Like many Gen Zers stuck at home during the pandemic, then-17-year-old Matthew Tsai was bored. He loved listening to comedy podcasts, so he recruited his older sister to make their own, called “Tsai Five.” They recorded the first few episodes on Matthew’s phone while sitting on the floor at home. Eventually, their cousin composed the theme music for free.
Two years and a staggering 88 episodes later, Tsai is a sophomore at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism, exploring how to make “Tsai Five” even better — and maybe even pursue a career in podcasting.
“I feel like in journalism now, the job market is either you can go work for companies that are resistant or you can try to do the trail-blazing, like I’m going to be my own creator-type thing,” said Tsai. “And both of them scare me.”
Add to that an unstable economic environment and an industry where mass layoffs feel all too common, and it’s no wonder Tsai, and many others, are considering a DIY option. According to a 2021 study by financial consulting firm EY, nearly half of Gen Zers want to own their own business within 10 years, and 59% wished their education involved more “real-life work.”
As I’ve seen as an audio journalism professor at USC and the newsletter editor of West Coast Media Jobs, students like Tsai are creating that real-life work experience for themselves. They are launching passion projects with limited resources. They are paving their own paths to stand out in a crowded field. Here’s how they’re doing it.
Uplevel skills on your own
After going viral on TikTok a few times, USC Annenberg senior Daniel Dana has amassed over 82,000 followers who enjoy his videos about his campus life, pranks and fashion.
In November 2021, he decided to build off that audience and tap into his dream job as a talk show host. He conceptualized the show, called “Gen Me,” a podcast about social media, pop culture and societal issues through the lens of Gen Z. He used his savings to rent out an LA podcasting studio to professionally record the audio and video.
“I just wanted something to kind of establish myself more and legitimize myself more,” Dana said, noting that he wanted to spotlight viral but not yet famous TikTokers, as well as uplift the voices of influencers who are fellow members of the LGBTQ community.
“Gen Me” debuted in March 2022, featuring Dana’s interviews with some of his famous TikTok followers and friends, including influencer Peter Dokas, “Dad Stop Embarrassing Me” actress Kyla Drew Simmons and OnlyFans creator Lindsay Eichner.
Working hard on his TikTok and podcast paid off. This semester, he got a competitive internship at SiriusXM. He believes that the interviewing and on-camera skills he gained from TikTok and his podcast helped him get there.
“I think TikTok and podcasting are really hand-in-hand with broadcasting,” Dana said. “It shows that someone is personable, that you know how to interact with people, and you know how to talk to people. So when I’ve leveraged that, it adds a layer of professionalism.”
Be authentically yourself
Hampton University sophomore Kennedy Scales enjoyed anchoring her college’s WHOV-TV news show this spring, but she soon found herself wanting to shine more of a spotlight on the school’s community — and be more of herself on camera.
So Scales started her own YouTube talk show, “EverythingKenn The Show.” Over the past year, the series has featured interviews with Hampton student fashion entrepreneurs, Miss Black Indiana USA Sherdell Baker and “Insecure” star Jay Ellis.
“At first, it was for fun, but then I’m like, ‘No, this is what I want to do in real life,’” Scales said. “When I get older, in my 30s and 40s, I want to be sitting up on stage letting the whole world know what this person has been through, what they’ve done, what they’ve accomplished.”
“EverythingKenn” is truly a one-woman show — Scales hosts, records and edits the show by herself on campus, along with sourcing interviews and creating the rundown. But she found the most important part is embracing the opportunity to show off her personality. “That’s what’s going to get you hired.”
Build your own network
Taylor Marie Contarino saw how powerful networking can be during her freshman year at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. In 2020, her pandemic music blog, Heartfelt Hip-Hop, led to her meeting a classmate who pointed her to a music journalism internship at the Culture Fusion Agency.
“When I discovered that there were labels that you could intern at and you could be the person behind the music, my world changed,” Contarino said. “From there, I just networked so hard.”
Her networking efforts led to several music journalism and PR opportunities on both coasts. In 2021, Contarino transferred to USC Annenberg, and with the encouragement of a mentor, landed her dream part-time gig: working as a strategic partnerships representative at Universal Music Group’s 1824, the youth marketing and experiences team.
She’s thankful for the opportunities she has received through her network as a journalist, as well as a singer/songwriter, artist manager and publicist (Heartfelt Hip-Hop is now her PR firm’s website). But she still yearned to have a place for female-identifying folks to connect, so Contarino created it herself.
In September, she debuted the Women in the Music Industry Discord, which now has nearly 300 members who have already shared lots of opportunities in its first few months.
“Creating the Discord was about utilizing my network,” Contarino said. “And not only just helping myself, but helping my friends and people period. I thought that creating a place specifically designated for people who identify as women would serve as a safe space, and a place where people can lift each other up.”
Let your skills translate to a large spectrum of roles
While some students have anxiety about the current job market, Missouri School of Journalism’s Lynda Kraxberger is optimistic. As associate dean for undergraduate studies, she shepherds the renowned journalism program’s students from their recruitment into the program through their graduation and into the workplace. And she has seen how journalism skills have translated to so many different roles.
“The jobs don’t exist in the same places that they did 20 years ago,” Kraxberger said. “There are just a lot of digital roles all across the media spectrum in which students are doing, creating some kind of digital content, to build an audience.”
She has seen Missouri alums go on to successful careers in graphic design, social media and copywriting, as well as traditional journalism jobs. But with so much focus on the future, she also advises students to think about the present.
“When our students view the success stories, there’s always a way to compare oneself to somebody else, and feel like one is not doing enough,” Kraxberger said. “There are enough jobs for everybody. When we compare, we despair.”
Instead, she says, aspiring journalists and creators should be true to themselves and use what they have. ”Focus on you,” she said, “and what is the thing that you want to do or be right now.”