Journalism may be the most personally fulfilling career for those who dream of being a first-hand witness to history and believe in the value of an informed citizenry. But the career field is competitive, the hours are long and you’re unlikely to become wealthy, so you have to be sincerely passionate about the work of telling true stories clearly.
According to one guide, journalists have certain basic characteristics:
- They are critical thinkers who can access, synthesize, and retain factual information logically and systematically
- They are motivated and persistent in their efforts to get at the best available or obtainable version of the truth, and then to verify those facts
- They are good communicators who have an intuitive understanding of storytelling and the non-fiction narrative devices that create drama, tension, and suspense
It’s important to think through where you want to end up and plan out how you can get there. Maybe that means going to Columbia Journalism School, doing an internship at Fox, freelancing from East Africa for a year. There are lots of ways to be a journalist. Leverage your association with Military Veterans in Journalism or other mentors to help map out your own path.
One of the best ways to carve out your path is to find a journalist doing work that you admire and reach out to him or her. Sometimes you can find their email addresses online, or you might get tips on tactfully contacting them through people in your growing network. Learning to get ahold of people is part of nearly any job in journalism, and talking to somebody who is already where you want to be can offer you great assistance as you figure out how to get there yourself.
Here are some tips on how to break into the field:
GET A DEGREE (OR NOT)
Having a college degree is not a requirement to be a journalist, but it certainly helps (and more top tier publications do require it). Most importantly, a journalism bachelor’s or master’s degree at the right school can help you network your way into a job. Most journalism school professors either work or have worked in the field and will help you get internships and flag your resume with potential employers. You’ll build up a network of future journalists among the student body who will become your peers across the field. You’ll also hone your skills in journalism and gain a depth of knowledge on history, theory and professional guidelines of your craft.
“At the end of the day, you need to be able to talk to people, see trends, organize your research and communicate it in an engaging way. … More and more, the onus is on individual journalists to come up with the ideas and report, write, edit, publish and promote the work themselves. That takes independence, drive and attention to detail, which can’t be taught in a classroom.” — Jenna Goudreau, Forbes
That said, if you’re interested in reporting on the aviation industry and you already have a degree in aeronautics, then you may prefer to simply find mentors and craft your storytelling skills by some other means rather than going back to school.
One of the best ways to research if a school is right for you is to reach out to graduates of the program you’re examining. You can connect with them on LinkedIn or through a professional association like MVJ. Don’t rule out technical schools like New York Film Academy or community colleges. No school is perfect for everybody, but if you learn what to expect from the people who have been there, you’ll have an easier time finding the school that’s right for you.
If you do decide to study journalism, look for extracurricular opportunities to improve your craft, such as working for the school newspaper or a college radio or TV channel. Such experiences will invariably improve your proficiency and strengthen your storytelling voice. You’ll also increase your odds of winning awards and producing work that will get you noticed in the industry.
It’s important to start creating the types of stories that you want to get paid well to report on once you land your dream job. You can always create our own website/blog and self-publish. This will help you develop your own style and give you room to be creative. Knowing how to manage a Content Management System (CMS) like WordPress is a valuable skill.
You can also start pitching freelance projects. This will help build up a collection of published work in case you want to apply for a full-time job. You can pitch to your local newspaper, magazine or regional online outlet, but don’t be scared about aiming for larger publications like the New York Times or the Daily Caller.
Most important for pitching is knowing the publication, its audience and how your story fits their need. Then, you need to get to the right editor. Sometimes, their email addresses are on the website, other times you’ll need to Tweet at them, or you might find them on LinkedIn. Keep pushing until you’ve found the right person. And then pitch away.
One benefit of working freelance is that there are typically fewer time constraints and deadlines, allowing you to really dive into stories that you care about. Don’t be afraid to spend days, weeks or months on a feature story. It can be your calling card to show news outlets that you can produce quality work. Once you’re employed full-time, there’s much more pressure to produce on a tight deadline.
