.)

College journalists are trained to be skeptics of hype and seekers of fact. But if they investigated their own chances of success, they’d be shocked into action – which is what three students have done at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The University of Missouri has the oldest j-school in the country, and arguably one of the best. But as the editors of the J-School Buzz blog learned a couple months ago, half their grads can’t find work.

The J-School Buzz doesn’t really explore the reasons for this, maybe because they’re obvious: j-schools are teaching skills for jobs that no longer exist.

Last summer, the University of Georgia’s Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates [PDF] found, “Only 46.2 percent of the bachelor’s degree recipients had a job on Oct. 31, 2009, which was more than 10 percentage points fewer than a year earlier.”

Most damning was this…

Four in 10 of the graduates said there were specific skills they wish they had acquired as a part of their studies that they had not acquired. …Many of the graduates said that the jobs that were available required skills they did not have or that they acquired on their own initiative.

Time to take your own initiative.


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

When you realize most of your professors have never worked in the ever-morphing media industry you’re graduating into, you start thinking for yourself. At the University Press, we started teaching ourselves. Here’s one small but successful example…

We hold 15-minute writing meetings. New writers bring in one story they like and one story they hate, from any professional print or online publication. In other words, they search for a piece of writing so good they’re jealous of it, and one so bad they’re angry about it.

We read these stories aloud – but only the headline, deck, lead, and nut graph. We deconstruct Real World writing. Why does that lead sing and the other one grate? Answers must go deeper than, “It rocks” and “It sucks.”

We hold similar meetings for photographers and designers, and I urge the entire staff to do this same sort of rapid-fire analysis on their own time. Why? Because you can earn a journalism degree these days without actually reading much professional journalism.

Your tuition is not enough to guarantee you a job. These 10 words foreshadow every other blunder on this list.


2. Don’t work at the college newspaper until you’re a senior.

Every January for the past 12 years, at least one FAU Communication senior has strolled into the UP newsroom for the first time and asked, “Hey, I hear you help get people jobs. I’m graduating in May. Can you help me get some clips so I can get a job?”

They’re usually shocked at my answer: “No.”

I tell these seniors to do the math…

1. The UP prints weekly, which is 15 times a semester.
2. It’ll take you at least two weeks to report, edit, design, and publish your first story.
3. That story won’t be good enough for a clip. Neither will the next three.
4. That leaves you less than 10 issues to get 4-6 quality clips.
5. You’re not the only one vying for good assignments. You may be a senior, but younger writers have seniority.

Only once has a graduating senior worked at the UP and landed a journalism job a dozen weeks later.

Her name was Lindsay, and in 2007 – in the middle of her senior year – she decided to become a photographer.

I told Lindsay she’d have to work harder in one semester than the rest of the staff does in two years. And she did. Damn near killed her, but she shot her guts out and landed a photo job at a local chain of community newspapers. This was one of her first assignments.


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

When I ask seniors why they’ve waited so long to come to the UP, the most common reply is, “I didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the paper until now.”

And when I tell them this, I can actually see their spirit get crushed…

That’s too bad, because if you had come in sooner, I would’ve told you: You can work here as much or as little as you want. Only the editors have to eat, breathe, and crap the place. Student newspapers aren’t fraternities – you don’t pledge them. You could’ve kept your outside job or your heavy class load or your boyfriend and just written a couple stories a month. No one would’ve judged you.

Maybe every college newspaper isn’t as tolerant as we are, but I can tell you this: No college newspaper is so flush with talent it can afford to turn away students who want to work hard. So go there. Right now. Stop reading this and go.


3. Don’t ever work at the college newspaper – because it sucks.

Every so often, I visit Communication classes and recruit for the paper. Each time, I hear this: “I don’t want to work there because it kinda sucks.” And each time, I reply: “Of course it sucks.”

Then I explain…

Whenever the UP flirts with excellence and wins national awards – and it has – those award-winning reporters, designers, and photogs land great freelance gigs and full-time work. And they leave. Then the paper self-destructs and we start over. That’s the precise time you need to start working there – when everyone is new and crappy.

Think about it…

1. A veteran, award-winning staff is going to hoard all the good assignments and not share any with you.
2. You’ll never hear this when the paper stinks and everyone is green: “Yeah, we don’t do things that way.”
3. It’s easier to move up and pad your resume when you’re as new as everyone else.
4. If you get good clips, no one needs to know all the stories around yours reeked – although you’d be better off if they did. Read on for the explanation.


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

At the UP, we boast about our weaknesses. And our editors get hired.

After the paper plummets every year or so, I tell the new editors to save the last sorry-ass issue before they took over. Whenever they go for an internship or job interview, it goes, too – along with the best issue under their command.

As a former hiring editor myself, I remember my major concern with journalism majors: Can they carry the workload, or did their colleges carry them? Are they good, or did they just get good editing?

When our newsroom leaders sit down for an interview, they wait for the right moment to whip out those two issues, lay them down side by side, and say, “Well, it looked like this when I took over. Now it looks like this.”

