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Being a journalist

I've been getting a lot of email from people asking how to become a journalist, so I've compiled this page of frequently asked questions. The answers relate to my own experience in the UK.

How difficult is it to get a job as a journalist?

Journalism consistently features in surveys of what jobs graduates would most like to have. You'll probably need luck and persistence, but you'll need a reasonable dose of those in doing the job too. And you can do a lot to help good luck along. I don't think it's harder than getting a job as a teacher or engineer. If you want to be a big name and front the TV news or hit the broadsheet cover pages, it's going to take more work. But you'll probably have to start at the same place.

What training should I take to be a journalist?

A word of caution here: a lot of people want to be journalists, proofreaders or photographers and there's a small industry in companies that exploit this by selling training that isn't widely respected in the industry. That's not to say it won't help you, just that you might not get value for money and might find that the benefits of the training are oversold to you. Correspondence courses are a particular problem.

If you're choosing a degree, it might make most sense to choose a non-media degree. That gives you a specialism to write about and you can always pick up the media training later, either by doing a course (such as an NCTJ recognised journalism course) or training on the job. Most major publishers look to graduates to fill their entry-level positions.

There are a lot of companies offering on the job training. The deal here is usually that they exploit you for the work, and you exploit them for the training. Not much money changes hands. As long as they give you a real chance to learn quickly, they're a cheaper way to start than paying for a course. You might need to aggressively pursue opportunities to try new things.

No certificates will help you as much as experience, so start writing as soon as you have an opportunity.

What's the best way to get into journalism?

By doing it. Obviously editors of newsstand bestsellers won't be too chuffed if you waste their time pitching half-prepared ideas to them (and the problem when you're starting out is that you don't know what you don't know), but a lot of special interest publications encourage new writers. If you've got a hobby, you can often write for the publications that serve that hobby to start building up a portfolio. If there's an event or trade show locally, you might be able to cover it for the national or international business or trade press because they can't send anyone else. You can find new magazines using the Writers & Artists Yearbook (in most libraries, and you can buy it from here). The most definitive guide is Brad, which you might have to travel to a business library for.

Once you have a piece published, you're able to work your way up by sending copies of that with article proposals to editors on slightly bigger and/or more prestigious publications until you're where you want to be.

You can also write for local freesheets (which often won't pay, but will give you a printed credit), fanzines and websites. If there isn't an opportunity to write about your pet subject, think of ways to create an opening or ways you can learn to write for a new market.

Two tips on starting out in writing:

  1. Make sure you get the market rate for your work. If it's worth printing, it's worth paying for.
  2. Stretch yourself without promising something you can't deliver. If you don't deliver, someone else is going to have to fill that page at short notice, which won't generate many applications for your fanclub.

What about music journalism?

Music journalism is badly paid, so it's probably best seen as one subject you write about as a freelancer rather than the whole basis for a career. As a guide, market-leading music publications pay about half the NUJ rate. Working freelance also gives you the opportunity to choose what to write about. Music journalism offers the best opportunities to start out, because you can start your own fanzine about a band. But it's also one of the most fiercely competitive areas of journalism.

The good thing about music journalism is that you don't need to compete on experience so much: if you can send some articles that fit a magazine's style and are fun to read, you stand a chance of getting in. If you're good, they'll want to take you on. If you're not ready yet, there aren't any training opportunities, it's just a case of trying again. It can be helpful to specialise in a type of music when writing for magazines, although they'll all expect some awareness of the greats.

(I haven't done much reviewing or interviews, doing a lot more music technology writing. This is less competitive than writing reviews for the NME or suchlike, I know).

What can I do to become more employable?

You can already start gathering and demonstrating the skills you'll need as a journalist, however far away you are from applying for jobs. Increasingly journalists need to be multi-skilled. Here are some ideas for what you can easily do now:

  • Learn photography. It's helpful to learn photo composition and timing. Although newspapers are increasingly all-colour, it can be helpful to know how to process and print black and white films if you're going into newspapers. Digital photography is becoming increasingly important, so it's worth learning about that too, although the entry costs are much higher. If you carry a camera around with you wherever you go, you might be surprised at some of the photo opportunities that come up.
  • Learn HTML. It's the language that websites are made of. Many believe that most writing jobs in the future will be online, so it will help to know a bit about text formatting for websites. Set up your own website and use it as an online portfolio. Check the journalism job adverts to keep track of new technologies relevant to your area of interest.
  • Learn a foreign language.
  • Make relevant contacts. If you want to be a music journalist, start talking to bands and their managers. Attend relevant trade shows. Network.
  • Get work experience on the local paper or local radio station. You might be able to do this in cooperation with your school, or failing that might be able to set something up yourself. You can also help out on hospital radio, although this doesn't count for much at major broadcasters.
  • Read books on writing style, especially those published by major news organisations based on their in-house guides. The Guardian Style Guide is now online and is a good example of the sort of things these books cover, and the words that can cause problems with consistency.
  • Read widely. It's a good way to pick up new ideas for stories and also shows a range of writing styles. It's particularly important to read the publications in the niche you want to write for. You can cut the cost by reading a lot of publications online now.
  • Many journalism unions offer free student membership. Consider joining one of them if you're eligible. It can be a good way to keep informed on industry issues.
  • Keep up with media industry news.

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