Building a Career in a Recession

Published on
July 16, 2010

Joanna Lin graduated from USC in 2008, just before the U.S. economy began to nosedive. Since then, she has worked for five different media outlets, grew a professional journalism career in a time of upheaval, and developed a philosophy and fortitude about doing the work she loves.

"There are always people leaving jobs and always people coming in and that's not going to stop. We've all benefited from attrition of some sort," she said in a phone interview. "If people just stayed in their jobs forever and nobody grew and nobody moved, journalism would just die. There would be no new generation of reporters."

Here's her career rundown: Lin got her first job at the Los Angeles Times first as a summer intern, then as part of the Tribune Company's Metpro training program, where she was rotated through different desks. But she was laid off before having spent a full year at the Times. She then became a part-time stringer for People magazine before finding a position as a staff writer at the Daily Journal, a California legal trade publication. Next, she joined former Los Angeles Times reporter Myron Levin in the startup journalism website FairWarning before taking an opportunity to report full-time for the investigative journalism organization California Watch.

"Each time I moved on to something new, it was always a very unexpected opportunity," Lin explained in a follow-up email. "After I left the Times, I really had no idea when I'd find a full-time journalism job again. Until the Daily Journal offered me a job, I was pretty seriously considering going to China to study Chinese and freelance until the American job market thawed a bit. In the end, I decided I'd do more for my own professional development by continuing to report as much as I could."

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Lin spoke to Career GPS about switching jobs, switching mediums and keeping a good outlook on the future. The Q&A below is edited for length and clarity.

Angilee Shah: By the time you left the Los Angeles Times, did you have experience working online or were you print-focused?

Joanna Lin: I'm definitely someone who grew up with print newspaper, but for the past few years I don't read a print newspaper. I read everything online. The only thing I subscribe to in print is the New Yorker. I'm one of those people who, if The New York Times started charging, would gladly give them my credit card information. I would definitely pay for a lot of newspapers if they allowed me to online.

I never really felt that kind of difference between the print product and the online product when I was working at the Times. When I first started, I was working on the breaking news desk where a lot of my stories never made it to print, or if they did, it was two paragraphs distilled from blog posts I wrote earlier that day. For me it never really made that much of a difference. Breaking news always went online first anyway. The time pressure wasn't really coordinated with the print deadline in any way -- it was just, 'Get it out as fast you can.' Often times we would rework the story or keep developing it for print. But I never really distinguished between them, I don't think.

[Lin added in email] Although it's true that both mediums feel synchronized for me in a way that they might not for pre-Internet reporters, there are some differences. At California Watch, where we all write our own headlines (but still have copy editors and editors make sure they're as good as possible), I'm more aware of writing for search engine optimization. People don't find our stories online the same way someone might stumble across a print story as they thumb through a newspaper. We also have the ability to draw people to other resources in our stories, because they're online. In print, you can't link someone to a report where you got your data. You can't upload a PDF or video and have it embedded in your article. We can do all those things at California Watch, and that's always the goal. The writing itself may not be so different than it is for print, but there are a lot of things journalists can do online that we should take advantage of.

Did you ever have to think about multimedia elements or produce them for yourself?

I didn't personally. A lot of it is still very photo- and graphics-driven. There has definitely been a bigger push for more multimedia and that is definitely something I hope to explore more too. But one story I did was kind of backwards in terms of how most stories work in newsrooms, where a print person comes up with something and art and graphics get assigned. This one was from a photographer who had been doing audio, slideshow and video work for Youth Orchestra L.A. They wanted to have a print story for readers to be directed to the online multimedia package. They assigned it to me to report the story after it had already been told through the visual aspects.

How did you shift from a print mentality to an online mentality?

I don't know that there has been a shift for me because I don't really think about mediums as much as some older reporters do. The medium is so distinct to them because they prefer reading in print. I just grew up with 'news is news and journalism is journalism.' You're telling stories no matter if it's in print or you view it on a screen or on a TV. It's still storytelling and it's the same reporting behind everything. To me it never really made that big of a difference. I've definitely been told about the good old days of no computers and writing your stories on typewriters and having copy boys running around. But I never worked in that kind of environment. My college newspaper used Macs, we used InDesign, everything was online, we had email. Everything was already on a computer, on the Internet to begin with.

So for me it never made a big of a difference. I'm still typing my stories the same way I would for print as I do for the blogs here. I'm not really a blogger. Even though California Watch has blogs, it's basically short news stories. What people think of as a blogging -- with more of a position or personality -- is not really the way our news blog operates. It's not the way it operated at the Los Angeles Times either. It's really straight-forward breaking news.

What about the speed?

It's a little different at California Watch. We're not in a position of competing with the AP or local news to break certain stories. It's not that we don't care about being competitive, but it's not the same kind of daily newsroom. The focus is investigations and highlighting things that we can add context to, spend more time weighing what things mean. I have daily deadlines for my blog but it doesn't appear right away. There's no sense of, 'We had to have posted this three hours ago.' That doesn't really exist here.

