Transcript: Wednesday, September 13, 11 a.m. ET

How to Get a Job in Media

Retha Hill
Vice President, Content Development, BET.com
Wednesday, September 13, 2006; 11:00 AM

Skill, effort and luck can take you to the top of any field -- but it never hurts to get a little help. In our Helping Hands special feature, we've got plenty of assistance on tap: articles, tools and live discussions that will help you learn more about how to get ahead in the area's top industries or your career in general.

Retha Hill is the chief editorial officer of BET.com, and is also the vice president for content development for BET Interactive. In that role, she's in charge of content strategy, convergence and integration with its network television station.

Before joining BET.com, Hill was the executive producer for special sections at washingtonpost.com. Prior to to that, she was a metro reporter for The Washington Post.

Hill was online to discuss jobs in the media and what it takes to break into the industry.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.

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Washington, D.C.: Many media jobs seem to have long hours. Is there any trend toward job sharing to allow two people to shoulder that burden? I have great experience and skills for a media job, but would prefer to work part-time since I have a small child.

Retha Hill: I hear you. I have a three-year-old and the last few years have been tough. News jobs are tied to the news cycle. News happens at 11 p.m. and right when you are heading out the door to a pediatrician appointment. Feature media jobs are a little more predictable. The good news is that now you can do some much remotely, given a reliable mobile phone and lap top computer. My mom's been sick and this summer I've done plenty of conference calls from hospital corridors in Detroit or edited copy at a Starbucks. This morning I was updating our election results at six in the morning while my little boy was snoozing in the next room. Thank God for the Internet.

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East Lansing, Mich.: I've always wondered about freelance writers. How do they get their start? In particular, how does someone with very little experience or academic background in journalism/communications but immense passion and commitment, like myself, enter into such a field that more or less screams for experience, experience, experience?!?!?!

Retha Hill: Freelance writing is a matter of building on past experience. You can start off freelancing for a smaller community publication. Be accurate. Be the type of person who delivers. The editors will appreciate that. Then you take those "clips" and parlay that to larger publications where the editors will want to see examples of what you've done before. You can also start your own blog or online column and see if smaller web sites might be interested in picking it up. The key is to use all the journalistic principles -- fairness, accuracy and consistency, plus style.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Ms. Hill,

I am looking for a job in the music industry, have some some relevant experience, but feel like companies are relying more and more on interns at a time where I cannot afford to go without pay! Any suggestions or advice on how to find a job in the industry, or with a relevant company such as BET or MTV, without "connections"?

Thanks!

Retha Hill: You are right, most internships in the online world or in music don't pay or don't pay much. Some people get a part-time job to help offset the costs. Or see if you can get credit for working; in other words, it will be a co-op or class. Be inventive, if you are a non-paid internship at a company such as MTV or BET, maybe you let it be known that you are available for babysitting at night or on the weekends. Can't say any MTV or BET employee will turn down that offer. :) And find roommates -- apartments in New York are expensive -- or see if you can house sit for some of those MTV big wigs when they are traveling to Europe for the summer.

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Virginia What skills would you recommend students start acquiring now if they intend to pursue a career in online journalism?

Retha Hill: First, seek to be a master of all media. Learn to tell a good story as a print and broadcast journalists. Don't be afraid to switch between a pen and a digital camera or digital voice recorder. but mostly, remember that online journalism is often a two-way experience. You are having a conversation with your users and they might jump in and out of the story at any point. Write short and conversationally, take great pictures and invite your users to come into the story with their own perspective -- not just through discussion boards but by uploading their own video or photos. Take chances but still remember the foundation of journalism to be accurate and non-biased. And do your own reporting.

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Washington, D.C.: How did you make the leap from print media to online media and how would you advise other journalists looking to do the same?

Retha Hill: I made the leap back in 1995 even more the Web was a viable content delivery option. The Washington Post company, where I was employed as a journalist, developed Digital Ink. There were relatively few experienced journalists willing to go into this brave new world. I was fascinated and moved over to the online side of the Post and I've never regretted it for a moment. New Media is still evolving and people with good ideas can still have tremendous impact. Journalists looking to make the leap should look at things from an entrepreneur's perspective -- figure out what audience your newspaper or magazine or TV station is not reaching (suburbanites, young people, urban youth, empty nesters, etc.) and try to see if an online component might work. Be the one to come up with the plan and try to sell it to the decision makers. It might work.

