My leap of faith into the world of media
By Thea Chard - USC Graduate in Journalism and Freelance Writer
I graduated college in 2009, among the first class to enter the American workforce amidst the recession. My major, print journalism, no longer exists without the addition of the word "digital" in the title. And gender, much to my surprise, plays a much larger role in my life and my work than I would have ever expected.
I tried not to make gender an issue, but despite my best efforts, sometimes the issue arose regardless. There was the manager that continually promoted less qualified (and less senior) male colleagues. There was the boss who accused me of being pregnant the one and only time I took a sick day and then fired me for it later. What can I say, it's tough out there ladies. But you knew that already.
Today the media landscape is vastly different from what it was when I was growing up, and even from when I graduated college seven years ago. Today we see more women and minorities in the media than we ever have before--we get more perspectives outside of the ubiquitous white male point of view, and that's great, but it isn't enough. In a 2015 study the Women's Media Center found that, as of 2014, male voices still dominated the media landscape with 62 percent of bylines and on-camera appearances in America going to male journalists. Look at the film and television industries and you'll see parallel statistics.
Telling the world's next generation of female leaders to "lean in" can be good advice, but in this ever changing and often perilous media landscape women need more. While my career has not yet reached it's peak (I hope), it has expanded far beyond what I'd imagined back in journalism school, and most of that growth can be attributed back to these eight tips that have helped me open myself up to new opportunities for these changing times.
1. Don't know something? Learn it!
Otherwise known as "fake it 'till you make it", this is one of the most valuable lessons I learned after graduating college. When I was first starting out on the job hunt there were a lot of skills interviewers asked me about that I, frankly, didn't have. What I did have was the confidence that, with a little time and a lot of determination, I could learn whatever I needed to get the job done and start racking up new skills in the process. Familiarity with Wordpress turned into experience with HTML, CSS and coding, and before I knew it I was helping clients design and roll out blogs and websites in conjunction with online marketing and PR work. I leveraged copywriting and editing experience from my days on my university's daily newspaper into book editing for indie authors looking to self-publish, and soon I was freelancing as an editor, designer, and marketer helping them package their books from manuscript to print and ebook. While this wasn't where I envisioned my career going, it gave me invaluable experience hustling in the media world, connected me with great contacts that have continued to open doors for me years later, and bolstered my own confidence that, with a few basic strokes, I could in fact jump into deep water and come up swimming.
2. Diversify yourself
Stack up experience. Fast. After you learn it, use it to your advantage to broaden your prospects. Then spin it on your resume to work for you.
When I got my first real journalism job out of college, I wasn't at all prepared to run a hyperlocal news site as the sole writer, editor, photographer and administrator, but I knew how to write, had my own copy of the AP Stylebook, and could snap a decent photo. My boss set me up with a Wordpress account and no rules outside of adhering to journalistic ethics, and before I knew it I was blogging like a pro and developed a huge local online following. Running that site, which to an outsider may have appeared like no more than a glorified neighborhood blog, led to a job as the assistant editor of the local bureau of a business and tech news startup.
In my experience, the people who have the most career mobility are often those who have made a series of seemingly lateral moves, scooped up new skills along the way, and turned into multifaceted powerhouses. Remember, job experience is the most valuable training you will ever have.
3. Say 'yes' often, say 'no' more
Be selective about the work you take. As you begin to collect new skills, you will find yourself becoming a more and more valuable commodity. Use that. Start to think about what each new opportunity could do for you. Be wary of unpaid internships--often times these gigs are intern mills that take advantage of free labor in exchange for the promise of "valuable experience" and "industry connections", which enable the business to save on labor costs for researchers, copy editors and administrative assistants. While this is not always the case, again, you must be selective. Your time is not valueless--a job should be a mutually beneficial arrangement for both you and your employer, and just like a bad relationship, it's always better to end a partnership that isn't serving you so that you may seek out another that will.
While spending a semester abroad in London, I worked as an intern for the London bureau of the Los Angeles Times, publishing a number of stories in The World section back home. While this had been an unpaid internship, the opportunity paid me in droves in terms of hands on experience, a "staff writer" byline, and solid clips from a reputable publication, which continues to reap benefits in my portfolio today.
4. Be vocal about what you want
Once you've taught yourself to be discerning and learn to say 'no' when need be, focus on setting yourself up for success by being as communicative as possible about your needs. If you're offered a job, don't be afraid to negotiate a higher price tag right off the bat--this shows gumption and potential employers will respect you for it (and will often negotiate and offer you a higher rate or salary). Remember, the media workplace is also a business and employers are always trying to get the most they can for the lowest price tag. Also, don't forget that we live in a country where women are still making 79 cents on the dollar to their male counterparts for equal work. For minority women the gender wage gap is even wider. If you're a woman who's managed to climb your way up the ranks and score a coveted job offer in the almost overwhelmingly male dominated media world, don't be afraid to articulate your worth to your employer--the worst that can happen is that they say no (though this is unlikely), and they definitely won't retract their offer.
