Tag Archives: employability

How’s your media recession?


To mark today’s news that the recession has ended, I’m running a poll here at Freelance Unbound to see if my fellow toilers in the antheap of media feel the same way. 

The poll will be posted up on the right for a while – please do click to vote (though it would help if you do vaguely media/knowledge worker kind of work). 

The timing of all this is quite appropriate for me, as a few days ago I actually turned down a work commission for the first time in more than a year because I was too busy to do it. 

Visitors may in fact have noticed that things have been quiet here of late. That’s because I have been eye-wateringly busy doing real work – the kind with a pay cheque attached – so I haven’t had much chance to update the blog. 

That’s good news in many ways – certainly in terms of paying the bills. But it has made me wonder how the rest of the media world is doing. 

Looking back, my media recession lasted about five months, starting in about September 2008, during which a lot of regular work assignments dropped to nothing and my shift work looked threatened as the publishing house I am working for started restructuring and closing publications. This was scary.

In response, I did two things:

The hustling paid off, yes. But actually my main success came from a combination of luck and diversification. 

Right now I’m sitting in on the production desk of a financial publishing company filling in for someone who went on maternity leave a year ago. The luck part comes in because she has decided not to come back to work full-time – or even half-time – so I get to keep working and earning, which is nice. 

The diversification part comes in because the company in question runs events, and has decided to take its marketing and other design work in-house. Naturally, my production colleague and I fell on this work like wolves at lambing time.

Never mind that it’s not journalism. I don’t care, frankly (it’s why this blog is called Freelance Unbound instead of, say, Journalism Unbound). What it is, however, is an opportunity to be useful in the company. And being useful is a central pillar of freelance success, as I’ve noted elsewhere. 

In fact, my media recession has been characterised by a general switch away from what you might call journalism (writing, subbing, page layout) to a more diverse range of work (CMS production, brochure design, animated web ads). 

So what does this all mean for you? Are you struggling to keep following a more strictly defined path of journalism? Have you had to branch out into other areas and use new skills? Have you been forced to look for work in a call centre? 

I’d really like to know. Feel free to share via the comments – or add your vote to the poll on the right.



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11 key ways for journalism students to improve their employability

It’s a tough world out there in the media – what with grinding recession, a skillset that needs updating by the hour and a revenue model that’s been turned upside down by the web.

It doesn’t help that more students than ever before are being turned out by the UK’s journalism courses. That makes it even more difficult for journalism graduates to get a toehold in our industry.

So, here are 11 top tips for journalism students and graduates – and even those thinking about their UCAS application – to ensure you have the best chance to get some kind of journalism job.

It may not be the one you want – you know, the one that involves you interviewing J-Lo in a rooftop pool in LA, or drinking in Chinawhite with the F1 team. But this advice is aimed at helping open up the widest possible range of media options to journalism students, with a corresponding boost to their potential earning power.

Admittedly, this has a bias towards print and web. But a lot of the tips should be generic enough to be relevant if you want to specialise in TV or radio.

Any comments are welcome to add to the roster…


1] Don’t do your BA in Journalism

Yes – a bit of a curve ball, but it’s one I’ve talked about before. I’m a firm believer that gaining a specialism outside journalism as well as getting some journalism training has big benefits.

Reason: The more well-rounded your education and qualifications, the more desirable you are to media employers. Journalists generally create content about the wider world, not about journalism, unless you are working for the media section. So do yourself a favour and do your BA in something other than journalism. Yes, I know that if you’re a journalism graduate already, this piece of advice may be a bit late. But UCAS applicants take note. And for the rest, there’s always the Open University.

2] Get a BSc in life sciences

Are there other degrees that might work? Possibly – but science is the one that gets asked for most in job ads. 

