10 Top Tips for Prospective Journalists
Breaking into journalism is remarkably hard.
While once every town had its own local newspaper and there were endless rows of magazines on every possible topic, now the content that was once sold in newsagents is available on the internet for free. That’s great for consumers but not so much for the jobs that had once consisted of writing that content – and those that remain are often much less well paid than they would have been twenty or even ten years ago. Many of the people who would once have worked in journalism are now choosing other fields such as marketing.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. Getting into journalism is hard, but it’s not impossible; you can think of it as a challenge equivalent to getting accepted into medical school, for instance. While the effort you’ll have to put in will be very different to that required of a medical school student, the amount of time you’ll need to spend will be similar. If you’re determined that it’s the right choice for you, here’s what you need to do in order to get a foothold in journalism.
1. Get lots of work experience
In some careers, you can work towards getting the right qualifications, and they prove that you’re capable to do the job. This is why you don’t need work experience to become an accountant; if you’re qualified in accountancy, that’s proof enough.
The same isn’t true of journalism. Courses in journalism will make you a better journalist, but they aren’t enough in their own right to get you a job. Work experience is crucial. First of all, it demonstrates that you will have had some training in journalism on a practical basis, beyond what you might encounter in a classroom. Second, it shows that you’ve experienced the reality of being a journalist, which might be less investigating high-level government scandal, and more trying to find some interest in a story about minor magistrates’ court decisions, or a missing cow.
The more work experience you can get, the better, ideally across different publications (although the same publication being willing to take you back is also a good sign). Local newspapers are usually quite keen to take on work experience students for a week or two. If you can get an internship through a formal scheme, even better.
2. Write for money where you can
The disadvantage of most work experience and internships in journalism is that they are unpaid. Similarly, if you start your own blog or something similar, with the exception of small-scale advertising, you’re unlikely to be getting an income from it. Getting to the point where you’re employed as a journalist does usually require quite a lot of writing for free.
But if you do have the opportunity to write for money, then take it. If you’re writing for free, everything you do is a bonus. If your articles require a bit more editing, or if some of them get scrapped altogether, then that’s to be expected, and probably still worth it overall in comparison with paying someone. There’s little incentive to help you improve, especially if the criticism might upset you.
Someone who’s paying for your writing, by contrast, has every cause to criticise. You can write posts on your blog that are three times the length that they need to be, but if you send in copy that’s three times the length that your employer requested, it will be sent back with a request for you to cut it down. Unpaid experience is much easier to come by than paid experience, but paid experience is often where you’ll learn the most about how to improve.
3. Get to know the business
Being a journalist isn’t just about writing beautiful prose. It’s also about the business of turning that beautiful prose into something that will pay the rent. That business is becoming steadily more challenging in the face of internet pressure, with newspapers trying out a host of different models to make their content earn money: paywalls, freemium models, subscription services, supporter models and subsidising a loss-making venture from other sources and hoping things turn around soon. If you don’t know how all of the business models in that last sentence work, or which newspapers use them, start doing some research and find out.
Knowing the business well means that you’ll have a better understanding of the kinds of writing that result in the highest revenue, as well as the pressures that editors are under when they’re deciding whether or not to hire you. If you can demonstrate that knowledge in an interview or when networking, you’re much more likely to find yourself with job offers in future.
4. Network as much as possible
The majority of jobs in journalism aren’t advertised. You get offered them following work experience or internships, after a training programme, or through a network of contacts. That means that getting to know people in journalism is vital.
This doesn’t mean that you should treat any networking event as if it’s a job interview. It does mean that you should seek to meet people wherever possible; for instance, if you were to go to a young journalists’ conference, treat the lunch and drinks receptions as just as important as any of the sessions you might go to, and be sure to attend them. Have business cards so that if you make an impression on someone, they’ll be able to get in touch with you. Aim to be polite and useful, including putting people you know in touch with each other as appropriate; after all, they may one day return the favour for you. There is something of a catch-22 here, as it’s hard to get to network with people when you don’t know anyone; this is why attending specific networking events is worthwhile.
