New York University - English Literature
Journalist Rene Lynch's career advice is simple, succinct and damn good: "Figure out what you really want. Then figure out your dream way of doing it. And then work backwards."
Her bottom line: You're unlikely to be given a plum assignment, so go out and take it.
Rene took a bit of her own advice when she worked out her current gig as a national staff writer and assistant food editor at the Los Angeles Times. The Times' web editor was looking for writers and editors who wanted to be on the front line of news stories, writing for the website's blog Nation Now. Rene loved her job in the paper's Food section, but her interest was piqued. The Times agreed she could continue to write for Food on occasion, and voila! She has the best of both worlds.
Read on for more about Rene's work, her take on the journalism industry and some seriously great career advice. We particularly love Rene's take on the challenges facing working women — and even more so, the opportunities she sees for that group ahead.
The key is to understand what's driving the other guy.
How did you discover your current job?
Our web editor, Jimmy Orr, was looking for writers and editors who wanted to be on the front line of news stories. Even though I loved my previous job (in the Food section), this new job seemed like a fun challenge. I was still on the fence, though, until we agreed I'll continue to write for Food on occasion -- best of both worlds. That leads to some weird days, though. One morning, I was in downtown L.A. writing about the child abuse charges in the Penn State case for the National desk, and by early afternoon I was in Westwood having a mock Thanksgiving dinner with food bloggers for a Food section story.
What is your typical day like, and what types of things do you do in your job?
I have very few typical days, because I never know what the "news" of the day will be. But I need to be ready to become a mini expert in whatever's happening. I describe it as a daily white water rapids adventure: each morning, I put on a helmet and life jacket, jump in the kayak and just try to stay upright. It's intense and unrelenting, and more so in a world where the news cycle runs 24/7.
Specifically, though, I sign on as soon as I roll out of bed at about 6 a.m. and begin to troll the wires and other media outlets, as well as our own website. I'm trying to gauge what will be the big story of the day. And then I start working the phones. Sometimes, we see the stories coming in advance. For example, when the 10th anniversary of 9/11 occurred, I knew I would be writing about it non-stop for several days, so I was able to start generating story ideas that touched on this tragic milestone.
Other days, we get blindsided. I was heading out to lunch one day when I noticed a CNN crawl alert about gunfire on the campus at Virginia Tech. Needless to say, I didn't have lunch that day. On one hand, the job is never boring. On the other … I am jealous of friends who get to slink down behind their computer screens and read celebrity gossip during the work day.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Much of my job is nuts-and-bolts reporting and writing. News is news; you cannot get fancy or funny or clever with it. The point is to deliver it as quickly and as accurately as possible. As a result, it can be hard to be creative when you need to file a story in seven minutes. The most rewarding part of my job is being able to carve out time when I can focus on my writing -- actually sit back and contemplate my approach, tone, POV, etc. -- and hopefully tell a compelling story.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
Luckily, I can just look at my pillow and fall asleep! I worry relentlessly about accuracy. You have no idea how horrible it feels when you get a phone call or e-mail saying, "You made a mistake and I'd like a correction." I try to avoid this by fact-checking again and again. And I've learned the hard way it's quite often the things that I'm "sure" I know from memory that I end up screwing up. Never assume anything.
What is the biggest personal sacrifice you have to make because of your job?
Journalism never stops. No one tells you that you'll have to work weekends, nights, holidays. You can practically guarantee that if you buy theater tickets for a night six months from now, there will be a huge story brewing/breaking on your beat on that very same night and your editor will say, "Any chance you can stay late ... ?" When I first started working for the Times, I had a Christmas Day dinner party, and nearly everyone there was a Times reporter. (Journalists are notorious for working and playing together.) In the middle of dinner, the phone rang. A sheriff's deputy had shot and killed another sheriff's deputy. Everyone who wasn't drunk hopped into their cars and sped down to the crime scene. Dinner party, kaput. I'd made a prime rib, too.
What is one lesson you've learned in your job that sticks with you?
Double check everything, assume nothing.
What do you feel is the biggest challenge for women today, particularly those in your industry?
Women managers are still saddled with the same old stereotypes, I'm sorry to say. People -- men and women -- just do not like a bold, assertive woman telling them what to do. A woman in a position of power still needs to figure out a way to "coax" those around her to do their jobs, or else she is going to ruffle feathers and have to deal with that fallout. While a man just gets to say, "This is the way it's going to be."