Some people stay freelance for their entire journalism careers by choice. The pay isn’t as consistent and there’s more hassle finding gigs, but it can allow for more flexibility and focus on passion projects.
CREATE A PORTFOLIO
As a journalist, you need to create and manage your own brand whether you like it or not. To get the gig you want, most outlets will expect that you have an online presence — a professional website and active social media.
Squarespace is easy but a little pricey. If you have more time to learn, WordPress templates make it pretty easy to build your own custom site. We suggest the hosting service Dreamhost which has very affordable web hosting.
You may know that you want to be a print (written word) journalist or you may have decided that you only want to shoot video news. However, consider trying a variety of mediums (print, photo, radio, video) and learning some of the basic technical skills for each. You may end up specializing on one of them, but at least when you’re at a job interview some day you can project confidence in your ability to make a short video story for Facebook to go along with the written word piece on their website.
ESTABLISH AN EXPERTISE
You can be a general reporter. At local outlets, you may indeed focus on lots of things — a councilperson campaigning for office one day and a fireman saving a kitten the next — but as your career develops, it’s helpful if you have an expertise that will make you stand out. It could be that you use your background in the military to focus on reporting about the military. Perhaps you served as a pilot; you could easily write for an aviation trade publication. Having a speciality makes it easier for you to fit into specific hiring needs.
NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK
Journalists rely on strong professional networks. Just like any other field, you can ask reporters and editors for “informational interviews” to learn more about their careers and how they got to where they are. Ask these people for 15-20 minutes to chat (preferably in person but, if not, on the phone). Be ready to ask good questions and share your own professional goals. Connect with them on LinkedIn and always send a note afterward thanking for their time. Keep in touch with these people as your career grows.
Find mentors who can coach you in your career as you’re getting started. The good ones will support you as you move forward.
Look, we know you’ve worked for at least four years in the military. You’re used to a job with 30 days vacation, a regular paycheck and some degree of authority. Unfortunately, the news industry puts little value behind your past military work and you’ll typically have to start at the ground level: interning.
That said, it’s a valuable experience to:
- figure out whether you actually want to do this sort of journalism full time,
- create professional connections (who could serve as future references),
- gain professional on-the-job experience,
- help you build your portfolio, and
- potentially land you a job where you interned.
Some internships will involve you more in the actual news production than others.
“Expect to not do a lot of content creation at first. There’s a lot more to journalism than what you actually see published. You’ll be organising folders, answering emails, calling in information from PRs, sourcing contact details and images, and, yes, almost certainly fetching lunches and making a few cups of coffee.” — Oxford Learning College
While you’re interning, volunteer to put in the extra hours. Think of your internship as months-long job interview. Some of them pay, which is nice, but don’t count on that. FYI, reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts earn a median salary of $40,910 per year. Discouragingly, the U.S. Department of Labor predicts a 9 percent decrease in these positions in the next 10 years (while most career fields have 7 percent expected growth).
APPLY FOR JOBS
Mediabistro, JournalismJobs and Indeed are great places to start to look for jobs. Find journalists who have jobs that you want and figure out what their career trajectory was. It won’t always work out the same (especially looking at journalists who started in the pre-Internet days) but it’ll give you an idea of what it takes to get that dream job.
“Most national media companies in the U.S. are headquartered in New York, NY. You’ll also find major bureaus in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco and overseas in places like London and Hong Kong.” — Jenna Goudreau, Forbes
Wire services like the Associated Press have news tests at universities and place young journalists that way. Check out the hiring websites for news outlet and look to see if they have a veteran hiring initiative. If so, that’s a good way to be flagged by the HR people who are doing the hiring.
While it may not be your dream, you could also work in a communications field job like public relations that can build up your writing portfolio.
Don’t forget to negotiate your salary. Media outlets will try to get you on board as cheaply as possible. Check Glassdoor to learn more about what you should be getting paid.
Check out this article to learn how a variety of journalists got their jobs.