How to get into journalism

Library books

Join the library. Picture: Liz Ashe,

Last year, I wrote a column declaring my passion for journalism.Over the last week, I’ve had a Facebook message and then email exchange that I think might be worth sharing.

So why, when in response I had a Facebook message from a young freelancer asking for advice on how to get into mainstream journalism, did my heart sink a little?

In that column, I noted that the media is in the process of cataclysmic change. I hesitate to recommend it as a career path for that reason. But of course, I understand the pull of the craft. So I gathered myself together and gave the best advice I could. And thought it might be worth sharing here.

I was asked (question edited very slightly and reproduced with permission):
“I enjoyed reading your piece on journalism. I’m a budding freelance journalist trying to find his feet. I’ve been eyeing a staffer post for several years now without success. I have however managed to get a few stories published in several titles. It’s scary now to learn about massive retrenchment in the media. It doesn’t look good for my passion which remains journalism. Any suggestions?”

And this is what I replied: The starting point is to broaden your skills as much as you can – be able to do everything needed in modern journalism, whether you work on a newspaper, a website or as a freelancer.

Those skills could include any and all of the following:

    • Taking your own photographs
    • Taking and editing video
    • Taking and editing audio

The starting point for learning these three: take a free online course.
MOOC List has a comprehensive list of courses that you can take without spending money.
You can also look at Poynter’s online seminars, here.
And Berkeley seems to offer some good stuff.

Learn basic HTML coding: – do as many Codecademy lessons as you can bear.
Learn as much as you can about data journalism:
Look at Code4SA to see examples of what data journalism looks like.
And there’s a basic course here that’s good, and free at the time of writing. ):

Many of the big news websites have their own sources of content and don’t commission writers. What they want is good, fast editing. This might be a place to start to find some online training. Otherwise, the path to being an editor (and writer) lies in being a reader in the language in which you will be doing your journalism – read everything you can lay your hands on, join the library, read, read, read.  It;s okay to start with what is snobbishly seen as slightly tabloid – You magazine is great source of articles written in clear, colloquial English.

Market yourself on social media – for these purposes, concentrate on Twitter because journalists think Twitter is important. Make your own tweets about things you are interested in. Follow big name journalists. Learn how to make lists. This article is a good place to start.
Get yourself a blog (try WordPress or Tumblr) or make yourself a Facebook page. Pick a theme – even if it is just your hobby – but show yourself to be engaged and interesting and literate. If you have taken photos or made videos or podcasts (see above), showcase them here.
LinkedIn – make yourself as detailed a LinkedIn profile as you can. Put the link to that in all the other places you are. This establishes you as professional and credible and solid.

Make a proper scan of all the media in your area/region/country – understand who does what, what kind of publications they have, what jobs they might offer (tip: scour the “about” and “contact us” pages of their websites!) .Go to their offices, ask to see the editor. They probably won’t let you in. Keep going back. If you get to see anyone senior, ask to be an unpaid intern for two weeks (no longer, or you are being exploited). Make the coffee, offer to fetch their lunch, find the TV remote, help them figure out how to use the printer. Hang around till someone asks you to write something.

I know this sounds frivolous but it’s worth a try: Find out where the journalists in your town drink – go meet them, introduce yourself as an aspiring journalist. Don’t ask for advice – just listen (journalists have big egos and like to talk about themselves). You don’t have to drink alcohol to do this or buy people drinks (though if you are going to drink, you must pay for your round). Just stand around and make friends. Even if you don’t get a job, you will still have an entertaining evening!

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