Moreover, statistics would tell you that the upper media ranks are still largely run by men. That's not by design, but a sign of reality: Women are still the primary caretakers of family and children and as a rule, they're either unwilling or unable to put in the time at the office it takes to rise in the ranks of a traditional office environment.
All that said, outside the realm of management, the newsroom is a pretty equal playing field. But it's not all gloom and doom for women. One of the unheralded storylines of the rise of the Internet is how much power it's given to women. Women have been hugely successful in the entrepreneurial arena because they can write their own rules -- and can put in their "office hours" from their bedroom at 3 a.m. if they want. The rules of the game are being completely rewritten by women, and this will soon filter down into the workplace. Yes, some jobs must be done on site. But telecommuting as the rule rather than the rare exception is long overdue, and women are going to be the driving force behind this. And the Internet means women's voices are being heard like never before. Look at the rise of the so-called mommy bloggers -- they were largely ignored by mainstream media, so they created their own media streams. It doesn't get any more empowering than that.
Who are your role models?
I don't know that I have people I try to emulate. But I admire people who break all the rules and have a blast doing it. Steve Jobs. Heather Armstrong (Dooce.com.) I also deeply admire the ability to start with nothing and persist (Paula Deen and my mother, and of course, Oprah).
What are some of the rules you live by?
Don't assume anything. I think I've spent my entire life learning and relearning this lesson. I have a weird passion for management books, because I find them to be so insightful about society at large, as well as everyday life. (I just finished "Drive" by Daniel Pink; it's awesome.)
Anywhoo, one of the most profound lessons I ever learned comes from that granddaddy of management books, "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People." It is this: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." I have a bad habit of doing that "enter talking" thing. I have to remind myself constantly: "No one needs to hear what I think, but I need to hear what everyone else thinks." The key is to understand what's driving the other guy. On the professional front, this helps me find "the story." On the personal front, this keeps me from hitting my husband over the head with a frying pan.
What advice do you have for women who want to be in your industry?
Figure out what you REALLY want. (I wish someone asked me this.) Then figure out your DREAM way of doing it. And then work backwards. People think getting a job in the mainstream media will get them closer to their goal. But often, working in the mainstream media is by definition playing to a generalized audience, and you're there to do the job that your BOSS wants you to do, not the job that you necessarily want to do. If I only had a dime for every young person who walks through the door wanting to write about fashion or design or science, and then they're shocked -- shocked! -- when the editor sends them out to a Tuesday night city council meeting in the middle of Nowheresville. With rare exception, only writers who have established themselves in those areas get to write about such things. Otherwise, you have to work yourself up the ranks. And you'll have to work nights, weekends and holidays while you're doing it.
The bottom line is this: You're unlikely to be "given" such a plum assignment. So you have to take it. If you want to write about fashion, do it -- start a blog, pitch SMALL ideas to SMALL newspapers and magazines and then work your way up. You may need to support yourself with a full-time job while you're doing this at nights and on the side. That day job may even be at a mainstream newspaper. But realize that just getting your foot in the door is not enough -- you'll have to swim upstream the entire time to get to your dream job. That is not a bad thing, of course. You just need to know that going in, because that will help fuel your determination (and keep you sane). I said "figure out your dream way of doing it" because one of the advantages of determining your own path is that you could, theoretically, figure out a way to craft a career that doesn't require showing up at an office each day. (Can you tell that I wish I telecommuted five days a week?)
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Sigh. I wish I knew. All suggestions welcomed.
What are three things you love aside from your job?
My husband, who makes me LOL every single day. My smelly dog, Rambo. And cooking.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
The media industry appears to be in shambles, but that just means there's plenty of opportunity to be had! If the rise of new media teaches us anything, it's that content is king. Fortune favors the bold. If you have a driving desire to write about some niche of the world, DO IT. Don't wait for someone to give it to you. JUST DO IT. Go ahead and get a job at a newspaper, or magazine, or online site if that tickles your fancy, but don't give up on your dream of writing about what you love and enjoy. Start a blog, blog relentlessly about that thing you love, and then you can apply for a job or even create a job and use your blog as proof that you can do it.