5. Apply for everything you possibly can
As you’ve probably realised by now, there are far more prospective journalists than there are jobs in journalism. While it’s great to make yourself into the best possible candidate, there’s another approach to finding success in journalism that you should also try, and that’s playing the numbers game. You’re much more likely to get a place on a graduate scheme, a job, an internship or any other kind of opportunity to get your foot in the door if you apply for 50 of them instead of 5, and even more so if you apply for 500.
This can mean compromising on your ideal job, for instance by applying for an internship with a newspaper where the editorial stance doesn’t align with your views as much as you’d like. Or it can mean being prepared to spend a couple of weeks living in a B&B while you do work experience away from home. It can also mean filling in an exhausting number of applications for what feels like very little return. But when you get your first acceptance, it will all be worth it.
6. Be active on social media
For many jobs, staying off social media and thereby avoiding any embarrassing photos or ill-advised rants coming back to haunt you in future is a good tip. But journalism is different. Social media is a useful proxy to tell you how successful an article has been; if hundreds or even thousands of people have shared it, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s gone down well (or been hated sufficiently to drive a lot of traffic to your site and boost your advertising revenue, anyway). Journalists particularly like Twitter, with its 140-character limit forcing sharp, snappy conversations.
That means that one great way to impress people in the world of journalism is to have an interesting Twitter feed with lots of followers. If you do a really good job, they’ll interact with you via social media, enabling you to network at a distance.
7. Build a portfolio
All the networking in the world won’t do you any good, however, if there isn’t any evidence of your work. Building a varied portfolio of things that you’ve written – whether they’re commissioned or written independently, published on your blog or elsewhere, paid for or written for free – means that you can demonstrate your abilities in writing and research, and also showcase your particular areas of expertise and interest.
This should all be available online somewhere (including links to articles that are published elsewhere), and connected to your lively social media accounts. It’s also good to include a brief, informal CV, contact information, and some general information about yourself. You should feel free to include the kind of details that you wouldn’t normally put in a professional space, e.g. “I love eating out and have seen every single episode of The Big Bang Theory.” You never know, that could be the key to you getting commissioned to write a review of a newly opened Big Bang Theory-themed restaurant.
8. Gain related skills
You might be a fantastic writer and researcher, but that’s not all that can be required of journalists, and you make yourself immediately more employable if you have other related skills as well. For instance, can you take good photographs, even in a hurry? How about your digital skills? If you can work your way through a fiddly content management system that’s ten years out of date, you’ve got a practical skill that most journalists use on a daily basis.
Other digital skills are useful as well. Can you Photoshop a photograph to remove issues like a lamp post sprouting from the top of the subject’s head? Or optimise a piece of text for search engines? Or use basic html? You might think that these things aren’t really part of a journalist’s job, but given that most newspapers are cutting down on staff in order to get by, having employees who can do these things is very useful. And in the meantime, if you’re trying to get more exposure by writing a blog, having great SEO and beautiful photography on it should help boost your readership.
9. Live where the jobs are
If you want to succeed in journalism, you’ve got a choice between two options: work for a local newspaper, where circulation is generally falling but where you can work steady and predictable hours; or live in a big city, preferably London, where almost all the other jobs in journalism are based. Very few people who want to become journalists do so because they dream of reporting on local break-ins and council planning meetings, so it’s likely that you’ll want to do the latter.
This can have an impact on choices that you make while still at school. In particular, many people end up settling down in the town or city where they went to university, either because they’ve met a partner there or simply because they like living there. If you want to keep journalism available as an option, choose a city like London, Edinburgh or Manchester where many such jobs are based. This will also make it easier to apply for internships over the summer.
10. Don’t be scared to cold-call people
If you’re trying to get into medicine, all the confidence and determination in the world won’t help if you can’t pass your exams. But if you’re trying to become a journalist, sheer tenacity will get you a good bit of the way. You will get a tremendous number of rejections, but you have to put up with those and keep trying anyway if you want to succeed.
One way to get rejections out of the way quickly and to increase your chances of a success is to cold-call people. This is a process that will feel terrifying to you, but is quite normal for the person you’re calling. You could call up a newspaper to request work experience or simply to pitch a story. The answer will probably be no, but if you’re friendly and pleasant to talk to, you might get a useful contact out of it who may even bear you in mind for commissions or internships in future. And who knows – if you’ve done everything else on this list, eventually the response to cold-calling might well be a yes.
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