Works every time.


4. Leave your college paper because it runs like crap.

When students desert the UP, this is almost always why…

That place is a friggin’ mess. Everyone blows deadlines, no one gets along, and my story/photo/design always gets screwed up somewhere along the way – but no one can tell me how or why it happens. It’s pure chaos in there, and I’m sick of it.

And I almost always reply: “Yeah, you pretty much nailed it.”

Then I tell them three things…

1. I’ve worked for a Top 50 daily newspaper, two alternative weeklies, three national websites, and an international monthly magazine – and it’s been chaos everywhere.
2. Especially in the Wild West that’s now the media business, you better learn how to choke down some chaos.
3. Chaos can get you hired. Read on.


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

If you’re lucky enough to land a face-to-face job interview, you’ll likely get asked a variation of this question: “Tell me a war story.”

What your potential boss wants to hear is a tale of woe – your personal story of triumph over adversity. Pity the poor grads who hail from an established j-school whose newspaper is a lab class edited by placid professors, and whose most traumatic newsroom moment is learning the janitorial staff moved all the AP Stylebooks.

I remember when our art director Stefanie graduated in 2006. She had quite the war story to tell: She was designing a textbook on seashells – we take any freelance work we can get our grubby little hands on, from designing a quarterly croquet magazine to writing press releases for tennis tournaments – and she was just about finished. Then, of course, someone deleted it. And the backup.

After Stefanie finished freaking out, and all attempts at recovery failed, she stoically sat back down and worked nearly 48 hours straight to recreate the textbook in time for deadline. When I wrote her a letter of recommendation, I retold this graphic design disaster in graphic detail – as did Stefanie in her job interview. And she nailed it.

Embrace the chaos.


5. Write lots of little stories.

Even if you attend a renowned j-school, work at an award-winning student paper, excel in all your writing classes, and land a couple quality internships, you’re still not guaranteed to beat out an FAU editor for a media job.

Here’s your problem: You’ve written more than 100 stories, but they’re all the same.

Half are straight news, half are soft features. Maybe a couple of each are longer than 10 inches and won an award from your state college press association or regional SPJ contest. Maybe you even won a national award for a killer clip.

What else you got?

This is counter-intuitive, but it’s true: To land an entry-level media job that will require you to write 10-inch stories, you need more than 10-inch clips.

As a j-school grad, you’re expected to have mastered the basic news and feature story. After all, accounting majors don’t apply for entry-level jobs by touting the fact they can add and subtract.

Your potential boss is going to hire you based on, at most, a dozen clips. With more grads applying for fewer jobs, do your clips impress?


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

At the UP, we offer a carrot if you stick around long enough. When you learn how to write, shoot, and/or design the typical (and typically dry) stories about campus festivals and Student Senate meetings, we put you in charge of an entire issue of the paper.

Almost always, there’s one writer and one designer. The rest of the staff chips in for copyediting and general support, but that’s it. We work on these issues slowly over many weeks and publish them when no one feels like working: spring break, midterms, and finals.

I call these “thump clips.” When you’re one of three finalists for a job, and after you’ve told your war story, you wait for the appropriate moment to drop your entire 16-page issue on the editor’s desk. It goes thump.

Last month, our features editor interviewed at The Palm Beach Post for a weekend sports job – basically, answering phones and writing up high school football game blurbs. Alyssa brought her special issue on FAU sports clubs. She told me the conversation proceeded pretty much as it usually does. Something like this…

Editor, flipping pages: “So what did you write in here?”
Alyssa: “Everything.”
Editor: “What?”
Alyssa: “I wrote all the stories and worked with a designer on the layout. I oversaw the deadlines and the copyediting and proofing, too.”
Editor: “How long did this take you?”
Alyssa: “We worked on it a little bit at a time over a couple months. I still did my regular work and went to class.”

Alyssa didn’t get the job. This fall, they told her they want to hire her for a better one.


6. Start a personal blog.

Here’s a paradox I’ve never figured out: journalism students will flee the UP because it doesn’t pay enough (at best $15 per story) and no one reads it (our circulation is under 5,000 on a main campus of 20,000-plus), so they go home and launch a personal blog.

Maybe they think this will highlight their writing and web skills. But I’ve yet to see one that resulted in gainful employment. Here’s why…

1. Media is still a collaborative industry. Even if you work at home (as I now do), you still need to play well with others. Most student blogs are solitary WordPress sites.
2. Because it’s just one misguided student on a Macbook, these blogs are rife with misspellings, poor grammar, and formatting errors. So instead of helping them find work, their blogs doom them.
3. Hiring editors don’t care what you think, they care what you do. Most student blogs are all opinion, no reporting. Sorry, you haven’t lived long enough to comment on anything worth a regular paycheck and health benefits.


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

If you have time to create and maintain your own blog, volunteer for an existing media operation. You’ll not only learn a new way of doing things, you’ll earn an extra reference on your resume.