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Bethesda, Md.: How would a mid-career person in a different field make the leap to online journalism?

Retha Hill: As with any other field, the key is preparation and connections. Start paying attention to where the industry is going -- sites such as paidcontent.org helps you to keep up with changes in content delivery and tells you what mergers and acquisitions are happening. There is much more to online than newspaper or network sites. Mobile, social networking are all hot right now. Next, think about what you can bring to the table and then prepare yourself by taking courses, going to conferences and applying for entry level positions so you can learn from the ground up. Good luck!

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Albuquerque, "New" Mexico : I don't think I could sell my soul to work in the media. My regard for the media and government is in the trash. I look forward to the revolution that won't be televised.

Retha Hill: Well, work for yourself.

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Albany, N.Y.: I have a Ph.D. in political science but after 13 years I have not been able to land a stable job in the academia.

What are the steps to be taken into journalism or the media in general?

Thanks.

Retha Hill: The media consist of lots of publications, both on and offline. There are plenty of academic journals or magazines that might be open to your work. The key is to read the style of those academic types who get published a lot. And try your hand. There are tons of online political blogs to help you get started.

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Washington area Is covering the news for a black audience any different than doing it for, let's say, The Washington Post? How do you do it without it coming off as race-baiting?

Retha Hill: Good question. We have a distinct point of Vvew. Our point of view is covering issues of concern or from a unique African American perspective. Ex: if you look at today's election roundup on BET.com, we lead with the Maryland Senate race because Mfume had a chance along with Michael Steele of becoming the second African American in the U.S. Senate. That would not necessarily be the take of the Post or the NY Times, which is OK. MTV will look at the same political landscape and lead with the turnout of the youth vote. And that's not age-baiting. Its about P.O.V.

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Philadelphia, Penn.: Freelancing is a full-time job, but how do you balance that with another full-time job (that actually pays the bills)? It can take months to research a story part time and by that time the same topic may have been covered elsewhere or is no longer current. Do you have any tips/resources on how to deal with this? Other than the Writer's Market books, where can I find places to consistently write for? I search on the Web site for information about every magazine, Internet publication, or newspaper I read, but without better clips you can't get a staff position and without a staff position it's hard to get published!

Any tips or resources you can recommend on how to navigate through the maze of writing for publication are greatly appreciated! Thank you.

Retha Hill: As I said to an earlier chat participant, there are a lot of small publications out there that if you do good work you can get good clips. There are a lot of online publications who are interested in the same. You don't have to write long, but you do have to do your reporting. Do it at night or on the weekends so you can get published a couple of times a month. There are tons of stories that  The Post or the Philly Inquirer aren't covering right now, shop it to their suburban or zoned editions. Maybe kind of carve out an expertise in, say, the volunteer community or the suburban environmentalists and do interesting stories there. or maybe cover one of the many neglected ethnic communities (Vietnamese or Indian). Sooner or later a HUGE story will come along.

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Washington, D.C.: What is the typical career path, if there is such a thing, for someone in online journalism? How often, and after what skills are acquired, should online journalists be looking to move up?

Retha Hill: Online journalism needs good journalists, first. Second, people who understand the medium and who can tell stories using all the tools available. Don't worry about knowing code or HTML. That's over. Learn how to deliver content via text, audio and video. I teach part-time at the University of Maryland and I speak all around the country and the journalism schools are just now getting this -- for the most part they are turning out traditional journalists who can't think the way young people think: in a multimedia world. If you can do that, you've got a leg up. Trust me.

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Columbia, Md.: Retha,

I have an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism from Towson University and did some work in public radio at WTMD Radio, and have also taken a lot of courses in public relations. I was offered a job at WTOP radio when I got out of college however it was at minimum wage. I declined to take the job because I was making more money at the time. Now looking back, I wish that I would have taken the job because it has been difficult obtaining a job in my field.

I currently have more than 10 years of experience working in event planning and event promotions. How does someone in my situation obtain a job in the media industry after having more than 10 years of working outside of the media industry?