Reason: It’s really useful to do a science degree because it opens your media career up to include things that otherwise you would be excluded from. You may have a fascination with biology, you may read popular science books about cosmology, but unless you have that piece of paper, you will simply be excluded from writing jobs and freelance subbing shifts on titles such as Nature and New Scientist and also from editorial work for scientific book publishers. Not interested in science? Fair enough – but this post is about maximising your employability. Science will do that. It will also help you gain credibility in the mainstream media.

3] Work on the student newspaper/web site/TV station/radio show

Reason: A no-brainer really. Your work will suck for at least a year or so, whatever you do – so make it suck when it doesn’t matter so much. Make all your most egregious mistakes at college and by the time you apply for a real job you might well have developed a decent style and learned some production chops. You get free access to all sorts of facilities and equipment and you’ll hopefully learn some production discipline. If you end up as editor of something, you also get to see that student journalism work can be utterly terrible – which will put you in a potential employer’s shoes and give you some valuable perspective.

4] Gain a post-graduate journalism qualification

Finally – journalism.

Reason: Unfortunately, HR box-ticking means you probably will have to have some kind of journalism certificate (though science graduates without a journalism qualification will probably find it easier to get a job in science-related journalism than a journalism graduate without a science qualification). But don’t spend three years getting it – an MA, or even a ten-week accredited course should be enough on top of your other superb skills to take you far.

5] Learn languages

I mean, as well as English. In my day the education system was against me, as I spent years learning French, of all things, in a range of different subjects, including geography and history. This has been totally useless, professionally speaking. But extra languages can be a big bonus for journalism jobs.

Reason: It will help you work abroad; it will help you work for foreign publications; it will help you with freelance assignments that involve contacting non-English speakers. Seriously, this is another no-brainer. Which ones should you learn? Think of [a] the news flashpoints in the world (so, Arabic might be worth a shot, or Russian) [b] where the jobs are (recently Dubai, so Arabic again, also German, according to the current job ads on Journalism.co.uk) and [c] what the rest of the world speaks (so Chinese and Spanish might be worth a punt).

6] Learn English


Reason: Your schooldays probably made you think correct spelling and grammar just isn’t that important. But for some people – weird old people who might employ you – it can be very important. So if you make an effort to polish your grammar and spelling it can really pay off. Top tip: Focus on apostrophes. You will gain a distinct advantage over nearly all other graduates…

7] Keep a blog (or other web site) and update it regularly

Reason: You’re a wannabe journalist. Writing is your life. So write. As I’ve said before, I can filter out 95% of all journalism students and graduates based on the fact that they just can’t be bothered to actually create content. Bonus points for making your blog nice-looking and adding plug-in-style functionality.

8] Understand the back-end of web publishing

Reason: Journalism is shading into web development and site maintenance. The more you know about this area, the more employable you’ll be. At the moment, this means being familiar with, probably, HTML/XHTML, CSS, and maybe PHP. If you have no idea what these are, take a course or, as I’m doing, plough through a heavy book until your eyes bleed. Crucially, this is not computer programming. But it is increasingly necessary for both web-layout and design. And don’t think that tools such as Dreamweaver or content management systems will allow you to work just with graphics and content. Understanding the code that lies beneath lets you troubleshoot why pages won’t load as you thought they would, and makes you indispensable around the production desk.

9] Learn to make compelling videos

Reason: If you understand the impact that YouTube and citizen journalism has had on the media, it should be obvious why video skills are vital. But while it’s important to understand all the technical side of video formats and uploading to the web, it’s also vital to make good, compelling video content. As well as learning the software you need, such as Final Cut Pro, also learn how to tell stories visually. Learn about storyboarding and planning. Understand visual language. And learn to tell compelling stories. Which is at the heart of journalism. Kind of works for audio too, but I think simple audio podcasting is on its way out (discuss).

10] Network, network, network

Reason: People give jobs to people. Never forget this. In my advice on successful freelancing on the FleetStreetBlues blog, I stressed the first key attribute for professional success was the ability to get on with people. For journalism students and graduates, This means getting to know media professionals, being friendly (though not pushy), asking about opportunities and generally trying to be helpful when you can. And you’d be surprised how willing many media folk can be to help if you approach them in the right way. Crucially though, be realistic about what, and who, you ask. There’s a lot more to say on this, so I’m going to expand on it in a later post.

