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From the Field
Life after Tally Lights
By Ian Pearson

The best reason I ever heard for leaving broadcasting came from a colleague in Texas who, ironically, had every reason to stay. She worked in a top 5 market, made gobs of money, could do her job blindfolded and was highly respected by all. So why leave? Her reply was memorable for its lack of spin or blame: "I was sleepwalking." And with that she regained control of her life.

More people are leaving the news business and whether the reason is burnout, shakeout or a falling out, it's a shame how many, unlike my friend, are unprepared. Nine years ago I opened my own communications firm after 22 mostly wonderful years in news. Today I teach media relations and produce videos; I have a steady stream of clients, a good income and awards, and I love what I do.

Credit good fortune, a great family and some lessons I learned. Sorry, I can't share my family or good fortune, but here are the lessons that worked for me, in case you (or someone else) decides your time has come:

1) Build bridges now. The Maori have a saying, "Act and live, sit and die." Prepare mentally and vow never to be surprised. Save some money. Do your own evaluation of your skills and dreams. Learn from other departees. Study the market. Free-lance or volunteer to hone a new skill. Make contacts: my first clients came from my last news projects. Above all use your current job to learn more or get better—if it pleases your boss, fine, but it definitely increases your worth.

2) When you leave, flush your head. That's why I saved the money, to tide me over while I cleared my mind and let new ideas emerge. I avoided looking for work for three months and two things happened: I re-discovered the value of having time to think (which I now offer to clients who are as frenetic as I used to be), and I chose a career path far different from what I might have chosen the day I left news.

3) You have assets the non-news world values. One is speed: clients are continually surprised how fast newspeople can turn around a script or video or project. Newsies are great at research, at finding answers and experts. Most newspeople also have a superb sense of what will appeal to the audience (read: the marketplace). Newspeople have—or should have—valuable networks among colleagues nationwide (it comes in handy when I need a videographer in Hong Kong fast). Lastly, newspeople are among the best at working 24/7.... if that's what you want to do, there's good money in it.

4) Be aware of your liabilities. In my case I knew "quick-and-dirty" news production but had to learn a ton—from lighting, animation and effects to the need for rough cuts and window dubs. I had to learn why commercial productions cost so much and take so long (there are many good reasons). I had to adapt to more complicated approval processes. In order to teach media relations to corporations, nonprofits and academia, I had to learn more about the cultures of each. Lastly—and this is part of flushing your head—I had to get past the misconception that leaving news for another form of communicating makes you a flak or hack.

5) You will face new challenges. No surprise there, but not everyone can adapt. Many free lancers I know give up because they can't cope with "paycheck uncertainty." Also, ex-newspeople often set their rate cards too low by interpolating from their old salaries (the four-figure sum I get for a three-hour workshop is actually for eight weeks of preparation). As a journalist I had to learn patience for the time-consuming and often frustrating process of RFPs—requests for proposals. I had to resist blowing my savings on fancy brochures and trust that satisfied clients would be my best marketing. I learned to do without a corporate support system (when your computer crashes, good luck calling the IT department. When a big-bucks client needs you on Christmas week, what about your planned vacation?

Finally, I still have to guard against being too diversified or being too focused. I learned that for me it's not good to say "I can do anything you need," nor is it wise to have only one skill in a down market. I have two product lines: I "do what I teach" and I "teach what I do." Works for me. Now, nearly a decade after going out on my own, I've been lucky. I have a second wonderful career. Rather than sleepwalking I learn every day and it's indescribably exhilarating.

And three things I doubted would happen when I left news, happened: I discovered I could make it on my own. I feel more fulfilled than I have for years. And I don't miss the news profession one bit (though I respect it mightily). Whether you stay or leave, I wish you as much.

About the Author

IAN PEARSON worked for 22 years as a reporter, producer and news director in five cities, most recently KHOU-TV in Houston and KRON-TV in San Francisco. In 1993 he opened Pearson Communications in Tiburon, California. He conducts media relations workshops and produces videos for a nationwide client list of corporations, nonprofits, government agencies and universities. Ian has no staff but a lovely wife and two kids.