Editor’s note: In the Oct. 4 issue of Sidebar, we asked, “How important is professional development to your organization?” A resounding 80 percent of you rated it the least important, “1- Not even on the radar.” In an age where survival in publishing, marketing, sales, and just about every form of communication requires constant evolution and adaption, professional development is sidelined at your peril. If that means taking matters into your own hands, here’s a little guidance to help you along the way.
By Mel Grau
Large media organizations like The New York Times, the Associated Press, and Univision typically have budgets dedicated to staff training. Whether you’re trying to get a slice of this pie or are trying to convince your boss to scrape together pennies for professional development, one thing is certain — you need to ask for what you want.
Retraining helps you grow your own capacity and address skills gaps in your team. Refining your craft keeps you engaged and productive. Reconnecting with your mission and joining a community of other passionate, dedicated professionals will save you from burnout.
“If you think you can benefit from training, you need to raise your hand,” says Doris Truong, director of training and diversity at Poynter and a former editor at The Washington Post.
Here’s how to do it with tact and tenacity.
Plan Ahead as Much as Possible
Truong recommends finding out who controls the budget in your organization — it might not be your direct supervisor — and when they’re making decisions.
If you’re on a contract, the so-called “decider” might be you. When you approach renegotiations, remember that professional development is a bargaining tool and it can be written into agreements.
After determining how professional development is handled, start thinking about how to ask for time away from the office.
“I did feel like getting time off was more difficult than getting reimbursed,” says Negar Mojtahedi, a Canadian journalist who works for Global News Television and Global News Online. “With cutbacks, people on sick-stress leave, and just being short staffed overall, it's really difficult to get time off when you need it.”
Destinée-Charisse Royal, senior staff editor in graphics at The New York Times, agreed that planning her time away from the newsroom was a concern. “I got the buy-in from my two bosses before I was even sure I was going to apply,” Royal says.
Tie Your Training To Team’s Goals
Though professional development is ultimately about you and your career, asking for support should be framed as contributing to the greater good of your organization.
“The best thing to do is to show how taking a seminar will benefit not just your own professional development, but that of your news organization as a whole,” said Mojtahedi. She recommends showing your superiors the specific steps you will take to pass along what you learned.
To bring that information back to your organization, you could:
Host a brown bag lunch to teach colleagues about practical tactics, like how to build better connections with your local community.
Peer mentor a colleague to transfer knowledge of a strategic concept, like how to lead behavioral change.
Spearhead a project to capitalize on your new skills, like overseeing an investigative project on deadline.
Make It Easy On Your Boss
To get to “yes,” remove barriers for your boss. Suggest how the team can fill in gaps when you’re gone. Offer to ghostwrite your own recommendation letter. Familiarize yourself with the training’s learning objectives and cite testimonials from other graduates about impact.
A little zeal and initiative go a long way, too. To figure out how to fit professional development in the budget, “I have to see that my staff is really passionate in what they do,” said Hannah Seide, senior editor for Radio Free Asia.
“It should be clear that you have already taken steps to make yourself better, and you simply want guidance in adding to it,” said Cliff Brunt, an AP sports writer. “Make it clear that you intend to grow regardless, but then have a clear plan showing how this particular summit can help.”
Have a Backup Plan
With budget realities, sometimes your organization simply cannot afford to send you to training, no matter how valuable it is.
Marleni Cuellar, anchor, host, and correspondent at Great Belize Productions–Channel 5, knew her company didn’t have a budget for training — but she wanted to attend Poynter’s TV Power Reporting Academy anyway.
“This workshop offered me the skill set I really wanted to improve on,” Cuellar says. It was only through three years of saving and a birthday present that she could pay for tuition and fly to St. Petersburg for the training.
Like Cuellar, “Sometimes you just have to invest in your own career,” says Tom Huang, an editor at Dallas Morning News who has seen his paper’s budget for staff development decrease in recent years.
Crowdfunding could be one option to pay your way. Platforms like GoFundMe have helped people raise money for the Capital Gazette and Stoneman Douglas High School’s journalism program after tragedy, but it’s also been used successfully by student journalists to fund travel to conferences, study-abroad opportunities, and newsroom improvements.
Many organizations, such as Poynter, offer free or grant-funded workshops and seminars. In 2018, Poynter taught a variety of grant-funded workshops, like how to cover local jails, the future of work, equity in higher education, children of color in the South, and innovation in healthcare delivery.
Whether you’re seeking full funding for training — or scholarships, donations, or other aid — the key is to take action to make it happen.
Mel Grau (email@example.com) is the marketing communications writer at The Poynter Institute. Poynter offers a wealth of professional development courses and programs for a wide variety of aspects of journalism and publishing.