A friend from a former lifetime – at 40 years old, in my third city and on my seventh job, I’ve had quite a few of those – added me to a truly fascinating Facebook group called “What’s Your Plan B?” as a way of connecting me to kindred spirits across the country. The group is for journalists grappling with the harsh realities of the modern news industry and striving to map out a blueprint for life after journalism.
That’s me, as they say, to a T.
I’m sitting here writing this blog after my first “week” – shortened to three whirlwind days due to the New Year’s holiday – at my first new job in almost two decades.
It’s my first non-journalism job since I graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University (yes, I’m going to thump my chest about that, but mostly because my Wildcats staged an epic comeback against Utah in the Holiday Bowl to cap off an amazing football season in which they also played for a Big Ten championship) way back in 2000.
Now, I’m an entry level content writer at a digital marketing agency, working 8 to 5 in an office full of (so far) strangers, for a $10,000 pay cut, writing website copy, press releases and blog entries for clients in every business from HVAC to Hoagies, with a minimum word count requirement and a focus on Search Engine Optimization.
Hey, it’s writing, and goddammit, I’m a writer! It’s my passion! It’s in my bones!
But this is nothing like anything I’ve had to write before.
I won’t rehash my entire story, because I’ve been chronicling it on this site for months. I started JenWielgusJournalism.blog in September 2018 after accepting a buyout – sorry, “voluntary severance” – from the company that now owns the newspapers where I worked for 16 years. First, I was a sports reporter (2002-2008), then online content editor (2008-2012) and finally sports videographer – dare I say, pioneering sports videographer, because I helped spearhead a successful video project that covered high school sports in the suburbs of Philly like no one else. And I won a Keystone Press Association Award for my work, just this past year.
I left with a heavy heart, because I loved what I did. I left because I knew my future – at least my paying-job future – was not in journalism. I needed to get busy finding a new path that would allow me to grow and advance, and maybe even earn more money, before I got any older. I didn’t want to wake up in the middle of the night in a panic at age 42, 43, 44…with the same haunting thoughts I had at age 38, 39, 40 – when I became quite an expert in late-night panic attacks.
So, it’s on to Plan B, and I’m not even sure I won’t need a Plan C, D, E…
My new job is not my dream job. Not yet, anyway! I took it, knowing it would be different in every way from every journalism job I ever had. I took it, knowing that digital marketing agencies have found a way to monetize their product, or else they wouldn’t be in business. I took it, knowing how big a market there is for companies to market their product or service on the internet or social media and try to stand out in the busy, cluttered world of online commerce.
I also knew this job would require writing about topics I had no passion for or knowledge of, without that personal connection I got as a reporter, observing events and standing in front of sources and asking questions.
But, I wanted to be part of a growing, rather than a dying, industry. I wanted to learn and get experience that will help me move forward, rather than keep me stuck. I didn’t want to die on the vine. I didn’t want to wait to get laid off. I wanted to be ahead of the curve.
And, not for nothing, I applied for more than 20 jobs in various “communications” fields, including videography jobs, and my current employer was the only one to make me an offer in four months’ time. The job search is not for the faint of heart, as my wise friend told me, and I send my best to anyone in the weeds right now.
No, I don’t know if I made the “right” decision to leave journalism. I’m not sure I didn’t “sell my soul.” I’m sitting here tonight thinking, “I could be shooting a high school basketball game and putting together a video story!” After a few years of experience, sports video reporting became my wheelhouse. It was comfortable for me. I was content with that job, even if I didn’t completely dig the offbeat schedule. I got used to the routine. I probably got a little complacent, having no clue how hard it would be to transfer my skills and experience to “what’s next.”
Ask anyone in my “Plan B” Facebook group: no journalist can afford to get complacent, or to ignore what’s next. It’s such a monumental challenge, or so it seems, to make a decent living that also makes you happy, if your talents and passions happen to involve spelling, grammar, storytelling, a way with the written word. I tip my hat to anyone who’s making it work to his or her advantage.
The way I see it, getting my foot in the door of a new company that lets me write every day, in an industry that’s lucrative and growing…that’s something to be thankful for.
At this point in my life, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime.