In the business, they call it "going to the Dark Side," making the move from journalism to the world of public relations or some related field. It's a fairly common jump and one I'll be making soon, which is why my editor thought it would be a good idea for me to write about it in this space.
Over the past few years, this market has seen many a good journalist turn flak. Recently, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette lost an excellent Capitol reporter in Seth Blomeley to the Arkansas Department of Education. Amy Webb also left the D-G to work for the Department of Human Services. KUAR recently lost a familiar voice, Kelly MacNeil, to Heifer International. It wasn't too long ago that our own Warwick Sabin left the Times to become a spokesman for the University of Central Arkansas (he's now the publisher of the Oxford American magazine and a candidate for the state House of Representatives).
I'll be leaving to take over as development director for Independent Living Services in Conway, a nonprofit that helps people with developmental disabilities.
But I don't feel, to use the popular parlance of Star Wars, that I'm joining Darth Vader's forces to help quash the rebellion. I just feel like I'm taking a different job. It's not a move that I take lightly and I think other journalists who have recently made similar decisions would tell you the same thing.
Butch Ward, managing director at the Poynter Institute, left the Philadelphia Inquirer for a public relations gig after 27 years as a reporter. One thing he learned after switching careers was that "journalists don't corner the market on righteousness."
"There are a lot of people in the world that go to work every day trying to do something they think makes a difference," Ward says. "And they do a whole lot of different things. I think it is true that journalists tend to talk a lot about their work almost as a mission. When they make the switch to the business world, they're looking for something that allows them to feel that way again, or to at least approximate it."
MacNeil said that's one of the things that drew her to communications work for Heifer International.
"One of the values that I think I've developed as a reporter is a real appreciation for truthfulness and sincerity," MacNeil says. "That's not something that I would have been willing to give up to work in PR. There are many places in the corporate world and in the public sector where you have to engage in some spin, which is perfectly normal and justifiable for those entities, but it's not something I'm interested in."
Of course, there's also the matter of money. It's not the only thing, but it's an important thing. Blomeley says that after an exciting 11 years covering the Capitol, he felt it was time to start looking more toward the future.
"I have a couple of kids, so it was time for me to really start thinking about the family," he says. "Professionally, this opportunity opened up and it really seemed to fit. I'm getting to broaden my experiences and so it's been exciting. For a long time it just felt like journalism was in my DNA, that's what I had to do. But now I realize that, no, there's nothing set in stone, like the idea that I had to be a journalist forever. A lot of the same skills from journalism are applicable here – curiosity, writing, dealing with people, hard work, dedication – all those things you learn in journalism, I've been able to apply them here."
Ward says that's really why the move from journalism to PR is so prevalent. The skills transfer easily. Journalists know the media landscape and that's valuable to businesses and various other organizations. So will it go on like this forever and ever, amen?
"Certainly it's a different information environment than it was even 10 years ago," Ward says. "I don't know whether more people will go into PR. Certainly the economics of the news business have to get better. Maybe you could go into catering. People are always going to need work."
For my part, I will say I have nothing but love for the Arkansas Times and I'm looking forward to sitting down with each week's new copy and just reading it, not worrying about whether I made a mistake in the current issue or what will go into the next one. I think Blomeley really said it best:
"I didn't want to go to work or change careers for just anybody. It was something I thought of like, 'Is this someone I can believe in and have faith in?' And the answer was yes."