11] Have a backup plan

Reason: You may not be able to land a proper reporter-style journalism job, no matter how hard you try, even if you’re pretty good. Because, as discussed, things are tough in the media world. But don’t despair. You can still work with words, pictures, audio and video in a creative way and get paid. Sometimes even more than the pittance that journalists normally get. 

How? Think laterally. Recovering Journalist Mark Potts has an excellent post here on life after journalism – but at a pinch it can equally apply to life instead of journalism. Your journalism skills – ie your creative writing, editing and research skills – can be applied in many different jobs. Closely related fields include PR and corporate writing (but brush up on your spelling and grammar).

And that’s it for today. Other suggestions (and courteous disagreements) are welcome via the comments column…


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Journalists can’t afford to be purist about their trade anymore

There’s a nice rant over at Fleet Street Blues decrying the media’s current seeming obsession with the delivery of media content over its practice.

The best thing about journalism isn’t blogging, or Twittering, or finding innovative multimeeja ways to tell a story, or even asking someone difficult questions Paxman-style. It’s about finding something out that no one knows, and telling people. Simple as that.

When it comes to learning your trade, they say, don’t get sidetracked with all that web technology malarkey:

If you want to be a specialist, don’t learn Dreamweaver or podcasting or how to put together Google map. Be a police reporter or an education reporter or a health reporter, and learn your field. 

My comment on the post hasn’t been approved yet (what – don’t they trust me?). But essentially, while I admire the sentiments, I think there are some fundamental problems with it. 

The post actually recognises some of them. At the end it says: 

If you want to be a journalist, then forget payment models, multimedia development and how to drive traffic. That’s not your job. Your job is to be a damn fine reporter and let the chips fall as they may. If they – the editors, publishers and readers – can’t figure out a way to pay for us, then so be it. They’ll miss us.

It’s that tiny detail – finding someone to actually pay for this stuff – that is at the crux of this whole “where is journalism going” debate. And, of course, if you’re one of the thousands of journalism graduates being spewed out of the higher education system every year, that’s not much comfort when you can’t find a job. 

I look on all that multimeeja nonsense as basically a tool. It’s a bit like saying if you want to be a specialist, don’t learn to type, or don’t learn to use InDesign. 

The tools of the trade are changing – and we need to keep up. The problem we face at the moment is that the tools of the trade are changing really fast. And the trade itself is also changing really fast, thanks to the double whammy of recession and technology change. 

That’s why I think the idea of the old-style investigative reporter, armed with just a notebook and the knowledge of his or her beat, is now a bit of a luxury. In order to be anything resembling a journalist, you’ll probably have to be able to set up and maintain a web site, know how to drive traffic and have some idea of payment models as well as being a damn fine reporter.

Hey, I never said it would be easy. But I don’t think there’ll be a choice for a lot of us…


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Four pillars of freelance success, part four

The final part of four pillars of freelance success should be up on FleetStreetBlues today. Normal service on Freelance Unbound should be resumed next week…

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Four pillars of freelance success, part three

Your third pillar of wisdom should be online at the fine FleetStreetBlues today. Meanwhile, I am enjoying art and other fine highbrow things in St Ives…



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Four pillars of freelance success, part two

Still in Cornwall, still minimal internet access. But part two of four pillars of freelance success is over at FleetStreetBlues. Enjoy…


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Four pillars of freelance success

Right now I’m in Cornwall, getting away from journalism, work and, given the lack of reliable internet access where I am, the modern world. 

But just so you don’t feel all neglected, you can pop over to Fleet Street Blues to read a series of guest posts by me. With luck, they should be running through the week – offering a four point guide to freelance success in these tough economic times. 

If I get the chance, I’ll try to hunt down some choice examples of local journalism to post here. Or not – you know how it is…

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