So, you want to be journalist? Here are 3 tips to help

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You can also click on this image to visit my ‘About me’ page

Over the past four years, while I’m by no means Dr Know It All from the University of Journalism, I’ve learnt a thing or two – or maybe even three – about the obstacle-paved path to a career in journalism. (For an overview of why, visit my ‘About me‘ page – assuming you haven’t already, of course.)

In 2011, instigated by an insomnia-curing careers talk for another sector, I decided that the written word would make my living. (Note, dear reader, that I say “my living” – not “my fortune”. No one, I think, can go into journalism today, as they may have done 50, or even 20 years ago, for any materialistic amour of the Great British Pound.)

Since then, I’ve made far more mistakes than I’ve had successes. However, both the mistakes and the successes have been significant –  no matter how small – steps to where I am today. Of course, aged 23, I still have a long, long way to go. Yet for those of you a few rungs below me on the career ladder, I hope these tips, insights and and anecdotes may give you the non-nepotistic leg-up that I wish I’d had four years ago.

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Me (pictured) when I flirted with a career in front of the camera while PR secretary of University of Exeter’s Men’s Hockey Club


 

 Experience, experience, experience

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North Devon locals Catherine Yates and Shana Little

“Education, education, education”, said Tony Blair on New Labour’s priorities during the 1997 general election campaign. Well, for any aspiring journalist, I say experience, experience, experience should your top, and heavily underlined, and maybe even yellow-highlighted, priority.

I sound so much like a school’s careers advisor saying so, I know, but work experience really is what identifies you as an attractive candidate to potential employers. In short, work experience – and making the most of it, most importantly, when you have it – provides you with both a portfolio and, by extension, a mental notebook of stories to tell about your articles.

While at work experience, for instance, you may have had to ring 15 people to get a comment for an article that you pitched to the news editor: irrefutable evidence of the self-motivation and determination that any successful journalist possesses. As an example from my own portfolio, I stumbled across a series of critical comments from a North Devon resident while I was at the North Devon Gazette about a day community centre facing closure. I traced down this resident and then spoke to her and her friend (pictured above) about the centre’s closure. The story (pictured below) became a page five lead. (I’m not including this story to brag, by the way. Instead, I just hope it helps to clarify my point.)

How do you get work experience? Easy squeezey: pick up the phone and, while it may seem daunting at first, dial the number of your local newspaper, the place for any aspiring journalist to start their budding careers. After you’ve got a few weeks of work experience at local publications on your CV, try the national newspapers. Trust me, as I failed trying the exact opposite, calling up the Times and boldly asking for two week’s work experience, that is the recommended route to take.

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The subsequent story on page five of the North Devon Gazette. Remember: always organise work experience well in advance

 
 

Learn to write by reading

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Gay Talese, 83, one of the creators of The New Journalism

At first, that advice sounds slightly paradoxical, doesn’t it? It’s an axiom that I first came across in an article by Laurie Penny, a contributing editor to the New Statesman. (Annoyingly, I can’t find that article now, but she has written an excellent article on advice for young journalists.)

Since then, I have heard the same advice repeated on countless occasions. Most recently, George Brock, director of journalism at City University London, where I am studying on the Newspaper Journalism MA course, said, “I never trust a journalist who doesn’t read.” In short, good readers – in other words: someone who reads a lot – make good writers and, as a consequence, good journalists.

At school, you learnt how to use a comma, a colon, a semi-colon – but you only understand fully the innumerable nuances of language, punctuation and grammar from reading those who write well. Literary writers, like any other artist, often talk about the influence of other writers on their work. (Oscar Schell, for example, the young protagonist of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ (2005), shares a number of characteristics J. D. Salinger’s angst-ridden Holden Caulfield, in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ (1951).)

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My feature in the Guardian for Self-Harm Awareness Day

Well, the very same principle applies to journalism: pick a journalist whose work you like, and then read, and read, and read their work – and then try to write better than them. Go on, you can do it. For writers, the point of having heroes is to inspire and, most importantly, to help you improve.

For me, my favourite modern writer is Gay Talese (pictured above), who specialises in creative non-fiction. Sadly, mainly due to the lack of money in print media today, this style of journalism has gradually grown out-of-fashion, like jump suits during the 1980s. Yet I still applied the basic principles of his writing – an intense attention to detail, namely – to a feature that I had published earlier this year for Self-harm Awareness Day in the Guardian.

To finish this point, I would recommend always having this quote in mind from A.J. Liebling, one of America’s finest writers of the 20th century: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” If you can do that, after following the above advice, you will be a quick, crafty and sought-after writer.

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Click on this image to read Gay Talese’s ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’, an excellent example of his innovative style of journalism


 

Be curious and, most importantly, confident

By nature, most journalists have insatiably curious minds. As a stereotype, we are miners of information, with exclusive stories our ultimate, rarest ore. Curiosity is an essential part of what leads us to potential stories: spotting that advert for 50 one-legged kittens for sale, to give one silly example, or even noticing something in another news story that could be investigated further.

Yet curiosity is only half of the equation that eventually equals journalistic success. Without confidence or courage, or whatever you want to call it, it would be impossible to build on that initial curiosity and get the story. You may need, for example, to turn up on someone’s doorstep – known as ‘doorstepping’ – to get comment from them. Similarly, in press conferences, all eyes may be on you when, having raised your hand (probably for several minutes), it’s your chance to speak.

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A story I had published in the Islington Gazette after spending a morning doorstepping residents in a north Islington ward


 
For most people, these sort of tasks can be overwhelmingly daunting – but the results can be equally rewarding. I got the story pictured above, for instance, from doorstepping Islington residents, as part of my Newspaper Journalism MA, about the impact of construction work on their homes – which lead to a resident telling me that her whole house shook due to lorries passing by the speed bumps outside. More often than not, if you are polite and conscientious, people will always be willing to talk to you.

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This story, in the Sunday Times, started with curiosity about hate crimes

At its core, journalism is courage, confidence and self-belief. (For me, in this context at least, the three are synonymous.) As clichéd as it may sound, having courage and self-belief is an essential part of what divides good, bad and great journalists from one another. Of course, on top of these characteristics, a wide-ranging set of skills – writing, data, social media, to name a few – equally set journalists apart from one another.

If you don’t believe you can be a good journalist, though, there’s only one result from that way of thinking: you won’t be one – ever. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a journalist, but it took me until four years ago to reach out to the opportunities around me that would help to fulfil that ambition. The only person decelerating my race to realising my journalistic dream was – as is the case for so many young journalists – me.

For years, I told myself that I wasn’t good enough. Now, four years on, I realise those years were wasted. So, with me as an example, don’t doubt yourself. On the path to becoming a journalist, the greatest obstacle is often your own self-belief. Once you overcome that, you will have the greatest tool to overcome any other challenge you will encounter as a professional journalist. Good luck – and make your own luck through hard work. If you want to get in touch, see my Contact page.

 

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