Thanks!

Retha Hill: Go back to basics and try to do some freelancing. Depending on what type of events you do, you might parlay that into a blog on the party scene in D.C.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm 33 and I haven't been to BET.com. Based on what I know of your shows, it seems like it would attract a youngish audience. Is that right? Or is there something there for me?

Retha Hill: there is a lot there for you. The Network tends to attract a younger audience, but BET.com is geared toward 18-49, so we have news, entertainment, music, career, dating, health and more but all from a black perspective. Check us out.

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Vienna, Va.: I've been writing content for an online company and doing some freelance entertainment/feature writing, but would like to move into a full-time entertainment/feature writing at a newspaper. Any tips? Are informational interviews with editors I already know acceptable? Also, I have a respectable clip file, but have never submitted clips for a job. Most of my clips are pdf files of the entire page my article appeared on. Is it OK to send the entire page and have them scan and pick out my stuff?

Retha Hill: Someone sent me a pdf of various publications and I had to scan to pick out their material. It was a pain. Don't do it. Yes, informational interviews are acceptable. you have to get your foot in the door. Try smaller publications first and see if you can get on full-time or on a contract basis. Work hard, realize you won't make a lot of money and then keep plugging away.

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Washington, D.C.: I dream of being a fashion editor, however, I don't have any prior training/education in writing. But my boss is always complimenting me on my writing. I thought about submitting articles for Essence magazine but, I don't know how to start out as a freelance writer. I'm especially interested in fashion/entertainment. Any direction would be appreciated.

Retha Hill: Fashion writing is hard to get into. But, you might want to go to a smaller publication in the area and see if you can sell quarterly spreads, ex: back to school; holiday fashion and the like. You need to do some writing and show the editor what you can do, then make arrangements to do the shoot and create the copy. Also, do you know about Daily Candy? Its a cool newsletter that is always looking for freelancers. The focus on the shopping experience per city.

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D.C.: Can you address the role of blogging in online journalism? Is it a essential, or are publications doing it just because they think they should be? In what cases do you think it adds value?

Retha Hill: I don't like blogging personally because its usually just a column and I don't think really utilizes the full capacity of the Internet. But, newspapers are enamored of it. Very few do it well. sports blogs are kind of fun or specialty blogs on subjects that are fast moving such as war reporting. It works because the snippets are coming fast and furious. I prefer well thought about political writing, rather than blogging about politics. I hope the trend will end.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question ... I graduated from college in 2003, and have been working in the federal government for three years. My original major (before switching to political science) was photojournalism, and I'm thinking about a possible career change back in this direction. Am I better off starting out trying to find freelance work first, before trying to make any kind of jump? What kinds of opportunities should I be seeking out?

Retha Hill: Everybody has a digital camera now days and newspapers and news outfits are providing a mechanism for readers to get their photos online. There is a need for good photojournalists still, but times are changing so you might want to think about doing it freelance for now and see what happens.

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Severn, Md.:

I've been working in the administrative/financial field for about seven years for the government and private sector. I would like to continuing working in the financial field, but would like to work in the media/entertainment industry. I recently started college, majoring in accounting with a minor in computer science but was considering changing my minor to communications. Is this the best way to go ... having experience in the field along with getting a degree to support my experience. Please advise!

Thanks.

Retha Hill: The nation still needs really good financial reporters, so don't forget about that. If you can translate what you know about finances into good reporting you might have a better chance of getting hired. Yes, take communications and reporting classes and do as many internships as possible. Maybe you can concentrate on the financial aspects of the entertainment industry. Its big business with billions of dollars at stake (who knew that MySpace would have played a role in the recent shakeup at Viacom?) But that's what is happening today.

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Friendship Heights, D.C.: Hi Retha,

Is it realistic for a young person with little to no journalism experience (i.e., didn't write for a college newspaper, etc.) to try to get a job in journalism these days? Do you think journalism school is a practical idea for someone looking to get some real experience?

Retha Hill: You need the experience and training, so go to journalism school. I teach a grad class at the U-Md. College of Journalism and half of my students have no experience in journalism. They are getting it and some will make it after they get practical experience in school and through internships.

