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How to get a job in journalism

Journalists may be less trusted by the general public than politicians, if some surveys are to be believed, but that's not to stop it being one of the most popular and competitive of graduate career choices today.

Case study

Paul Kendall, associate editor and feature writer on the Sunday Telegraph's magazine, Seven

Photo of Paul Kendall
Paul Kendall of The Daily Telegraph

"I took the most classic career path. I read politics at Bristol - like any essay-based degree it taught me how to structure an argument. I went on to do a postgraduate diploma at Cardiff. It was a good introduction, but I think I learned more in a few weeks of work experience than I learned on my course.

"I spent two weeks at the Nottingham Evening Post. I still have a very nice letter from the news editor. I remember doing something on an outbreak of mad cow disease. A lot of people on my course ended up getting their first proper job at the place where they did work experience and I was no exception. Eventually I got shifts on the Daily Mail, then a six month contract and ended up doing a staff job.

"On the Sunday Telegraph we have someone in every week doing work experience. My advice is to buckle down and get on with the job. You mustn't moan. Some people complain that they don't have anything to do so take a two hour lunch break or don't come back in the afternoon.

"Journalism is more of a trade than a profession. You have to bring all of your life skills to the job, in particular the ability to filter out information.

"Almost everyone goes into journalism because they want to write. But after a few years you have to make the call as to whether you'll be able to make it as a writer or go down the subbing or commissioning route. Whatever you decide you have to live with that decision.

"Decide where you want to be in 10 years time - columnist, chief reporter, feature writer - and keep that goal in mind. Then everything you do needs to work towards that. But remember that nothing happens that quickly for most people - and people don't tend to go into journalism for the money!"

About eight per cent of all places at UK universities are now on media-related courses, driven by the prospect of a career in the "glamourous", action-packed and exciting world of journalism.

But as competition for editorial jobs explodes and the number of openings in traditional journalistic careers reduces (from writers and production staff in print media to broadcast journalists), what can aspiring journalists do to get a foot in the door and differentiate themselves from the thousands of other candidates looking to get on the journalism career ladder?

Traditionally, journalists possessed little more than a good command of English and perhaps knowledge of a specialist subject. Media organisations preferred to recruit knowledgeable all-rounders who could be taught broadcasting or writing skills in a professional environment.

Times have changed. Although media corporations continue to invest in their training programmes, places on these courses are like gold dust. "The number of students that organisations like the BBC and ITV take will reduce, but opportunities across non traditional employees will explode," says Steve Harris, accreditation secretary of the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC) and a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) professional training committee.

Most major publishers look to graduates to fill their entry-level positions. As long as they give you a real chance to learn quickly, they're a cheaper way to start than paying for a course. Few will specify media studies or journalism degrees. A non-media degree at least gives you a specialism to write about and you can always pick up the media training later. Remember, you might need to aggressively pursue opportunities to develop new skills.

There's no doubt that the economic situation has led to much downsizing across both print and broadcast media. With little slack across editorial teams, employers want candidates who can walk into a job and be operational from the word go. "The teams responsible for putting together a paper are tiny. You don't have time to spend on very basic training of new staff," explains Loraine Davies, director of the Periodicals Training Council (PTC).

This need for ‘oven-ready' journalists means employers increasingly see journalism qualifications as a good illustration of practical knowledge, and commitment to their career choice. But not all qualifications are equal. Aspiring journalists are faced with a bewildering choice of journalism-related courses including training that isn't widely respected in the industry. That's not to say it won't help you, however you might not get value for money and it could be that the benefits of the training are oversold to you.

"The reality is that most media studies courses don't contain sufficient professional practice. Many up the practical content of their courses - they may teach you disciplines but they don't teach you how to be a journalist," warns Steve Harris.

The London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing), Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, the department of Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston and City University boast some of the most well-respected journalism courses in the UK.

Look for courses that are accredited by established bodies. The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), set up over 50 years ago, offers 72 different accredited journalism training courses including distance learning, short courses and continuing professional development delivered by accredited education providers. The Periodicals Training Council, meanwhile, offers a benchmark for magazine journalism training and accredits a number of journalism courses throughout the UK, from BA to postgraduate diploma and MA.

Emma Harpley, communications manager at the NCTJ explains: "Before industry-recognised qualifications, editors didn't know what they were getting. Journalism is such a popular career choice - and while some personalities will always manage to get themselves recognised by editors, an NCTJ qualification is a way to differentiate yourself and show that you have dedication to do the job."

Loraine Davies at the PTC adds: "We accredit a number of broad media courses but only ones that have a big chunk focused on magazines and those courses must develop students that are skilled and understand the difference between writing journalistically and getting into the heads of a very defined readership."

The best courses are extremely popular and simply getting a place involves more than just good luck. "We look to see whether applicants have the gut instinct on what makes a story before they've had any formal training," says Colin Larcombe, director of the postgraduate diploma in journalism at Cardiff School of Journalism. "Do they read a lot and are they aware and interested in what's going on around them? Above that, we're looking for people who've given it some thought and preferably had some work experience."

