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Training: How to become a journalist

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Training: How to become a journalist

An in-depth guide to making it in the world of journalism by writer and editor Andrew Tipp

Print news is a declining industry, and no one has quite perfected how to make online news work commercially. Finding a way to make news pay is a problem that is becoming harder and harder due to people increasingly consuming their news content online – and expecting it to be free; you’ll often hear about newspapers cutting sub-editors and reporters being overworked and underpaid.

This means that journalism is a tough career to pursue, with lots of job uncertainty and the frequent threat of redundancy. Does this mean going into journalism is a mistake? No. Journalism can be a hugely rewarding occupation, but you’ve got to be prepared to work for it. To live it. And to love it.

You can make it happen, but be under no illusions about what you’re getting into. Carving out a career as a journo is hard, and you probably won’t start on great money. If you’re going to do this you have to believe in what you’re doing, believe yourself. Here is IP1’s guide to making it in the world of journalism.

Experience, experience, experience
Qualifications, certificates, degrees; they don’t mean what they used to. Over the last 15 to 20 years there’s been a huge increase in the number of young people going on to study at university, resulting in a marketplace with more qualified graduates than jobs available.

Does this mean you shouldn’t bother with a degree? Of course not. Qualifications are essential. They’re not just bits of paper, they’re a testament to your ability to write shorthand or report stories legally. A Bachelors or Masters degree in journalism, or at the very least a qualification in news reporting from the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NTCJ), is a huge asset.

But the thing that separates you from other job candidates is experience. Practical skills developed actually doing the job. So write for the student newspaper at university. Edit your own magazine. Get work experience at professional publications over the summer. Apply for internships to do in breaks between semesters. Do a gap year and spend a few months on a media placement at a radio station in Ghana or a TV studio in Brazil.

Experience not only demonstrates that you’ve gained practical, transferable real-world skills, it shows your dedication and your passion for the subject matter (i.e. news) and the platform (newspaper, TV, radio, etc.).

Learn how your world works
One of the fundamentals of news reporting or feature writing is being able to communicate what’s happening in a credible way. The best way to do this is to build up broad knowledge, starting with your own community. You need to know how key institutions and organisations function. How much do you know about your local county council? What large unions are there in your area? What key concerns affect your community?

You can also apply this to a national and international level. What do you know about businesses and the economy? How much do you know about how Parliament pass laws? How does the government work? What are the most important issues affecting world politics?

You’ll learn a lot of this stuff on journalism courses, but the better you understand all these things the more versatile you’ll be as a journalist. Often as a journalist you’ll need to be an expert on an issue or industry for a short period of time at short notice - so it’s never too early to start swotting up. The more areas you can demonstrate broad knowledge of, the more impressive you’ll be as a candidate later on.

Be social
We live in a social age. Which is cool. So connect with editors and reporters on Twitter. Follow them, retweet their posts, share their articles and reply to them with intelligent views and comments. Hopefully you might get on their radar – especially if they’re local – but at the very least you’re still socially engaging credible industry figures, and anyone checking out your timeline will see you’re plugged into news and media.

Find lists of journalists, media types, industry thinkers and news taste-makers to follow. Subscribe to these types of lists. Create your own. Bit by bit you’re generating a profile of an aspiring journo with media savvy and social nous, with is valuable.

But don’t just focus on the media. Cast the net wider and network with local businesses and institutions. Build relationships with them, which you can then namedrop in interviews and applications. You might even get stories out of them – many journalists use Twitter as a legitimate story-finding / aiding tool.

There are loads of other social network platforms you can use, of course, but right now Twitter is by far the most effective.

Nail your profile
Perception is all about presentation. How you position yourself is how most people will see you. And the brilliant thing is, you’re in control of this. Make sure you have a slick CV. How to create an awesome CV is a whole topic in itself but – for a journalist especially – there are certain basics to get right:

  • Present an honest, skill-based profile of yourself at the start.

  • List your journalism/writing experience, qualifications and skills in order of most relevant/recent.

  • Remember to show, not tell: give examples of what you’re done or achieved. Don’t just say you’re “interested in the media.” Demonstrate it by explaining how and why.

  • Kill any generic and meaningless attributes, hobbies or ‘abilities’.

  • Keep it brief – anyone you apply for an internship or work experience with is likely to be busy; they don’t want to read your autobiography.

  • Make sure every section and sentence is simple, clear and justifies its place.

  • Avoid jargon, and any unnecessarily long or unusual words.

  • Stick to readable fonts, character sizes and line spaces.

  • Limit yourself to one page.

    Writer, editor and former IP1 magazine deputy editor, Andrew Tipp

    To accompany your CV, why not build an online portfolio of your work? Get your own domain, add it to your social profiles and generate a ‘Best Of’ collection of what you’ve done, either linking to original posts and articles or reproducing them on your own site? The days of taking a portfolio of press clippings into an interview are fading. Make your collection of work is just one click away for anyone who’s curious.

