Journalism: Getting Your Foot through the Newsroom Door

By: Laurence Cawley

As many as half of all graduates say they'd like a career in the media. That's a lot of graduates out there who want the same job you want or the job, if you are already working in the media, you currently have. I've heard this statistic banded about many times - often by editors or managing directors of newspaper groups justifying the poor pay journalists tend to get. I have no reason to doubt the statistic - I've met a lot of graduates who say they'd like a career 'in the media'. Most of them now work as management consultants, accountants, in advertising or in sales. However, even if many of those who want a career in the media never quite get there, there is a simple truth: the route to being an employed journalist is competitive and the going is tough (at first).

As is the case with all competitive environments it pays to ensure that you stand out from the crowd. But to know how to stand out from the crowd, you have to know what an editor is looking for from a potential candidate. Put simply, editors tend to be looking for:

A commitment to a career in journalism

Self-confidence that stops way short of arrogance

An eagerness to learn and a keenness to help and get involved

We'll focus on the top of the editor's wish-list first. Demonstrating a commitment to a career in journalism is vital and will be something all editors are looking for in any new recruit. The following steps all demonstrate a commitment to your chosen career:

Asking and undertaking unpaid work experience at a local newspaper

Working on a school, university or community newspaper or news-sheet

Finding a good news story and then phoning a newspaper with it whilst asking for work experience

Undertaking training to become a journalist at one of the many establishments that offer courses.

This not only shows you are committed to a career in journalism but also that you are willing to go to the financial expense of getting yourself ready to become a journalist.

Undertaking a degree in journalism or media studies:

Believe it or not, the last option listed above will be the least likely to impress an editor. Many editors are skeptical about the value of journalism or media-based degree courses. They are often tinged with more theory than practical tuition and cover the ethics and philosophy of journalism when most editors are more concerned with tight copy, written in a legally-sound way which will inform or entertain their readers. On a personal level, I think media studies and journalism degrees are excellent and, if combined with experience of working as a journalist, offer an excellent grounding towards becoming a considered and insightful reporter. But unless the degree includes a certificate to say you have got your shorthand speed to (ideally) 100 words per minute, a thorough grounding in media law and court reporting, a basic understanding of local and central government and proof that you know how to construct a news story, a degree in journalism or media studies is unlikely to lead to a job. Unpaid work experience, however, often leads to a job - though not on its own.

Work experience:

If you don't have a cuttings file (a selection of stories published in a newspaper written by you) then getting work experience is a vital step. Not only does it give you invaluable experience of trying your hand at journalism it also gives you the opportunity to:

* See how a newsroom operates and how a newspaper is put together

* Learn from experienced journalists and see how they handle different jobs Work out whether a career in journalism is really for you.

* Show a potential employer what you have to offer

* Develop a cuttings file of your own work under your own name

Getting work experience is reasonably straight forward. In most cases all you will have to do is ask. But you need to make sure you ask the right person so it is usually best to telephone the newspaper or newspapers you are interested in doing some work for and asking for the name of the person who deals with work experience candidates. Sometimes this is the editor, sometimes the news-editor and sometimes the chief reporter. When you write your letter asking for work experience, remember two main points:

1. Check and double check for any spelling mistakes - it is often a good idea to then get somebody else to check it a further time before sending it off. I have always avoided offering work experience to candidates who cannot be bothered to check their spelling before sending something off.

2. Keep it simple. Tell them you are interested in a career in journalism and tell them that, in the longer term, you would love to work for their paper. Highlight any skills you currently have that could be counted as a journalistic tool and tell them what your intentions are regarding training.

Usually this sort of approach will get you a period of work experience - usually a week or two. Sometimes, because newspapers have a lot of people wanting work experience, you may have to wait sometime before either hearing back or being offered a short term work experience placement. If you have a number of titles in your area, apply to them all.

