Freelancing,  Journalism

How to get started in journalism

While meandering through Facebook one day, I noticed that a younger friend of mine had tagged me in a status post. I clicked through to see what it was about and why he would feel the need to mention my name.

It was the status of a friend of his, a young university student and he had offered my name in the comments on it as part of the advice he had offered to this student’s query.

The query was this:

Made another application but it doesn’t look like I’ll even get an interview  how the fuck am I supposed to become a journalist if no one will hire me without experience?

Quite a few of the student’s friends put forth advice in the comments that I thought was very positive and very useful.

The student shot them all down.

But here is my point:

Thousands of students graduate each year in Australia with degrees in Journalism or Communications or Media. Hundreds apply each year to the only major state based daily paper, the West Australian, for the cadetships, of which there are usually only three spots a year. And if you want to see the numbers, Peter McAllister crunched them for you in this report for the Australian.

And that’s NOT counting the thousands of students who do another undergraduate degree in another subject and pick up the ethics and practice of journalism along the way and pursue a career in it.

As I did.

YOU HAVE A LOT OF COMPETITION. SO HOW THE HELL DO YOU STAND OUT?

And standing out is the key.

More than ever before, wannabe journalists have access to the following:
1) Cheap technology to photograph, film and record work.
2) Free and cheap technology to publish and promote work.
3) Free and cheap means of educating themselves on anything about journalism practice that they feel they might have missed out on otherwise.

And more than ever, employers in journalism and media want people who (though not always in this order):
1) Understand how create strategies for and analyse the use of different social media platforms to reach different audiences.
2) How to create engaging content on several different mediums (video/photos/text) for different audiences.
3) How to do all of the above ethically and within guidelines and deadlines.
4) How to accurately convey and explain information to different audiences.
5) How to find or spot a story and how to cover it.

IT’S ABOUT WHAT YOU CAN DO. THAT NO ONE ELSE CAN.

Students do come up to me. I often speak about freelancing and bump into a few students and occasionally I tutor a journalism class. Students do ask me this: how do I get my foot in the door?

If I was an employer, the first thing I would want to see is what you can do. I want to see what you have taken the initiative to do. A university degree in journalism WILL teach you the theory and ethics and you do NEED that knowledge. But I am not going to give you a chance to expound on your ideas about media theory, I need to send you out to cover a story.

And any university degree will probably also give you a few shots at writing a few pieces – for the student paper, magazine or even send you out on a work placement. That’s great, that shows me whether you can actually write a piece worth publishing.

But what I want to know is, can you, on your own, go out and get gigs to write for someone or cover a story, any story, just because you wanted to? I want to see your blog. I want to listen to your podcast. I want to see your clips file of the bits and pieces you submitted to local papers and streetpress. I want to see the guest posts you did for blogs. I want to see your portfolio of pictures.

I WANT TO SEE YOUR INITIATIVE. 

This goes for any career but here’s the truth of it: [tweetability]if you love what you want to do or are doing for a job, you will pursue it come hell or high water and you will nearly die in the attempt to do so.[/tweetability]

I want to know whether you bothered to go to the FREE student days the media union holds that answers exactly all the questions any student journalist would ask: “How do I get in and what do you look for?” I want to know whether you spoke to your lecturers about how they started and what tips they had. I want to know if you joined the union and went to the networking events they organised. I want to know if you volunteered your time somewhere in exchange for learning a little bit more about working in the media by doing it. I want to know if you started following other journalists on Twitter and started chatting to them and joining on the weekly Twitter chats like th #Muckedup chats. I want to know if you spent time in forums and on the blogs of other journalists, commenting and asking questions.

I want to know if you took any free MOOCs and other online courses on how to use Adobe software or take better pictures or if you watched videos on how to use social media better. I want to know if you asked your local paper’s editor out for coffee so you could pick their brain. I want to know if you took the time to figure out how to use Wikileaks to find stories that you could cover and send in to online and print publications on the off chance that they will want to run it, they just didn’t have any journalists to spare at that point on that topic. I want to know if you know where to find information from Anonymous.

