Mike Rispoli of Free Press responds to a question from the audience during the Center for Cooperative Media's Dec. 12 networking luncheon and roundtable "Life After the Newsroom."Credit: Mike Peters/Montclair State University

After being laid-off in journalism, what's next? Panel gives advice to New Jersey journalists

Melissa Hebert is no stranger to layoffs.

Eight years after getting dismissed from The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she got her second pink slip one month ago, from a business-to-business publication in New York. The recent New Jersey transplant came to the Center for Cooperative Media’s “Life After the Newsroom” networking luncheon and discussion on Dec. 12 eager to meet colleagues and hear how her local peers have navigated similar transitions.

“It can be isolating trying to build a network here and trying to get to know people,” said Hebert, a former sports and features writer and copy editor who relocated from Ohio to Union City three years ago.

The "Life After the Newsroom" event was organized partly in response to Gannett's recent announcement of the elimination of more than 400 jobs at the North Jersey Media Group.  Hebert joined others laid off from their journalism jobs over the past month at the luncheon, including a table full of vets from North Jersey Media Group, to hear previously-dismissed journalists give advice on how to thrive after a forced departure from a job.

“Stick to your brand. You decide who you are,” said panelist Vevlyn Wright, who publishes the online Wright Wreport.

Chris Satullo, now a consultant who previously worked as the editorial page editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and as vice president of news and civic dialogue at Philadelphia-based public radio station WHYY, backed up Wright's message by telling the audience, “Keep your brand going as an expert in your field. Were you a beat reporter? Leverage that expertise to approach organizations for speaking and writing projects.”

Watch a full replay of the 'Life After the Newsroom' conversation:

John Mooney, who co-founded NJ Spotlightafter taking a buyout from the (Newark) Star-Ledger in 2008, said that foundations and non-profits can generate jobs for journalists.

“There is non-profit money out there and a lot of attention (being paid) toward quality writing,” he said, adding, “There’s also space for journalists with event-planning experience.”

But first, "Think about what you’re really good at," suggested Mike Rispoli, who now works for Free Pressand who had previously been laid-off from Gannett in 2008. “Every single industry needs people who can write well, do research, and tell stories. That’s the power we all have to bring that to whatever cause you want.”

"You’re in the 99.99th percentile for speed of research, and you can write simple declarative sentences in English," Satullo said. "You can be gods who walk the earth in hallways where you never imagined yourself.”

Rispoli and filmmaker Sandra Levineboth recommended offering to do introductory work for free, as long as the benefitting organization means something to the writer.

Levine said her volunteer services have led to more than one paid assignment, whether from the organization itself or from its individual board members or referrals. Networking is key.

“I talk to everyone,” Levine said. “I’m waiting for a contract from a broadcast TV network (now). That’s coming out of a conversation I had with a man in a hot tub" at her local gym.

The Q&A-heavy event itself supplied a case-in-point: Cedar Grove participant Geoff Giordano came looking for tips and to recruit writers for his start-up content company, Driven Inbound.

“I’m looking to the panelists to hear how they’re solving their problems and to scout talent. We’re all an army of one,” he said.

As for Melissa Hebert, she took home this message: “It’s more than just checking job boards. You do have a lot of transferable skills as a journalist, and it’s good to think outside that box.”

Click here to see additional photos from the luncheon. 

Tara Nurin is a freelance New Jersey journalist. 

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.