When you are offered work experience with a newspaper, there are a few things to keep in mind in order to ensure you get the best out of the placement and that you show your best sides to an organization that is a potential employer. It is wise to:

Dress smartly and appropriately as you would for a formal job interview. You may be sent anywhere at any time and, even if you are on work experience, you are still an ambassador for the newspaper. If you end up shadowing an established reporter to court, you must wear a shirt and tie if you are male, or be smartly dressed if you are female. This sounds an obvious point but I've known work experience candidates turn up wearing jeans and tee-shirts and in one case a beanie hat.

Don't be afraid to ask questions about things you are unsure of and offer your help whenever possible. Help may include offering to get file cuttings from the library or even just making the coffee. The point is you want to come across as a keen learner who wants to pitch in.

Try to find stories both during the working day and outside of working hours. Most news-editors and editors would be highly impressed with a work experience reporter bringing in their own news stories. They may not get used, but they will get you noticed. If they do get used, however, they will be more than noticed - they will be appreciated and you will be held in increasingly high esteem.

Listen to everything that is said to you. When I first did work experience for an evening title in Yorkshire I was fresh out of Cambridge University and I was convinced I was one of the best writers in the country. I was wrong, and I did not have a clue how to write a news story. When this was pointed out by the news-editor I was taken aback at first but I quickly saw what she meant and tried my best to learn the craft from her and to learn fast. The golden rule really is to do whatever is asked and to heed advice . Be confident, by all means, but avoid coming across as arrogant like the plague. Remember, you are there to learn.

Always turn up on time. This sounds such an obvious point that you might be surprised it's in this list. Believe me though, it wouldn't be in the list if it wasn't a mistake I've seen made again and again. Try to be a little early and leave a little after you are told you can depart. Newspaper reporters have to be punctual in their starting times because many newspapers are deadline driven and news-editors need to be able to bank on staff being where they are supposed to be in case they need something covering at very short notice.

Be affable and upbeat. I've seen many work experience candidates sit quietly in the corner looking moody. I know that in most cases this was a sign of nervousness in a newsroom. Whilst I can sympathise with that, I would much rather help a candidate who is making an effort to be a pleasant presence around a newsroom.

These brief pointers should help ensure you get the best out of your work experience placement and that the newspaper gets the best out of you. Somebody who is remembered as smart, friendly, helpful, eager to learn and always turns up on time will be in good stead for a job when their training is completed. They are also the most likely candidates to be offered further work experience in the future. Exceptional work experience placements can also lead to a newspaper paying thousands of pounds to get you trained up as a journalist with the offer of a job at the end of the training. Not all newspapers offer this, but many do. Either way, work experience is the most important first step in becoming a journalist. The second step, of course, is learning the craft through training.

Getting trained:

There are hundreds of educational establishments out there offering courses relating to the media. They offer everything from degrees to home study courses. For newspaper journalism in the UK, the organization nearly all editors look to is the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). In broadcasting there is the Broadcast Journalism Training Council and Skillset. There are other bodies in both print and broadcast industries but these three are generally the most respected organizations and qualifications accredited by them tend to hold the most sway with potential employers.

The NCTJ offers the leading training system in the UK and the pre-entry qualification to newspaper journalism is the one most newspaper editors expect to see before offering a candidate a job. I started out after completing my NCTJ course and while most journalistic learning is done through experience and on the job, the skills acquired on the NCTJ course were essential to preparing me for the proper learning to take place. The range of courses accredited by the NCTJ vary from year-long courses to much shorter 'fast-track' courses which last a few months. Either way, at the end you will have a good grounding and a qualification in:

Shorthand - the essential tool all journalists need in order to take down information and to quote sources accurately.

Media law - editors live in fear of law suits from people who have been defamed or from their newspaper ending up in contempt of court. Knowledge of media law is essential and you are unlikely to get a job without this invaluable knowledge.

Public affairs - all reporters need an understanding of the machinations of local and central government because they often form the grist of newspaper stories.

Writing - knowing how to write a news story is obviously a vital skill that all editors are looking for from their employees. The NCTJ course will hone your skills and teach you the basic style guide on which most newspaper writing styles are based.