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Washington, D.C.: I have always wondered how does one gain a White House pass to participate in press briefings? Can a "successful" blogger get a pass?

Retha Hill: The Democratic and Republican conventions let bloggers cover them in 2004. I'm not sure about the White House. I think you have to apply and go though the background check. it might be hard because the White House press corp is a special group.

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Virginia: Is there any formal "break-out" of the classes of media? Say: local media, national media, international media, Internet media? Is there a standard matrix that isolates each media form/type?

Retha Hill: There is a standard matrix. Most reporters start out with local because you work hard, do a ton of stories each year and get experience. You build on that experience to move up to doing state and then national, usually. Some people jump right in because they happen to prove themselves, perhaps, as interns and are given a shot. But the stakes are higher and the pressure on to get really good, insightful stories. You need to know what you are doing.

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Washington, D.C.: Is it true that you should only stay at an interactive company for a year or two and that longevity is frowned upon (unless you're in upper management)?

Retha Hill: No. So many newspapers and TV stations are combining their online and traditional news operations. The key is to look for an employer that has a strategy that will allow you to grow and develop as a reporter, despite the actual medium you happen to be working on at the time. those are the questions you should be asking during the interview process. Circulation is dropping for most newspaper and climbing for new media (ad dollars are going online too), so if your perspective employer has a platforming strategy to report once, publish on multiple platforms that might be the way to go.

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Seattle, Washington:

One thing you ought to point out to folks, and I say this as a 15-year veteran in the media and communications field.

Getting a good job in the media is very very HARD. And the pay, to start, is very very LOW, except for a lucky (very) few. If you want to jump off your current career train and jump onto this one, great. It can be very very enjoyable. But be prepared to cut WAY back on lifestyle, or be prepared to find yourself in some lonely outpost working in small-town weekly news for a while, or covering, say, wastewater treatment industry until you get a clip folder and some real expertise.

I'd be willing to bet that most on-line media is even lower-paying than a small-town weekly.

Not to be a downer, but People magazine doesn't need more than one or two folks to cover Paris Hilton.

Retha Hill: True that. I think the average pay for a reporter is still in the high 20s or low 30s, but it is still a very satisfying career. You have to cover waste water treatment in small communities but you can do it against the backdrop of what it means for the health of the community, the economic growth of the community, etc. I worked in the Rock Hill, S.C., bureau of the Charlotte Observer. I learned a lot of small town politics, race politics in the South and peaches. I'm so grateful I had that experience and would not be where I am today without it.

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Seattle, Washington: One sector of the media you missed, and it actually probably offers more jobs than national/international, is trade media. If you can get an expertise in a specific area -- aerospace, or education, or engineering -- you can build a very nice career.

Retha Hill: And don't forget the housing trade. Between the shelter magazines (Metropolitan Home) and the trades for building, you have a lot of opportunity there.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hello, Retha. I did healthcare-related technical writing for 10 years and was interested in moving to a more traditional print media job but did not have obvious experience to put on my resume. But a friend of mine was launching a Web site and needed content, so I wrote a few freelance pieces for her (emphasis on the "free"). These clips in hand, I applied for and got a job as a news reporter for a medical journal. I've been here six years now, and it was the best career decision I've ever made. So this kind of career move can succeed -- you just have to be persistent and patient.

Retha Hill: Good point. You have to seize on opportunities as they present themselves. its with any other industry.

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Washington, D.C.: Speak to the dearth of African-Americans in online journalism. Where are we and why aren't we getting in these newsrooms and if we aren't doing it now, where will we be in 10 years when the people running these news organizations don't look like us? Also, what is NABJ doing to make itself relevant to the online journalist? Thanks.

Retha Hill: NABJ, like many of the traditional journalism organizations, are still very focused on old media. They don't get it. I got into online journalism in 1995 because I saw that it was the coming thing. I got in early and rose to the top. A lot more people are competing for those slots, but most aren't very good at it. They don't GET online and thing they are still publishing a newspaper that people can read on a computer. That's not it, folks. Observe any 13 year old and how they consume media and you'll start to understand what you need to do to really be an online journalist.

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Washington, D.C.: Would you suggest grad school for journalists wanting to jump to online media? If not, why?

