STUMP » Articles » Dear Laid-Off Journalists: Learn Some Skills People Will Pay You For » 28 January 2019, 12:29

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Dear Laid-Off Journalists: Learn Some Skills People Will Pay You For  


28 January 2019, 12:29

Evidently, if I specifically recommend to recently laid-off journalists to learn to code, I could get in trouble…

….but I don’t recommend that they learn to code (I’m skeptical of their success in that area), anyway.

I have a much simpler set of advice:

1. Consider the skills you have, and look for jobs that use those skills
2. Gain other skills that people will pay you for

It’s pretty much the advice I give to anybody, especially if they realize they can’t get the “career” they want.


Here’s the thing: this lay-off may be the end of some of the individuals’ careers as “journalists”. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those individuals. They may find themselves in a better position, better-paid, etc., if they can get over themselves having a specific “career”.

I came across this advice in a book called Fire Your Boss, which would have been more aptly titled “Kill Your Career”.

I wrote a review of the book, and I’m going to pull out a few bits I want to highlight:

The core message of Fire Your Boss is really “Kill Your Career.” (I’m going to guess they thought that title would not sell as many books.) The problem, the authors write, is that many people fixed on the idea of a career are trying to achieve so many things at a job, that they ultimately fail in all their goals—of satisfaction, happiness, even making money.
Pollan’s point is that all of the goals except money can be met more satisfactorily outside of work. For example, it’s better to make plenty of money through your job (in a reasonable amount of time) to pay for the travel you desire, than seek travel through your job.
Another way to kill one’s career is opening one’s mind to having multiple job possibilities, rather than getting stuck in predefined paths or depending on other people to determine a career arc.
This is where the “Fire Your Boss” concept comes in—instead of sitting around waiting for someone else to tell you how to develop your skills and knowledge, and which jobs and industries you should pursue, you need to take charge. As Pollan and Levine caution, this does not mean staging a coup d’état against your current bosses, but to take mental control of your development.

You can read my review, which gives away a lot of the meat of the book (I tend to do that).

But here’s the idea:
1. Sit down and think about what skills you really have — and even Buzzfeed journalists probably do have a lot of skills. Being able to coherently express one’s self, whether in complete sentences or animated gifs, is a skill.


You don’t even need to be super-duper in a specific skill — simply having a specific combo can be good. There’s the infamous review of Fred Astaire “Can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little”… look, he really wasn’t a great singer or actor… but damn he could dance. Heck, think of On The Town, who had an excellent singer who wasn’t a great dancer or actor (Frank Sinatra), an excellent dancer who wasn’t a great singer or actor (Gene Kelly), …and that other guy (who was okay in all three.)

Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert), had his own take:

If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

1. Become the best at one specific thing.
2. Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

So let’s look at what the Buzzfeed folks – editors, journalists, writers, etc. – who got laid off probably have as skills.

Communicate in English with facility (that’s not nothing).

If that skill is combined with domain knowledge elsewhere, you can do very well in many types of jobs. Marketing seems like a natural fit to me… but it takes getting over yourself in what sort of “career” you want. You need to be realistic about a dying industry…. or one extremely resources-constrained.

2. Now you need to know who will pay for those skills.

Back to Adams:

Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix. I didn’t spend much time with the script supervisor, but it was obvious that her verbal/writing skills were in the top tier as well as her people skills. I’m guessing she also has a high attention to detail, and perhaps a few other skills in the mix. Probably none of those skills are best in the world, but together they make a strong package. Apparently she’s been in high demand for decades.

At least one of the skills in your mixture should involve communication, either written or verbal. And it could be as simple as learning how to sell more effectively than 75% of the world. That’s one. Now add to that whatever your passion is, and you have two, because that’s the thing you’ll easily put enough energy into to reach the top 25%. If you have an aptitude for a third skill, perhaps business or public speaking, develop that too.

There are loads of areas these people can do well, and I hope they find them (no, not code). Those skills are actually useful elsewhere… but here’s the kicker:

Note that “valuable” I highlighted above? You don’t get to decide what’s valuable. The market will tell you what is valuable. And I’m sorry, the market may not value leet tweeting skills as much as you do. You need to go out an find out what the market values… and see what you can do.

I understand, you had a dream to be some sort of important journalist. But sometimes reality is there to tell you that you do not get to choose what people are willing to pay you for.

So go find out.


I ran into this crap when I wrote about adjuncts bitching about being low paid. More than once.

Lesson: Adjuncts Don’t Gotta Adjunct


Why is this not clear? You can’t make a living as an adjunct…. so do something else. There’s a lot of boring jobs out there that require people having certain amount of skills and they pay a hell of a lot more than adjuncting.

You could be a medical claims transcriber!

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not the vaunted academic job you want. But that’s the point. You are sucked into the hellhole of academic jobs because you’re a willing participant.


Seriously, this is embarrassing.

You’re supposedly intelligent. And you believed for how many years that you’d get that tenure spot? WHY?!

I bet you are more clear-eyed when it comes to people in other careers, like writing novels or acting. Or playing professional sports.
But hey, let’s jump back to a piece from the Atlantic from 2015!

There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts

Oh yes there is. The adjuncts put up with it.

I’m calling the underpaid adjuncts to find some unpleasant activity people pay money for and DO THAT INSTEAD.

I’m telling these Buzzfeed folks that they’re going to have a lot of competition for scarce journalism jobs. Which bids down salaries, etc.

Find something else to do for money, and you can do what you love – such as me bitching about public finance (hey, I have a weird hobby) – for free.


Back to my review of Fire Your Boss:


Chapter 7: It’s the Money

Ah, the Jerry Maguire-ism “Show Me the Money” that makes people say “What a mercenary book!” But why not go for a job that gives you the most money possible, for a reasonable workload? They are not saying that people should try to become investment bankers (especially not in this economic climate [this was published January 2009]), but that one should ignore things such as amenities, opportunities for advancement, inflated title or status, as many of these are just ways for employers to pay less for you. As Paul Graham, a noted programming expert, wrote on prestigious jobs:

“If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”

Yeah, one may no longer have the prestige of working at Buzzfeed…


Ok, sorry — one may not feel all that prestigious if you’re working in marketing for some large company as opposed to having the title of “journalist” (or whatever). But Buzzfeed is currently paying you zero, and I seriously do not care what title people give me as long as I’ve got the dough. I don’t need prestigious prizes or any such bullshit.

So think of your jobs as a business — where can you get your highest value for a reasonable cost (that is, your time and effort)? You may come out of this hard time in a better position.

Best wishes!