How to become a Journalist
Developments in tech and media mean that there are a wide variety of roles which people specialise in within a journalism career. As a reporter you’ll often be given leads to follow, and expected to submit a story on the subject given to you by your editor. As a correspondent, you’ll normally have a field or country of specialism. As an editor, you’ll be in charge of…well…editing other people’s stories and compiling them into a coherent form for publication. Then you have feature-writers and columnists: journalists who write longer, more opinionated pieces on less immediate topics.
All journalists will spend most of their time writing, but there are also lots of opportunities for travel and meeting new people through interviews whilst following a story. No day is the same as a journalist, and its reactive nature can make it a very exciting environment to work in; however strict publication deadlines can often lead to stress and working long and antisocial hours.
This shouldn’t put you off though. If you thrive in a constantly changing work environment with strict deadlines, then journalism is perfect for you. Besides, journalism is still evolving to fit into the digital age, and with the ‘fake news’ phenomenon still running rife, broadcasters need fresh perspectives and creativity from people with all sorts of background to steer the profession into the 22nd Century without losing its integrity.
What subjects do you need?
Journalists must be good researchers and good writers. Because of this, both science and arts subjects can be very useful in preparing for a career in journalism. History and Geography are particularly strong as they involve the evaluation of data and sources followed by discussion in an essay. English Language can also be helpful to make sure you have a good understanding of grammar and writing techniques and how you can use them to engage your audience.
Ultimately, your choice of subjects at school will not limit you in a career as a journalist. It’s good to have at least one essay subject beyond GCSE, but it’s not required. If you’re hoping to become a specialist in a particular area, for example a Political Correspondent, or a Science Correspondent, then you’ll need a good background in your chosen subject area.
How do I get there?
As a school leaver, it can often be hard to know how to break into journalism. Should you take a degree in journalism or media studies? Should you go for a degree in English? Or should you jump straight in and work your way up from a local level? Ultimately, all three of these options are perfectly valid paths towards a journalism career, and the path you choose should be the one that fits best with your personal circumstances.
Studying a journalism degree can seem the most direct path to a career in journalism, and if you get into one of the top journalism schools then an undergraduate degree in journalism and media studies can give you good foundation skills from which to launch your journalism career.
However, much like becoming a lawyer, prospective employers in journalism often value people with interests and experience in areas outside journalism. Consequently, many people working in newsrooms have bachelor’s degrees outside journalism, in anything from atmospheric physics to classical music.
If you have a bachelor’s degree in another subject then it can be beneficial to study for a postgraduate degree in journalism to develop the specific skills (e.g. shorthand) that are vital to this career. Many of the top universities for journalism specialise in MA courses rather than undergraduate courses which implies that a bachelors outside of journalism followed by a journalism masters is an increasingly popular route into journalism.
No matter what academic path you take when studying for journalism, work experience is crucial. Journalism is a career based on deliverables, so no matter what academic experience you have, a journalist looking to employ you will want to see evidence that you can produce articles in the high-pressure envir onment of a journalist’s office. The only way you’ll be able to get this experience is through work experience.
Susannah Butler, one of the youngest feature writers at London’s Evening Standard, says that the best sort of work experience is found in local media. Local newspapers with small teams of staff are much more likely to give you more to do than big national companies with teams of hundreds of staff. Definitely give her article here a read to hear how she got to where she is now so quickly.
The best way to get work experience is to be bold and get in touch with people. Look people up on Google and see if you can find a phone number or email address. Contact them and ask if you might be able to come in and shadow them for a week, or if not whether they know anyone else who might be able to help you. If you’ve got an idea for a piece then ask if they might be willing to look through it for you. That way you can show your ability without seeming overly pushy. Don’t expect much recompense or even acknowledgement for your first few pieces, but gradually this sort of exposure will help build a profile you can show to a prospective employer.
Work and life experience are so crucial in getting a job as a journalist that you can be very successful without a degree. If you start at your local paper as an assistant from school and work your way up, perhaps travelling a bit on the income from your salary, then you can move upwards to bigger things very easily. Some of the top journalists at the biggest institutions do not have a degree!
What books can I read?
(2000: Penguin Classics)
Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward
(2014: Simon & Schuster)