Training can be tough and the courses thorough and exacting. During your course you, or those around you, will endlessly debate your current shorthand speed and get exasperated that it isn't close to reaching the 100 word a minute industry standard (for help with this click here). Shorthand is one of the most important parts of training to get right and, for most people, it is the part of the course that is both the most foreign and the part that raw intellect doesn't seem to improve. During the course, it is a wise idea to keep getting work experience or sending in good news stories to newspapers to help build your cuttings file and to maintain contacts within the industry.

Once you have a clutch of passes under your wing, and your shorthand at 100 words per minute (or near), you are ready to head out there and seek employment. Sadly, even with the proper credentials, competition for jobs can still be fierce. Years ago, when I was applying for jobs I sent out 61 application letters. I had one reply, which was an offer of an interview 200 miles from where I was living at the time. Luckily for me, this single response turned into my first job. But it took a few months of sending out on-spec applications to a huge number of newspapers. I hope you will not have the experience but, if you do, know that you're in good company.

As an aside, and because it is a question I've been asked frequently by raw recruits, I wanted to touch on the issue of where to start your career. Most, including myself, start out on local newspapers. But national newspapers also offer extremely good trainee schemes. Amongst most people in journalism training, the national press is held in much higher esteem. This is understandable - the readerships are (by and large) much greater, the stories tend to be greater in scope and scale, the pay is better and the scene is more 'glamorous'. Having worked in both the regional and national press I can see the merits in trying to start out in both. If I was forced to make a choice, I would always advise starting with a local newspaper. My reasons for this are simple. Firstly, you get to learn your craft within a defined community and, if you make a mistake, your community will be quick to point it out. This is a useful fact of life and constantly focuses the reporter's mind on the all important task of getting things right and making sure stories are accurate. Secondly, you will tend to get more scope to practice your new skills and cover a plethora of different stories. Thirdly, your chance of getting a front page story or a page lead (the main story on a page) in print is far higher. A friend of mine spent 18 months on a trainee scheme with one of the quality British broadsheet papers. At the end of the 18 months she had only a handful of stories of stories with her name on it - the one I remember best was an interview with a bee-keeper. In the same period, I had covered bus and plane crashes , murders, major education stories and an armed siege. All of my stories were national stories, but I was writing for a local paper (indeed some of them were bought from me by national titles).

I had about 50 or so front page stories and countless page leads in my portfolio. And my cuttings portfolio is nothing out of the ordinary for the local reporter. My friend on the other hand was a raw recruit in a field of highly experienced and very established (often specialized) national level journalists. The chances of her ever getting into print were slim when it came to writing hard news. I respect views different to my own, but I nevertheless hold firm to my view that the local press offers the best grounding in journalism. That, I feel, is demonstrated by the fact that nearly all of the reporters working for the national press started out on local newspapers.


Does having a degree help get a foot on the journalistic ladder? Not necessarily. It never hurts, of course, to have an expertise in some area to degree level and many journalists have degrees in subjects like history or English. For specialist titles it can pay to have a degree in, say, science or information technology. But for a general reporter a degree is by no means necessary. I have worked with many people who do not have degrees or A Levels and those people have often been editors or news-editors with a razor-sharp news sense and an incredible ability to generate and produce great news stories.

What is necessary is a good command of the English language and numeracy skills. Usually a GCSE qualification in English and maths is a requisite. But to get on in journalism a degree qualification will pale into insignificance compared with the following:

An ability to write accurately and quickly

An ability to generate news stories on your own initiative

An interest and knowledge of your own community

An ability to ask the right questions of the right people

Many people who have not gone into higher or further education have been picking important life-skills in the 'real world' which can become a real asset for a would-be journalist. The same goes for people wanting a career change into journalism. Such people are likely to get a warm response from editors, whatever their age might be. The reason is simple: mature candidates or those who did not go into higher education are likely to be more 'street savvy' than those fresh out of college.


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