    Lastly, create a LinkedIn profile, and connect with professionals. It’ll be tough to start off with, but as you gain skills and experience your connections will grow. You might not be able to go straight in for the editor of your local newspaper, but do you know someone who did work experience there once? Connect with them, then with a junior reporter, then with a sub, then go for the Big Cheese at the top. That’s just one idea. Plan a strategy for building connections and be patient.

    Start a blog
    Creating a blog will show future employers that you are serious and passionate about your media interest, and demonstrate that you’re a socially plugged in and interesting content producer.

    If you have more ideas and content than places to publish them, starting your own blog is a no brainer. Sites like WordPress and Tumblr have simple and clean news-friendly themes, so sign up and create your own online brand based around your area of interest.

    Managing a blog gives you a platform to share your views and skills with the world. It lets you share your amazing ideas that no-one else has thought about. If you’re serious about the news industry and news itself, why not set up a blog that provides you with a format to produce think-pieces on recent developments?

    Have a ‘thing’
    Having a ‘thing’ isn’t the same as pigeon-holing yourself. It just means that you can specialise; that you have specific areas of interest. It helps to give you an identity, and makes you more memorable. It will help you build contacts, and a career.

    So don’t just be a generic aspiring journo that’s interested in media. Broad industry intrigue is good. Diverse subject knowledge is great. But have a thing that separates you from others. Something distinctive. Are you interested in reporting music and gigs? Fiction or film? Are you a political geek or a science guru? Create a niche for yourself and wear it like a badge.

    Be different. Be unexpected. Don’t churn out generic copy everyone else is doing and expect people to care. Write stories and features that you think are interesting and important. Write content people have never read before. Be original.

    Oh, and it helps to actually be a great writer. Hone your skills. Practice. Don’t be satisfied unless your grammar, syntax and spelling are perfect. Make sure your sentences are sharp, purposeful and insightful. Make sure your writing has a voice. A lot of journalists aren’t actually great writers. They are functional, prosaic communicators of facts and information. But great journalists know that every news story needs to be, well, a story. If you’re a good storyteller, with a sound understanding of narrative, you’re halfway there already.

    Get out there and pitch ideas
    Nothing is better for an aspiring journalist than being published. It doesn’t matter how big or small the publication, it all helps you build a portfolio of work.

    Editors like self-motivated, idea-generating writers. They are hungry for content, and love being pitched suggestions. Don’t sit around turning your interesting blog into an unread personal project ignored by everyone except your mum; pitch out your best ideas to magazine, websites and newspapers.

    Research your pitch – what does the publication like? What regular features do they run? What’s their style and tone? Show you understand their publication and audience; that you can write in their in-house style. Being informed and knowledgeable about the publication will only help your pitch.

    Be multi-skilled
    Being multi-disciplined is a huge advantage in the media. Don’t just be a ‘copy person’. Only being able to use Microsoft Word is not going to impress anyone.

    Gain technical skills and knowledge. Work within design software. Learn to shoot and cut video together. Brush up on how to professionally edit photos. Develop some basic content management systems knowledge. Figure out how HTML works. Discover search engine optimisation. Find online tools that can help you manage work. Understand how social media can be part of your journalism arsenal. Think about what strategies you would implement for different magazines and news organisations.

    This isn’t the same as being a Jack of all trades, master of none. You are a journo. A writer. A content producer. But being multi-skilled is a huge asset to help you stand out from the crowd.

    Become a news addict
    It should go without saying, shouldn’t it? You’d think so, but the reality is that there are plenty of people that want to be journalists without actually being interested in the news. They see journalism as an exciting and respectable career, so why not go for it?

    If you’re not interested in the news, you need to ask yourself some hard questions about why you want to get into journalism. You should love news. You should live and breathe it. You should be a news junkie. You need to be alert to new stories and switched on. For better or worse, we live in a digital age of 24-hour news. Stories can break instantly, and being out of the loop for a few hours is the same as having been on holiday for two weeks.

    You should be plugged into the news cycle, current affairs and pop culture. Be versatile in your reading habits. Be diverse. Read a different paper every day. Download news apps for your phone. Bookmark loads of news sites. Learn how different organisations are reporting different stories. Learn how the industry rolls with new stories and how it prioritises them. Have an opinion on news events. Have an opinion on how different organisations report different news events. Be interested. Be interesting.

    Join the NUJ
    The National Union of journalists is exactly what it sounds like; it’s a collective of media workers that share resources, ideas and protect the rights of journalists.

    It’s a useful organisation to be part of, and get the latest industry news, developments and trends.

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