But if you’re hell-bent on starting a personal blog, do it like Dori.

One of our former editors, a Rubenesque woman named Dori, created Fat Kids Club, a site that pays her nothing but has earned her freelance work and even some local fame.

Dori does it right: She focuses on one topic she cares about (food/drink), she interviews sources, she markets her product (more than 1,100 Twitter followers), and she freelances for local publications that realize she knows her foodstuff.


7. Don’t spend time or money on SPJ.

I know, I know. You think it’s funny: “The Society of Professional Journalists? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Har har har.” You won’t be laughing when you’re a professional waiter at PF Changs paying off five years of j-school.

I was president of the University of Florida’s SPJ chapter in the 1980s, I’m president of the South Florida pro chapter right now, and in between I served two years on the national board. So I feel qualified to tell you this: SPJ is just about as screwed up as the UP. And that’s why you should join.

If you have a campus chapter, chances are you can become president in a matter of months. Hell, no one else wants to do it. It’s another resume line, even if you accomplish nothing. But you can do a lot – especially if there’s no campus chapter at all.


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

We don’t have an FAU chapter because our Communication school doesn’t teach enough journalism classes. But that’s fine by us. SPJ is a greedy investment: Our editors pay $36 a year, and they get hundreds spent on them.

For instance, the current EIC already has a good war story, thanks to an SPJ-funded program: Gideon was one of 18 college journalists from around the southeast United States to take over a homeless shelter newspaper and fill it, cover to cover, in a single stressful weekend. It was called Will Write for Food.

And after this month, he’ll have another, as he converts the University Press into the Unethical Press.

So imagine you’re competing for a media job against Gideon, who already has a couple special issues, a couple investigative clips, and a couple innovative SPJ programs to call his own – and he’s not even a senior yet. Feeling good about your chances?


8. Focus on your grades.

Journalism is one career that doesn’t require a college degree. We’re not lawyers or doctors – we don’t need to be licensed and certified. Hell, hairdressers need to take a test before they can give you a trim, so you can make a compelling argument that beauty school is more important than journalism school.

As a former hiring editor myself who still chats with other hiring editors, I’ve never heard this: “A high GPA trumps good clips. Give me a salutatorian with a half-dozen eight-inch stories, and I’ll give ’em a job!”

One recruitment editor at a major newspaper down here in South Florida – and we have three Top 100 papers, so I’m not outing a source – once told me, “Clips come first, but good grades break a tie.”

In other words, a higher GPA separates two equal candidates. And to be clear, if you don’t have a college degree, better have a good reason why. But since you don’t need to list your GPA on your resume – unless, of course, it’s impressively high – it’s in your greedy self-interest to sacrifice a couple tenths of a point for some kick-ass clips.


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

I advise young UP staffers who have not declared their major to consider anything but journalism.

They can take the few helpful journalism classes as electives and major in something that interests them. Our last EIC is wrapping up her Spanish Studies major, but she’s already working professionally as a copyeditor – in English. I don’t think her boss even knows what her major is. Or cares.

And forget minoring in anything. No one outside academia gives a damn, and it’s just more time away from actually doing journalism.


9. Look for jobs in all the usual places.

Here’s an ironclad promise: If you’re serious about working in the media, you’ll have at least one job you don’t know exists right now, and another that hasn’t been invented yet.

Weirdly, journalism schools don’t teach you how to find a journalism job. If yours has a career center, it’s usually nothing more than a few job postings that employers emailed there. Remember the J-School Buzz blog from Missouri? It had a lot of fun with the j-school’s career center peddling, “Careers with McDonalds.”

Besides recruiting you for slave-labor internships – “universities have become cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom,” The New York Times reported last week – j-schools simply hand you a diploma and wave goodbye.

Even prisoners get bus fare when they’re released. So as I said at the beginning, “Time to take your own initiative.”


What we do (and maybe you should, too)…

I urge UP staffers to scrutinize www.southfloridamediajobs.com at least once a month. You should, too. Even if you hate Florida.

If you don’t want to work down here, why should you give a crap about media jobs on the southern tip of this particular peninsula? Because it’s my website.

Don’t worry, I’m not trolling for clicks. SFMJ has no paid ads. In fact, the site costs me money. What makes it special is that it’s free – free to peruse for a job and free to post a job. That makes it more complete than JournalismJobs.com and Media Bistro, or even Monster.com and Career Builder.

I scour those and government and corporate sites each week, and up to a third of the postings can come directly from employers. So if you scan SFMJ every so often, you might find an intriguing career path you never knew existed.

One of our EICs discovered her dream job that way. In 2007, Rachael graduated and got hired covering night cops at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Top 50 newspaper. She hated it. A religious woman, she saw a SFMJ posting for staff writer at a Christian charity.

Now she travels to vacation hotspots like Haiti and Ethiopia, visiting the clinics supported by the charity. She writes, she shoots, she scores.

She once told me those three little words all advisers love to hear: “I am happy.”

Happy in journalism at the height of the recession. Imagine that.