5. Stick to habits that work for you
Everyone is different, and there are no hard and fast rules for productivity or efficiency. Whatever your work entails, by now you've likely figured out some of the habits that work best for you personally. I figured out early on that in order for me to be the most productive, I have to compartmentalize my work life and personal life. I try to keep my workspace clean so that while I'm working I can be as free from distraction as possible. I give myself a certain amount of time to read the news and check social media in the morning, along with a half an hour of free writing to clear my head, while I drink my morning coffee. When that time is up, I stop; if I don't, I'll sink half the day into reading articles and Tweeting and connecting online with other writers. I first started freelancing because I aspired to have a more flexible work life, and I do, but structure is still a huge part of my day--if it weren't, nothing would get done. I've met other freelancers that don't suffer from this same affliction. To them I say: "Good for you!" I'm jealous, but I don't try to emulate their habits. I know myself. Your best practices are first and foremost yours. If it works for you, do it; if it doesn't, toss it.
6. Don't be afraid to own your woman-ness
Women often get told to shelter their more feminine qualities and exhibit what could be perceived as a more masculine demeanor. Things like "Don't get emotional." "Never let them see you cry." "Don't take it so personally." And my personal favorite: "Don't be such a woman about it."
To that I say the exact opposite: be a woman. Why? Because that's what you are, and your innate woman-ness has absolutely nothing to do with your competence, ability, or skill. Beyond that, being a woman does not increase or negate your emotional capacity, just as being a man doesn't make you a stronger leader or more cunning business person. It's all a bunch of old-fashioned nonsense that has no place in the modern workplace. So how do we weed out the backwards ideas and expel them from the office for good? By embracing our woman-ness and not being afraid to own it. Be who you are, and let your competence and energy and talent shine through. The more we embrace our gender both in and outside of the workplace, the more our male counterparts will be confronted with powerful, strong leaders who happen to be women, and undercutting gender-based misconceptions is the key to changing the outdated narrative on women in the media and the workplace at large.
7. Keep in touch
They say it's not what you know, but who you know, and they say it for a reason. Truth be told, I am not at all a fan of networking, and participating in such events is a constant struggle for me. That being said, opening yourself up to others in your community is more than an invaluable practice; it's key. Talent can get you far, but talent has no value if it lives inside a vacuum. In the media world, your work is only as valuable as its potential reach. My seven-year-old clips from the Los Angeles Times have had greater longevity than any of my other work because the name they're attached to is a prestigious one. Just last week I cold-emailed an editor of a environmental nonprofit to inquire about writing for her publication. I fully expected not to hear back, and was pleasantly surprised when she responded within the hour. The first thing she noticed about my portfolio was that I had written for the LAT, of which she was also an alum. That's the reason she responded and that connection opened a door for me that may have otherwise stayed firmly shut.
Even if you prefer solitary writing time at home, try to get yourself to a networking event or two semi-regularly. Once you're there you'll find that the experience is not as shallow and opportunistic as one might fear. Most people are there for the same reason you are--because they're eager to connect with others in their field in a mutually beneficial way. You'll be pleasantly surprised to find that almost everyone you meet will be much more open than you might have expected. Once you make that connection, you can go back to it time and time again, for years to come. Just don't throw the business cards in a drawer and never follow-up. Keep in touch!
While we're working in a media landscape that is all about the now, remember that it's crucial to slow down--even shut down--and take a break every now and again, especially when you're juggling more than one demanding project at a time. If you find yourself overwhelmed, easily distracted, or slow going during the work day, consider taking a hiatus from your email and social media, maybe even turn off your WiFi and take a breather, clear your head, and find focus without the constant stream of tweets and emails, texts and instant messages.
At this moment I have six web browser windows open, each with anywhere from two to 30 tabs, and hundreds more saved in my bookmarks to be returned to later. I do this with the intention of going back to finish reading an article or researching a topic later, but the reality is there is simply not enough time in the day and I will more than likely never revisit most of them. Still, I remain optimistic. I open more tabs until my browser is so overwhelmed it can't load a simple Google search. Then I know it's time to purge. In those moments I have a drill that is my version of a hard reboot for my head: I close my email, shut down my Internet, turn off my phone and disable my WiFi, and for an hour or two I am often more productive than I have been for days. Sure there's an amount of catch-up and maybe an important email or two goes temporarily unanswered, but responding an hour later is a small price to pay for clarity of mind in your personal life and your work. Remember just because we have the ability to be connected all the time, doesn't mean we must.
Try Tip #7 and practice your networking skills at the next AWM SoCal Speed Mentoring event.
Chard is also a former AWM SoCal Speed Mentoring mentee:
"Speed Mentoring was one of the best networking experiences I had when I was first starting out. It taught me how to refine and polish a successful pitch and make more lasting and memorable connections in just a few short minutes. Plus, you'll meet a ton of people outside of your usual career circle, all of them interested in your goals and eager to help you on your path to reaching them. Definitely worth it!"
ResearchWhy Women Don't Apply for Jobs Unless They're 100% Qualified
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The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap (Fall 2015)
WMC DIVIDED 2015: THE MEDIA GENDER GAP