It was late December, and I was sitting at the fire pit, with a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the first night of the rest of my life.
I’d just ended a 36-year journalism career, saying goodbye to my friends at NJ.com and the single best job in New Jersey journalism. Eventually, I would launch a strategic communications and media consultancy, partnering with my wife, Regina, to form Whitmer Consulting.
But I wasn’t clear on the specifics at the time and I wondered what lay ahead. What would be my next chapter?
I knew two things: I wanted to stay in the industry, and there was no shortage of companies — large and small — that I could help. But could I find them? Could they find me? Could I sell my experience and abilities as a strategic communications guy? How long should I make the break I desperately needed? And how in the world would I price services that have run the gamut from creating a client’s entire advertising budget to writing robo calls in what somehow became one of the tightest deadline assignments of my life?
The next 12 months would be packed with incredible learning experiences, swings and surprises, failures and the chance to fall in love all over again with my work and learning. Chasing after clients, trying to keep them happy and ahead of the game, and getting hired and fired are all like the best days in a newsroom: You never really know what the next email, phone call, text or meeting will bring. Every day is different and that’s a gift.
In addition to all of those mostly wonderful experiences, there have been plenty of lessons. There were more than five, of course, but we’ll keep the list tight for Year One.
1. People who’ve been there, done that will be your touchstones.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve gravitated toward older, smarter people. It’s not just because I know what I don’t know, but I understand these people put together incredible careers and are oozing with wisdom. They’re also eager to share their expertise. We just need to slow down and listen. So it’s no surprise I took every coffee, lunch and dinner I could find before launching Whitmer Consulting.
Probably the best half-dozen pieces of advice I have received as a new business owner came from older friends kind enough to share. When it’s your time to start something new, you’ll want to remember these:
- Learn to say no.
- Learn to fire clients.
- Learn to get fired. Really, it’s a good thing.
- Don’t expect your friends to become clients. It’s more likely — much more likely — that your clients will become your new friends. (This is incredibly accurate.)
- Slow down. The pace of a newsroom isn’t just different, it’s completely foreign to many, especially those in corporations and big businesses. Besides, your business will never get to where you want it to go in Year One.
- Not everyone seeks, wants or needs perfection. Some clients just need things to get done. So slow down and listen. Let the client drive.
2. A lot of brilliant people who run big things really don’t understand media.
The demise of traditional media is undeniable and tragic. Just a few years ago, we were worrying about news deserts; today I worry about every news organization sized between hyperlocal websites and the New York Times, which doesn’t (and shouldn’t) care what’s happening in most of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities.
Almost everyone else is fighting for a niche or for eyeballs in the middle, doing whatever it takes to register users or sell subscriptions ahead of the new world without cookies. That’s why it makes little sense for The Star-Ledger and NJ.com to cover much of what they once did.
As sad as that is for community news reporting and the countless topics no longer covered, it is a screaming opportunity for individuals, organizations and companies to create and distribute their own content. More companies can learn from entertainers and athletes — two groups far ahead in shaping their message and controlling how, when and where it’s distributed.
In today’s world, having your own url is everything, in part because readers have been turned inside out by fake news, sponsored content, submitted content and a million other things across a million different entry points to content. Put another way: The waters have been muddied and opportunities exist today that didn’t even a few years ago. As a result, more companies will be creating their own mini-newsrooms. The smart ones already are on that path.
If you want to know about how to execute this strategy, I know some folks who run a pretty good strategic communications and digital media firm.
3. Great journalists are more valuable than ever.
A few months ago, I wrote why companies need to hire more journalists. It’s only gotten more apparent in my travels since then, and there are more journalists in New Jersey looking for work.
Remember: Most journalists write better than the majority of your staff. They are skillful researchers and multitasking problem-solvers. And they can teach everyone basic social media strategies in a single day.
Really, what are you waiting for?
4. Bring back office time.
Remote and hybrid work are fantastic, creating opportunities and eliminating barriers. The world is a smaller place. That’s good news for a lot of people, including parents who spent years sitting in traffic and missing their kids’ school functions. But I still yearn for those occasionally productive, even fun meetings — and the random interactions with co-workers.
That’s me. But what about the generation just cutting their teeth or stepping into management roles? I learned so much just paying attention and staying close to older, smarter, more experienced people. I would not want to be a new reporter without a mentor or a seat at a bank of desks where I could listen to others handle difficult interviews and even more difficult interactions with editors.
5. You’re never too old to learn and get better.
Personal growth never ends if we stay curious and stay hungry, as the experiences of 2o22 have reminded me. It has been a wonderful year of discovery and growth, and it’s hard to imagine all the things that have happened since that night last December by the fire pit. I’m grateful and I can’t wait for 2023 and even more opportunities.
Kevin Whitmer owns a strategic communications and digital media consultancy. He spent more than 30 years managing large news operations and navigating the new world of digital media and marketing.
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