Thursday, April 23, 2009...7:00 am

Ways to survive the media recession, part 2

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Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

Now for your second slug of recession-busting (NB: slightly updated).

Earlier, I posted about my recent, slightly panicky drive to bring in more freelance work. In case anyone finds it of any use, here are some of the lessons I picked up from it. Here we go…

Assess your existing skills

You may believe you’re just a features writer, or a magazine designer, or whatever, but you probably have a wider skill base than you think.

A friend of mine, for example, is a skilled freelance magazine designer and that’s how she sees herself – so that’s the kind of work she looks for. But actually she’s spent many years doing production for the magazines she’s designed. So she has a whole load of print production/production editing skills that could get her related-but-different jobs. And because print magazines especially are cutting staffing back to the bone, the ability to handle multiple tasks is a big bonus.

This works for words-based journalists too. Can you spell? Do you have a grasp of grammar? Then you can sub-edit as well as write – and vice-versa. And don’t forget that writing doesn’t have to mean writing features. You may not be a news journalist, but if you’re an experienced writer you can also think about writing corporate copy, or PR stories.

Specialise in print? Think about branching out online. And, yes, that requires you to have a few different skills. Which brings us on to…

Learn new skills

If you are a skilled journalist or designer, it actually doesn’t take much to add to your abilities – certainly enough to make a big difference in employability. The usual big leap in the dim past when desktop publishing (DTP) was The New Thing was to learn QuarkXPress and try your hand at page layout. Now, however, the big new thing is the web.

The good news is that, if you’re a print journalist wanting to develop your online skills, you can learn enough initially from the pages and pages available on the web to do this without laying out any money for it. Try a search for “web usability” or “writing for the web” for a start. There’s a host of material available, especially from web usability guru Jakob Nielsen. Here’s a very comprehensive site to start you off.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a big draw for employers at the moment – and luckily the principles are pretty easy to grasp. Here’s an article from the Jakob Nielsen usability site that talks about SEO – it’s pretty good and gets the principle across well.

It’s also easy and pretty much cost-free to get started in online publishing. Try a blog out, or some other kind of online writing, just to prove you can. I posted about this here, and I still think it’s good advice.

The other big draw for employers is turning out to be an understanding of web analytics and audience building. These are business-type skills, and today it’s getting much more important for journalists to possess them.

Google Analytics offers this in a fairly easy – and free – package. If you set up your own web site or blog you can sign up for Google Analytics and use it to analyse your traffic. It doesn’t work for WordPress.com blogs – your site has to be hosted on your own web server space. But even a simple WordPress blog like Freelance Unbound has a stats page that shows you where your traffic comes from and where it goes once it gets to you.

If you’re a layout sub or a designer and you want to be able to work on the web, you’ll need to learn new software. Again, do it for minimal cost – download the Adobe Creative Suite, which includes Dreamweaver, Flash and Fireworks, for a 30-day free trial period and learn as much as you can during that time.

You don’t have to pay out for expensive training courses – but I’d suggest you do pay out a little bit to join Lynda.com for a month or so. It’s crammed with video tutorials for all the media and creative software you’ll ever need to use.

It’s $25 a month – which isn’t a huge amount – but if you want to cheat a bit you can download the tutorials to your hard drive to run through at your leisure. Which means you should be able to cancel after only one month’s subscription and then pretty much use the material for as long as you want offline [disclaimer: I actually haven’t tried this yet, though I am planning to when I have time to learn Flash this summer].

There’s also a load of free tutorials to try out before you subscribe so you can see if the site suits you. Am I a shill for the company? Sadly, no. But I’m open to offers.

It also helps to think laterally. Over the years I’ve spent time in bad bands and I’ve made animated films. This means I’m quite familiar with audio and video editing.

For years that didn’t look like it was any use at all, except as a hobby. But what’s happening right now? Yes – publishers are swarming onto the web and starting to produce podcasts and video interviews to upload to the web.

This video from Broadcast magazine is a perfect example. It’s very competent, but it’s also pretty simple. Broadcast sends its reporters out with a camcorder to record video interviews at the same time as they do an interview for the print edition, using a fairly basic DV video camera set-up.

It’s not high-end television – but it does mean you need to know one end of a camcorder from another, understand the basics of lighting and visual story-telling and, if you’re back on the production desk, how to use FinalCut Pro to cut the whole thing together.

One thing’s for sure, just being familiar with InDesign doesn’t really cut it any more for long-term survival.

What do you do with all your new-found skillage? This:

Update your CV (resumé)

Revisit that old CV (resumé, for our transatlantic visitors) and freshen it up. Don’t just give a list of the jobs or commissions you’ve done, break it down into your different skills and different publishing/media sectors. This could include feature writing, corporate writing, sub-editing, page layout, web design and, in my case at least, teaching/training.

When you’ve done that, make a few copies of the document and start tailoring each one to a specific sector or skill. You should end up with dedicated CVs for each application or enquiry you make. For feature writing, stick all the feature writing skills and commissions you have at the top. Same for sub-editing. Same for corporate writing.

“But they’re the basically same thing!” you cry. No – not from the point of view of the people who may give you work. Show you understand the differences between different kinds of work and it’ll make you look better.

What’s that you’re saying? You don’t have enough skills to have multiple CVs? Go back to points 1 and 2 and start again…

More to come in part 3.

Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

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