An illustration of two old ladies playing pool

Updated August 1, 2017. But that doesn’t matter. The truth below exists outside the space-time continuum. Maybe that’s why this post has been viewed 81,987 times.

EVERY JUNE AND DECEMBER, thousands of college journalists 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. 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 offer “artistic and intellectual vibrancy” with “an exciting and supportive learning environment” and “an attractive array of accommodations.” (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 learn some hard news.

In 2009, the University of Georgia’s  Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates 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.

In 2013, the University of Georgia once again polled the nation’s j-schools. Turns out 2009 was a good year, in retrospect…

The slight recovery since 2009 in the job market for graduates of the nation’s journalism and mass communication programs has stalled. Bachelor’s degree recipients from journalism and mass communication programs around the country in 2013 reported the same level of job offers as a year earlier, the same level of employment as did 2012 graduates, and the same level of success in finding work that is in the field of professional communication. Employment tracked on a monthly basis during the November 2013 to May 2014 period was flat. Salaries received by bachelor’s degree recipients were unchanged from a year earlier, as, for the most part, were benefits offered.

Not surprisingly, the University of Georgia stopped doing this survey.

What we do (and maybe you should)

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 19 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 biweekly, which is 7-8 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 2-3 issues to get 4-6 quality clips.

“But I can write for the website!” they protest. “There’s no limit to stories on a website.”

True,  but there’s a hard limit on the best assignments and the best editors. You may be a senior, but younger writers have seniority. They’ll pluck the juiciest fruit and leave you to rake up the leaves.

What we do (and maybe you should)

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 reply, 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 that 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)

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 hiring editor myself, my major concern with journalism majors is this: Can they carry the workload, or did their colleges carry them? Are they good, or did they just get good editing?

When our graduating UPers 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 none of those clueless assholes can tell me how or why it keeps happening. 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, four 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)

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 cleaned the iMac with paper towels and left streaks on the monitors.

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 (literally) 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)

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 “thwack 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 20-page issue on the editor’s desk. It goes thwack as it hits the table.

A few years ago, features editor Alyssa 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. They told her they want to hire her for a better one. A few years later, Alyssa was hired as the full-time sports editor for a chain of weeklies. She wasn’t yet 30 years old.

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 3,000 on a main campus of 25,000-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’ve done on and off for nearly two decades), 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.

What we do (and maybe you should)

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 paid her nothing but has earned her freelance work and even some local fame.

Dori did it right: She focused on one topic she cared about (food/drink), she interviewed local sources, she marketed her product (more than 1,100 Twitter followers at its height), and she freelanced for local publications that realize d she knew her foodstuff. She just had a baby, and she’s freelancing from home, using connections she made years ago.

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 past president of the Florida pro chapter, and I’m currently serve 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 or even weeks. 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)

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, one EIC got two good war stories thanks to SPJ-funded programs. 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.

A year later, he converted  the University Press into the Unethical Press. He was paid to violate as many tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics as he could.

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 did all that before he was a senior. 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 hiring editor who 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 former 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 will 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, you 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 few tenths of a point for some kick-ass clips.

What we do (and maybe you should)

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. One of our previous EICs  was a Spanish Studies major and landed a job as a professional copyeditor – in English. I don’t think her boss at the time ever knew what her major is. Or cared. Now she’s a business reporter.

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. And many of those recruit you for slave-labor internships.

“Universities have become cheerleaders and enablers of the unpaid internship boom,” The New York Times reported in 2011. It’s gotten worse since then.

These days, j-schools charge you tuition to become an indentured servant, then they hand you a diploma and wave goodbye. Even prisoners get bus fare when they’re released.

What we do (and maybe you should)

Few UP grads become ink-in-the-veins journalists. But many of them use journalism in careers they love. They often stumble upon these careers by accident, and they often feel like guilty failures for not sticking with newspapers.

In 2007, Rachael graduated from the UP and got hired covering night cops at the South Florida Sun Sentinel, a Top 50 newspaper. She hated it. There was neither nobility nor reward in writing about bloody pools of blood every night. She wanted to be a journalist to make a difference.

A religious woman, Rachael  reluctantly applied for staff writer at a Christian charity. She fretted the charity wouldn’t value good writing and reporting. A few months into the job, she told me she had more editorial freedom there than at the Sun Sentinel.

Rachael traveled to vacation hotspots like Haiti and Ethiopia, visiting rickety clinics supported by the charity. Her bosses love her brutally honest coverage – because it helped them solicit more donations.

A few years later, Rachael quit. Instead of writing about clinics, she wanted to work at one. She went to medical school. She just recently graduated. Was her college journalism experience really a waste of time?