At the Times, the pace was very fast. I think it was, in a way, what all reporters do if you're just writing one version for print the next day. You get pieces throughout the day -- things develop and information comes to you at different points. That was how it was online too. We would write as much as we could immediately and as people called us back, we'd update it. So the story evolved. I think that's what happens in print too, you just don't show everyone what's happening until the very end.

You are showing your work as it's happening in a way.

Yes. I would get emails sometimes or people would comment on a story -- why haven't included something? Often times, it was just that we didn't know. If a homicide happened two hours ago, we don't know when he's going to be arraigned or how much his bail is going to be. When you read it in the paper the next day, a reporter has had 24 hours to answer those questions. When something happens and you want to report it in 30 minutes you just can't always answer them that fast. That's something we thought about a lot at the Times. How do we make clear that this isn't the end? We're not posting a brief of 300 words and leaving it there. Maybe people like me who read a lot on online have to be conscientious that not everyone reads everything like that.

If you look back at all that's happened since you graduated, is this how you imagined a journalism career would be?

Not at all. I don't think I could I could have even imagined places like FairWarning or California Watch existing. The Center for Investigative Reporting, our parent organization, has been around for a long time, and I always saw these jobs as places for incredibly experienced journalists -- it's still true. I'm by far one of the youngest people here and I never thought I'd be in investigative journalism so soon. I feel very lucky to do that. Growing up, I always thought I would work at a newspaper -- start at a small paper and go to a medium paper and after years and years of going up in circulation size I might finally end up some day at a place like the Los Angeles Times. I was very surprised when I got to start at the Los Angeles Times. It's a very fortunate experience to start at a place like that. Going in, I also thought I'd be there longer than a year, I hoped I'd be there for more than a year.

But it showed me that things change very fast and it's OK that nobody really know what it's going to look like in five years. I don't have a five-year plan. I know I want to stay in journalism, but I don't know what it will look like or what my position might be and what kinds of things we'll be doing then.

Is that OK with you?

I think so. I don't think the part of journalism that I love is changing at all. I still get to do really good stories, I'm still reporting, still writing. I don't think people are going to stop writing ever. Whatever story you put together -- if it's on radio, on TV or the Internet -- you have to write. I feel lucky that, maybe because I'm younger, I can get away with having less job security. I can pick up and move a lot easier, I'm cheaper, and I know those things. Going into a job that says we have funding for a year and after that we'll see what happens doesn't sound so scary to me.


What has been your career trajectory, and what is your outlook for the future? Share your story in comments. As promised, here are some opportunities that might be of interest to you:

Jobs, Awards and Fellowships

Business Editor (and editor of monthly health section), Laredo Morning Times (via
Location: Laredo, Texas
Status: Full Time

Medium: Newspaper

Reporter/Blogger, WBUR health care news site
Location: Boston, Massachusetts
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Reporter (covering health, business, general assignment), The Daily Reflector (via
Location: Greenville, North Carolina
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Specialist Editor, Food/Healthy Living, The Record (via
Location: Bergen County, New Jersey
Status: Full Time
Medium: Newspaper

Technical Writer/Editor, STG International (Federal Occupational Health Services)
Location: Bethesda, Maryland
Status: Full Time
Medium: Technical Writing/Marketing

Online Journalism Awards
Eligibility: Awards are given for work published online between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2010. Entry fees range from $100 to $175 per category.
Award: Prizes range from $2,500 to $5,000
Deadline: July 21, 2010
From the Website: "Since their inception, the OJAs have recognized major media, international and independent sites and individuals producing innovative work in multimedia storytelling. The Awards Committee and judges place special emphasis on entries that are original to the Web or other digital platform or demonstrate mastery of the special characteristics of digital journalism."

U.S. Young Journalist Program, Fulbright Kommission
Eligibility: Must be a U.S. citizen, with academic achievement and a good proposal and good to very good German language skills
Award: 10 month stay in Germany with stipends and expenses, as well as language training
From the Website: "The approximately 10-month stay begins in September and typically consists of an initial research phase, during which the grantee becomes familiar with his/her project in a German setting, followed by one or more internships with German institutions of print or broadcast media."

REMINDER: American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Science Journalism Awards
Eligibility: Awards are for individuals whose work has been published between July 1, 2009 through the end of June, 2010. With the exception of an award for children's science news, entries must be published by a U.S. news organization.
Award: $3,000 is awarded in each of eight categories.
Deadline: August 1, 2010
From the Website: "Since their inception in 1945, the awards have gone to more than 300 individuals for their achievements in science journalism. The winning journalists have helped to foster the public's understanding and appreciation of science. Independent screening and judging committees select the winning journalists and their entries based on scientific accuracy, initiative, originality, clarity of interpretation and value in fostering a better understanding of science by the public."

POLITICO Fellowships
Eligibility: The fellowships are reserved for college (or graduate school) graduates who may have worked for up to two years at a professional news organization
Duration: One year, beginning Oct. 1, 2010
Benefits: A stipend of at least $35,000 (commensurate with experience) with benefits and two weeks' paid vacation
Deadline: Aug. 15, 2010
From the website: "Priority will be given to applicants with interest in covering national politics, Congress or domestic policy issues such as energy, environment, defense, finance/economy and health care."

[For tips on applying  to fellowships, see the first Career GPS post.]