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…