Undergraduate degrees in journalism are gaining in popularity as the cost of higher education forces students to align their choice of degree subject more closely to their career aspirations. The universities offering undergraduate degrees in journalism believe they should arm graduates with lots of transferable skills if they subsequently decide that a career as a journalist isn't for them.

But as far as employers are concerned, graduates with a standard degree and a postgraduate journalism qualification, preferably one accredited by a recognised body seems to be the preferred option. Cardiff's Colin Larcombe says the appeal of a journalistic qualification is less about technical skills and more that students are made aware of media law. "It has become more and more important," he says.

Lindsay Nicholson is editorial director at the National Magazine Company, publisher of some of the most well established magazines in the UK including Good Housekeeping, Country Living, Harper's Bazaar, Esquire and Cosmopolitan. She admits that getting a first break in the NatMag stable isn't a million miles away from the scenario played out in the film The Devil Wears Prada. (She's also keen to stress that editors at her glossies in no way resemble the Runway editor-from-hell Miranda Priestley so convincingly portrayed by Meryl Streep!)

"Broadly speaking we're looking for a degree and some sort of postgraduate journalism qualification, preferably PTC accredited. That equips candidates with the skills they need to be useful from day one. That's the gold standard," Nicholson says.

"Most of our magazines are very famous names. An entry level job on a magazine will easily attract 200 applications," Nicholson adds. But of those you'd be amazed, she says, how many fall foul of even basic rules. "If you apply for a job, make sure you include a well written covering letter with good presentation and no spelling mistakes. Showing familiarity with the magazine is good." Common sense, perhaps, and yet of 200 applications, Nicholson says perhaps only 10 will tick all of the boxes. "And of those if someone already has published work in a local magazine or paper, for example, that will bring their application to the top of the pile."

No certificates will help you as much as experience, so if you're serious about making it as a journalist you should start writing as soon as you have an opportunity. Contributing to a university newspaper or community radio station, a freesheet or a website is a good way to get a byline.

Of course, a stint of work experience with a household name publisher or broadcaster is a great thing to have on your CV, but unfortunately it's probably as competitive as getting a permanent job. Don't let that put you off. Try to remain focused and apply for a specific role. "Don't just write that you'll work anywhere," warns the PTC's Loraine Davies. "Focus on a specific title and think about what you can offer to them in your two weeks, for example, of work experience. There should be something in your application that's personal to the editor and the title."

Consumer magazines may be top of the wish list for many, but don't forget there are lots of business to business titles out there that will give you lots of great experience - don't rule them out. "Similarly think small publishers. They may not be approached very often and could really benefit from having a work experience person in," says Davies.

Whoever you approach, securing placements isn't something you should delay. As soon as you've decided that journalism is for you, make it your mission to find a company to take you in.

"Work experience is so important, because so much of journalism is unteachable, so you have to be tenacious in even getting it. Don't be afraid to keep pestering. Phone them up - find out when press day is and don't harass them then," says the NCTJ's Emma Harpley.

This is where an accredited journalism qualification can come into its own. Most accredited courses include a decent stint of work experience, properly structured with proper feedback. Well respected courses have established links to media organisations. City University, for example, has a reputation for sending students to the Nationals, whereas Cardiff has a more regional flavour to its work experience placements.

David English, deputy director at Cardiff University's Centre for Journalism Studies believes work experience is a way of students showing commitment. "It is also evidence of initiative if students have managed to persuade editors or news editors to give them some experience. It then gives them a realistic feel of what journalism is all about. Those who don't get it tend to be the ones who have rather grandiose or unrealistic expectations of their first destination."

Concerns that some companies have exploited the desire for aspiring journalists to get work experience, but the NUJ says it's working hard to clean up the industry's act. Nicholson says NatMag operates very strict guidelines for work experience. "People used to do six months of unpaid work in the hope that they'd get a foot in the door. Now we prefer to take students from PTC-accredited courses."

Securing work experience is only the top of the iceberg - ensuring you come away from the experience better placed for the realities of work is key to ongoing success." Set yourself some targets and find and write some stories yourself so you can point to something you've done," Steve Harris, accreditation secretary of the NUJ broadcast journalism training council says: "If you have a good period of work experience your chance of getting a job is really high - we have lot of examples of that."

"It's all about marketability," Harris adds. "So many students want to get into journalism - 100 people will be going for a bit of work experience let alone a full time job. We calculate there are about 800 students leaving our accredited courses every year. Anyone who doesn't have that will be struggling."

David English has a list of his successful attributes for budding journalists. It includes commitment, enthusiasm, being a news junkie, interested in current affairs and never giving up. "Those who will not take ‘no' for an answer will get there in the end."

Paddy O'Connell is the presenter of BBC Radio 4's current affairs programme Broadcasting House, the BBC's former Wall Street presenter and used to report for Working Lunch from New York as far back as 1999. His advice is never to forget the egos of broadcasters and of reporters.
"Call them up or email them, saying "I have long been an admirer of your work, and wanted to come and watch you for three hours one afternoon." You will be invited along at 2pm and you will have got your foot in the door. For this to work properly, it is best to pick someone whose work you do know -- and do like."