If you say you want to be a journalist and you haven’t bothered to do a simple Google search for even half of this information, I am liable to think that 1) you are an idiot, unaware of how resource lucky you are in this day and age (heck, there are people in countries who would love to be able to use the internet and other technology as freely as you can to do their reporting work and they still manage to do fantastic work whatever technological or political restrictions and dangers they are under so just imagine what you could achieve if you set your mind to it?) and 2) you don’t know what you want to do yet, and perhaps you thought this was it but it probably isn’t because you have no drive for it and you need to do some heavy critical thinking about what exactly you want to do with your life and how badly you want to do whatever it is.

 

BECAUSE MERELY SENDING OFF CVS INTO THE ETHER DOESN’T WORK – EVERYONE ELSE IS ALREADY DOING THAT. AND THAT IS THE BARE MINIMUM.

It might work. If your CV had all of the above awesome stuff on it already, then the only thing you would need to do would be to send in your CV.

You don’t need to have a desk at paper to start working in journalism. You are a working journalist from the moment you enrolled and decided it was what you wanted to do. Now pull on your adult work gear, get your ego out of the way and if this is what you want to do, go out and find and cover a story that no one else has had the time or resources to spare to get to yet. Even if it is tiny and you can only blog about it or submit it to your local paper. Somewhere, that story matters as news to someone so go cover the damn thing.

You don’t automatically get a job due to having a degree. Out of all the rights you have as a human being, you have the right to earn but you don’t have the right to be given a job on a platter when to an editor you are basically an unknown quantity that they might be taking a risk on. Make yourself a known, reliable one so they know that they aren’t going to toss a paycheck at you and not get something worthwhile printing back.

If the problem is no experience, don’t hang around relying on someone else to give you a shot at getting experience, go do something about getting some sort, any sort of experience yourself.

THIS IS HOW I DID IT.

I started a blog at 16. After a few years of explaining a lot of philosophy, history, politics and popular culture to people who were curious, an editor asked me to write a weekly column for the national paper. I wrote that column for four and a half years without any pay and it went out to 10,000 people a week in print and who knows how many more online. I was still studying at the time.

When my editor got assassinated – comes with the territory – the column came to a halt and people who were fans of it, alerted the editor at a science news publication who asked me to freelance as a science journalist for them. I still do pieces from time to time and am now on my fourth editor.

When I stepped up to do a Masters degree in science journalism, I met more journalists, my lecturers and others. I wrote pieces for people that got me in trouble, most notably my one on Scientology. I had been a member of the Society of Editors (WA) and the MEAA for years and I volunteered my time for both to help out when I could and that got me meeting more people and getting gigs like speaking on freelancing and reviewing books for the West Australian.

I knew nothing about alternative music but I put my hand up to review music, unpaid, for RTR FM. I loved gaming so again, unpaid, I reviewed games for Specusphere. I wrote an email to the editor of the Australian Book Review and he put me on the list of freelancing book reviewers.

It wasn’t luck. I didn’t even decide to become a journalist till the science news gig came along but I had been doing it all that time because I liked it. I put myself out there talking about what interested me but doing it in a way that showed I understood how important it was to explain things correctly, to not be biased, to be factual.

I started blogging in 1998. I started doing actual journalism in 2005. That’s more than 15 years of blogging experience and eight years of journalism. I have sat on the State Literary Board, The Society of Editors (WA) Committee and I’m now being asked to join others.

Make yourself useful, known and visible. No one will open the door into journalism for you if they don’t know you are standing right outside it.

Did I speak to this student? I did.

I sent him a message saying I would be happy to talk to him if he had any questions about journalism.

He sent back a very polite message saying he appreciated it and that it would have to wait until he had more time.

If he has any questions for me, I am happy to answer them. I still think he should read through this post first though.

Photo credit: The University of Iowa Libraries via photopin cc

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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