So, you're a new photojournalism graduate in the real world of unemployment you've heard so much about. Welcome to the party — it's a packed house. This party isn't super fun, and you might be here longer than you had hoped, but live it up while you're here. While you were schlepping your way through internships and driving back and forth across the country for opportunity after opportunity, maybe you thought to yourself, "Hey, settling down would be nice." Or, "I'd really like to get my dad off my back." Or, "I'd just like to adopt a cat and decorate a low-rent apartment and stay in one place for awhile. Maybe paint a wall."
If you've thought any of these things, well, you might be me. I thought all of these things. Also, do we have the same dad? But thinking about getting a job and bridging the gap to actually making it happen, to actually going to a place where you're happy is an enigmatic puzzle filled with mystery and compromise and a lot of "I don't know what I'm doing but I'm going to go for it."
This blog post isn't about how to get a job. Hopefully they prepared you for that in J-school, or art school, or that state school you went to where you got an English degree but now want to get into journalism. You know the drill — work your ass off, take pictures with awesome light and awesome moments and awesome composition, tweet a lot of nonsense, put together a portfolio you secretly loathe, write a resume that turns "Proficient in Microsoft Word" into "Computer Science minor," and apply for a million internships and contests and grants. That's the formula that's going on these days, right? (Just kidding, don't lie on your resume).
But maybe you've tired of internships, or you can seriously not afford to do them anymore, and you thought about freelance, but somehow you're sort of masochistic and want to apply to be a staff photographer at a newspaper, even if it's in Wyoming. If you're at that phase, I'm here to impart my not-super-wise wisdom.
There are many facets to finding the right paper, but let me warn you first off — I am not experienced. I am not a veteran of the news industry. I am a lucky person who apparently can write interesting cover letters and apply to a lot of places and then, upon getting a phone interview, entrance employers with my knowledge of Facebook. I'm just a girl in her 20s at her first job who wished she had known a lot of things about finding a job when she was trying to find a job.
Benefits: Let's start with the boring stuff you need to think about when you're in the interviewing process. Sorry, you're an adult now. The fun is over.
When you're looking at your job, you should hopefully be receiving some benefits. Most of the packages are pretty standard — two weeks vacation, holiday pay, health insurance (maybe dental and vision), relocation bonuses and 401k packages. You can decide how important these things are to you if they're, for some reason, not offering them. Also, keep in mind, if you're under 26, you may qualify to stay on your parents' health insurance (if they'll let you). Thanks, Obama.
Also, check into little amounts that might add up. Do you have to pay for parking at work? How much do they pay for gas mileage? Also, try to get an estimate on how much you'll be paying in for health care, because all of these things will greatly affect your take home pay.
401k: While I was contemplating writing this post, I asked a few of my friends who also hold staff jobs at newspapers to tell me what they wish they would've known when they were interviewing at papers. Jason Lenhart, who is a fellow Mizzou grad, wrote a lot about 401ks. He also sadly told me things that I didn't even know about my own 401k. See how I'm totally not qualified to be writing about this?
Ask if your company matches 401k contributions and, if so, up to how much. For example, many companies will match your 401k up to 5 or 6%. So, if you put 5% of every paycheck into your 401k, the company will match those contributions, doubling the amount. Free money! Except, not always. Jason writes about vesting (the thing I didn't know about).
There are two types of vesting — cliff and graded. In cliff vesting, the company sets the amount of time you must be with the company in order to get your 401k matched contributions. It depends on the company for how long this is — it could be one year, or the federal maximum is three years. There's also graded vesting. Jason writes, "In graded vesting, the company lays out a time-line where you earn percentages of that free money. The max allowed by federal law here is 6 years. For instance, your company may grant you 10% of the free stuff after the first year, 20% after the second year, etc. etc. Leave before you are 100% vested, and you lose the percentage that you weren't vested in." Or all of it, if it's cliff vesting. Womp womp.
Overtime/comp time: Another big thing you should be asking about is whether the company allows overtime and/or comp time. This is a really, really big deal, because you no doubt will be working your ass off once you start that job you're looking at. And you will be working overtime, but whether or not they pay for it is up to them. Comp time is an option many companies who discourage paying for overtime do, so you can end up working enough extra hours for another week's vacation. Or, you could earn overtime pay to pay for that vacation. The preference is up to you, but knowing about it upfront is important.
