I am helping journalists leave journalism.
Who am I? Theola DeBose. I am a former Washington Post reporter. I went to community meetings and filed for the second edition. I interviewed grieving mothers after their children were murdered. I covered the Haiti earthquake while five months pregnant. I wrote about the East African slave trade in the Middle East while reporting from Iraq. I went to journalism school. I was ALL IN.
Until I wasn’t. Until I wanted to do more than watch and observe and write about other people taking action. I wanted to do the work. I left the newsroom behind and advocated for education choice. Then, I served in the Obama administration advancing the cause of public funding for arts and culture. Now I’m a consultant teaching others how to tell their story with purpose and an entrepreneur building a solution for journalism talent.
I love journalism. I love not being a journalist. Because of both, I am passionate about helping journalists leave journalism.
I love doing it because no one really is talking publicly about how to leave journalism. (And I am so drawn to the things that no one is focusing on.)
What I mean is that no one is talking publicly about the individual steps you want or need to take on a personal level to leave journalism and launch a new career.
Privately, sure. For support and tips, there are advice-seeking coffees or phone conversations, a scattering of career change panels at once-a-year journalism conferences (Search: Life After the Live Shot), even Facebook groups. Those are all good. But no one is talking in a public and sustained way about how to leave journalism and what it takes to do it successfully (Spoiler alert: I am!). And I believe that’s not happening for a couple of reasons.
Because there are just too many ever present headlines now, in the U.S. and around the world, about job layoffs and buyouts. And everywhere you turn there is seemingly another chock-full-of-data report released about job shrinkage in the media industry.
Journalists who get laid off face a special challenge about leaving journalism when it wasn’t their choice. Making a transition to something else is doubly harder in those cases.
In the face of that, the journalists who are left do what they do best — cover that news, share the resulting story headlines, commiserate when it happens to someone they know, and KEEP GOING. Their time is limited and they are working harder because news is incoming from so many sources, and they have to also do the work of their now-gone colleagues, so they focus on the next assignment and quietly and privately hope they are OK for a little bit longer. The work feels like a refuge and a yoke.
And when a core value of journalism is that you are a “Neutral Observer” — trained to all the time be thinking and concerned about the things that other people are doing — how can your workplace know or be able to support you in figuring out what’s best for yourself?
If that were the case, when your editor dispatched you to cover, say, an incoming hurricane, you would hear something like, “(Sigh.) This is probably not in your best interest because it could be life-threatening, but I’m really going to need you to head out there and make the most compelling, newsworthy hurricane photos so we have something to publish, please?” said no editor ever. I’m not saying that news organizations have never dispatched an employee into a dangerous situation without so much of a “Be careful.” Of course they have. But the gallows humor of the profession is summed up perfectly by longtime Miami Herald editor Martin Merzer in the guide to hurricane coverage note he would send to staff:
Again, don’t be an idiot. If you are hurt or dead, we can’t get your stuff online or into the paper.
In other words, stay safe because Duh, stay safe, AND because if you don’t, this whole journalism exercise is pointless because your work won’t be seen by anyone.
About now feels like the right time, in true journalistic fashion, to present the other side. Is career change really the responsibility of an organization or the individual? Journalists aren’t so unique, just look at other industries like taxicabs, coal mining, heck, U.S. manufacturing, where longtime workers are also being pushed out because of seismic industry forces they can’t compete with or control.
I would say first, that yes I agree, of course take ownership of your career; and also, I’m not talking about those industries, I’m talking about journalism. Second, a key difference is that in journalism, expressing any desire of wanting to leave the newsroom can be still be something of a dirty secret.
That’s the part of me that feels a little weird about helping journalists leave journalism. You’re not supposed to want to leave, right? Because…
It’s too important to our democracy.
It’s too exciting and unpredictable to find in any other experience.
It’s too special because of the access to people and places ordinary folks would never get.
The information we share is too vital to people and the choices they need to make about how to live their lives.
The afflicted need our storytelling to give them a voice.
We’re an inimitable club. Nobody else understands us better than we do.
When we do this right, it feels like a superpower to right a wrong through gathering information and bringing it to light.
All of those reasons are a million percent true. What’s also true is that they disappear the moment you get laid off.
Also, these reasons are completely irrelevant when you have that feeling in your bones that there’s something more for you, and that something is to live a life after journalism.
You know what I’m talking about. That’s why in the past six years you’ve called me and asked, How did you do it? You’ve solicited advice over coffee about how I increased my earning power post-journalism, and you’ve asked me to speak on your career change panels about going from a Washington Post reporter to an appointee in the Obama administration.
Talk to me about all the ways to leave journalism because there are a bunch of ways — become a psychotherapist, work in a university library, launch a company, or whatever else you choose to do after you start to ask yourself what you really want.
I have seen the ambivalence that journalists feel about even thinking or talking about leaving journalism, start to shift a bit because for the immediate future, the job shrinking will continue. And there are too many wonderfully talented, kind-hearted and passion-fueled journalists eager to create impact beyond the newsroom who want to learn how that’s possible. Because after journalism, you can still have what feels like a superpower to make the world a better place.
That’s why I’m super excited about Life After Journalism. I created an 8-week course that’s 100% online for journalists to get clarity and confidence to create and launch your Life After Journalism. I’ll teach you how to get your mind ready to make the change, how to read job descriptions, the techniques for positioning your journalism skills for new careers, and how to remix your résumé and cover letter, and get others to support you. (Join the mailing list).
Don’t figure it out alone. Get access to a network of journalists who are thriving in new careers.
I love helping journalists leave journalism because I know what it’s like to do it, and to do it well. I believe in your power to create amazing career change and to transform your life.