Retha Hill: It depends on the graduate school; American University has a great weekend course in interactive media and there are a few others that really immerse you in all aspects. Other graduate schools do a "writing for online" course and that's about it. Students graduate and think they know online because they published their school board article on the school Web site. Do your research before applying to graduate school.

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Delmarva: When applying for a staff job on a publication, is it OK to use only the clips you've gotten while freelancing for that publication, or will they want to see more variation?

Retha Hill: The more variation the better, but include those clips in case the editors didn't see the original or can't remember them.

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Ft. Washington, Md.: When do you know it's time to leave a position in your current field? What other options would a person have in new media?

Retha Hill: Hey neighbor. Its time to leave when you are bored or when you can't grow at your current position. In new media there are jobs for creative directors, graphic designers (somebody's got to do all those flash games or banners), ad sales (huge because companies are spending 10-20 percent of their advertising budgets online these days), writing, editing and computer assisted journalism (investigative projects where you, say, crunch all the health statistics for a community in a data base and can point out trends per block or zip code).

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Fort Washington, Md.: Is there any "real" money in new media?

Retha Hill: The average salary in the Washington area for a beginning online producer is about $40,000; in Denton, Texas, it will be less. Experienced producers and editors can make $80,000.

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Maryland: How do I break into entertainment journalism? Working at BET.com would be a dream job for me ... how would you suggest I get my foot in door?

Retha Hill: Freelancing is typically the way to do it. I always look for people who have their own Web site, who are doing interesting things on line, know how to build a community. I just hired a freelancer who had her on entertainment site; she's been at it for a few years, doing on the side. Its fresh and she has a really good voice. Now she works part-time for me -- and for pay.

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Washington, D.C. : Retha -- I have worked for a nonprofit in administration/programming for the past seven years. I have always wanted to work in journalism or researching media and trends. I graduated with a degree in media studies and feel it is time to explore my options. What is the best way to go about doing this? Any advice you have would be appreciated. Thanks.

Retha Hill: As I said earlier, try freelancing and try to create a specialty area covering communities that are neglected by the local media. Develop an expertise and try to sell that to one of the community publications. Have you heard of hyperlocal sites? These are written by people in the community; there is one in Reston and a few others around the country. They are really, really local, but for busy parents like me, I like finding out there is a karate program forming for three-year-olds just blocks from my house. Try creating one of those and see what happens. The Pew Center for Interactive Journalism gives grants every year to fund some of those.

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Matthews, N.C.: What area of reporting is "hot" nowadays? Also how do people decide/specialize in a particular field (ex., finance journalism, entertainment, law, etc.)?

Retha Hill: Think about the big stories of the last few years: Enron (business reporting/financial reporting), the Michael Jackson trial (celebrity reporting) and the dot com industry. The environment. Immigration. I just read that one of the local newspapers in New England, I believe, is starting an Indian-language paper. Ok. See? America is changing and the media need reporters who can report on that change.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you find yourself shuffling through the same resumes all the time? With the focus still on traditional media, does that mean that the pool of applicants for you are limited?

Retha Hill: God, yes. There are very few new media producers out there who really get the medium. Most are traditional people who want to write 3000-word stories online. I find that I have to hire people who are willing to learn and train them myself.

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Rockville, Md.: Are there jobs that the media tends to subcontract out? Now that I think about it my question is probably too broad since the term media is fairly wide. I'm thinking back to the days of Ann Landers. I guess she could be called a freelance writer ... is her case an example of readership loyalty which led to being carried by more and more newspapers?

Retha Hill: Freelancing is still lucrative. You need to build up your clips. See previous answers to this question.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the best way to land a full-time staff position in the D.C. area in online journalism? It's been hard for me to find openings here because it seems like staff writers stay forever. New York seems to have a lot more publications and a lot more movement.

Retha Hill: Washington tends to pay better than smaller communities so people aren't willing to move. Try sites such as journalismjobs.com or the Online News Association site. ONA's conference is in October, right here in D.C. Go to journalists.org for more. Join. There is a job section where media companies are begging for people with online experience. Be prepared to move.

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Retha Hill: Thank you so much for coming to my Live Online discussion and check out BET.com. Cheers!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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