Their financial state: There is no way you're going to be looking at a paper that hasn't had layoffs in the last five years. But, what is your company doing to get back on its feet? Are they advertising with video (does that mean you'll be producing a lot of video)? Do they have paywalls? Are they embracing social media? Are they making people take furloughs? AJ Chavar passed on this advice: "When I took a look at the company (that had offered me a job) in the years between my internship and present day, I saw a lot of layoffs and furloughs, and ultimately decided it wasn't worth the risk."
Seeing what your paper is doing to stay relevant is important, because it could mean the difference between getting laid off in a year or living steadily.
Salary and cost of living: This brings us into money, though I don't think it's really that big of a deal to talk about, because, let's be honest, you know you won't be making much — unless you missed that hint your mom's been trying to drop you for years about becoming a doctor instead. If you have multiple offers or a lot of experience, you might be in some sort of negotiating position. But if you're fresh out of college with a bachelor's degree, chances are they'll give you an amount to take and you'll take it.
Just be sure to factor in the cost of living of the town you're in, and check out the prices of rent for local housing online. Or consider getting five roommates. And get used to couponing and shopping at thrift stores.
Do your research: Now that you're past all the numbers junk, we're at the most important part — if the place you're thinking about working for is a good place to work. Do they run photo stories? Do they value community journalism? Is their website terrible? Just kidding — all newspaper websites are terrible. Are they a quality place — do they copy edit, produce a lot of filler, or allow time for longer projects?
I received a very important tip before I even started my job search from Erin Stubblefield. She told me to talk to the person who left the paper whose position you'll be filling. I was lucky that the person who I replaced, Pat Jarrett, had left with great ties to my paper and had a lot of great things to say. But imagine if he he told me he was overworked and never got to produce any work he was proud of — that would've altered my decision quite a bit.
Location: This may seem like kind of a trivial point — you can make good stories everywhere! But the truth is, if you're moving away from your family and friends, the place you're living is going to play a huge part in how happy you are while you're working, until you make new friends. It may not be a good idea to move to a small town in the middle of Idaho or something, where you'll have to become a potato farmer to make friends. Or you might not want to move to Kansas. Because it's Kansas. Check out the downtown area, research it online, and make sure there's at least a bar for you to go to.
In person: You may have the opportunity to interview in person, and this will tell you a lot about your paper. You'll get a good feel of the newsroom, see if there are any other young staffers for you to hang out with and see what the atmosphere is like. Also, how are they treating you while you're there? Did they pay for your flight (or mileage), and are they covering your meals while you're there? Or did they put you up in a shady motel?
I was interning at the Dallas Morning News while I was interviewing at my job, and my photo editor there, Chris Wilkins, told me to grab a week's worth of papers to bring back and look at with him. What we could both tell from the paper was that they liked to run lots of photos, and they ran with good stories. This was a giant selling point to me, and something I wouldn't have been able to see from their website.
How it feels: In the end, the answer to all of these things might not be positive answers. Finding a job is hard and you may have to just take what you can get. But you also know when you should cut your losses and move on. Maybe you get crappy gas mileage reimbursements, or don't get paid overtime. And sometimes these are things you can't negotiate. But the most important thing is, can you see yourself working here? Is this a place you think you can grow and learn? Is this a place where you can advance yourself or advance up in your job, or will you outgrow it in a year?
If the paper feels right — if it's in a community you're interested in, if it values beautiful, quality journalism and if it has a good newsroom atmosphere — you may be able to live with some of those things. Everyone's decision to join a paper is different, and you can only know what you value within yourself. But the most important thing is making sure that paper holds the same values that you do, so you'll be happy while you're there.
The last thing I'll impart is wisdom from someone wiser than myself, AJ Chavar of the Washington Post, who says this: "Have patience and make yourself indispensable." You may not be 100% happy 100% of the time, but make your time at your newspaper worth it so you can work up to a place where you can be happy always.