We’re often asked for advice on How To Become A Journalist and the advice is always the same: Don’t bother.
The hours are long, irregular and the pay is miserable. And that’s if you secure one of the ever-dwindling staff jobs. Most of your life can be spent freelancing – or, as we call it, unemployed….
You rank only slightly above politicians and estate agents in terms of respect from the public and most of your friends will think you’re only interested in them for stories (which, of course, you should be).
There are two kinds of journalist: those who produce news and those who don’t.
If you’re the kind of person who has been reading papers since a kid, shouts at the news on the telly and argues with taxi drivers (or anyone, for that matter) on the latest issue of the day, then the first is for you.
If you’re not the above, you need to think about WHY you want to be a journalist?
If it’s to see you’re name in print, online or on the telly, that’s the wrong reason.
If you like writing, then write. Start a blog (wordpress.com; dead easy) and write every day. If you can’t write every day, then you don’t like writing.
If you’ve decided to ignore my advice and you still want to be a hack, then the following should help:
1) Get qualified: Sign up for a one year journalism course accredited to the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists). You will learn all the skills necessary including media law (very important). Some people will tell you take a degree (3 or four years is too long) but this is time wasted. Journalism is a trade not a profession, despite the best attempts of the middle classes to ‘professionalise’ it.
Usually, you are then indentured for 18 months on a publication and then you qualify as a hack at the end.
2) If you are addicted to tertiary education and you REALLY WANT a degree (which is fine, careers change and it is always handy to call yourself a graduate) then do it. But make sure you fill spare time with blogging and picking up the shittest shifts you can at your local news outlet – be it digital or otherwise.
3) If you can’t do the degree and you’re not qualified, you’ve closed the door on the traditional route. But fear not, I don’t have a degree and I’ve written for and edited The Independent, The Guardian and the Irish Daily Mail. What counts is curiosity, a nose for a good story and the ability to work to deadline under pressure. And working while drunk.
4) Print, Online, Broadcast: The future of journalism is integrated with print likely gone within a decade, if not sooner. In any event, if you do college or don’t do college, you should be doing the following ALL THE TIME:
Consume news, features and digital content at every opportunity – even in topics you don’t like. Read, read, read.
Write stories and blog them on your new blog which you should have started. Start with the easy stuff like your travel feature, then review books and films you like, then comment on news topics. This puts you in the news current.
If freelance, write stories: get the emails of every newsdesk and email them your stories. Speak to each News Editor and ask what they like. Always take pictures and submit them to the picture editor of each paper. This includes national and local papers and national and local websites. And radio stations. And tv.
Not all stories are news with its very short shelf life. Travel, food and wine, lifestyle, health, interviews, comment etc are not news. But they all have editors looking after these sections in newspapers, magazines and websites.
Offer to do casual shifts, if you’re qualified, including nights. This puts you IN the newsroom and I’ve hired more casual freelances than recruited off a CV. This is because I’ve seen them in action and know if they can make the cut.
Get social: you should be all over social networks and joining in conversations. This is the world’s water cooler and you will get a feel of what people really are interested in. This should be done while soaking up local and natioanal radio.
Lastly, check out reverseferret.com it’s where us salty old hacks are passing on our words of wisdom. All of it is true, mostly.
Oh, and finally, don’t be a journalist.