Journalism: Breaking In

Hi Writers,
follow up on my last post about landing a journalism career, I asked
our newly hired managing editor, Zac Petit—who graduated from J-school
three years ago—to share his thoughts.

Here’s Zac:
journalism—long hours, low pay, shrinking newsrooms, coffee overdoses,
sadistic deadlines, weekends spent covering garage sales boasting
glamorous taglines such as “world’s largest.” But don’t fret.

also a glorious upside: seeing your first 1A story, building
impenetrable staff camaraderie with your “war” buddies, getting paid to
write and edit regularly, seeing readers take an interest in your work,
knowing you didn’t get a job in mathematics.

Journalism can
either be your worst nightmare or your best friend. For many
professionals, it’s both. As one writer here put it, “Basically if you
want to go into journalism you have to look at it as a calling. … you
have to do it because you love it, and live it, or else it’s not for

My advice? If you’re just starting out and you don’t have
any strong connections or solid clips, start small. Try a newspaper, a
routine launching pad for scores of media professionals and authors
(including greats like Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut). For me, a
jaunt out to a small rural daily was an ideal place to quickly learn
the trade. Not only was it a journalism boot camp, but it also provided
a rare opportunity to experience everything in the profession at once,
from basic reporting and photography to advancement in bigger beats (in
newspaper jargon, beats are basically your hallowed turf, such as the
police or county government beat). If you work hard, lose a little
sleep, get all your facts right and build some solid clips, often you
can be out and on your way to a bigger publication in a year.

for the college degree, it may not be necessary at every publication,
but it definitely helps. A quick glance at the reporter hub affirms that most places require a journalism or
mass communications credential as a prerequisite. If you’re in a
college journalism program, embrace internships, write for the school
paper and seek out some freelance opportunities. If you’re not
enrolled, do everything you can for starter clips, experience and
connections: Write for free, network and talk to professionals to gain
an understanding of the industry. When it comes to that first
journalism gig, these are the things publications will be looking
for—and it just might prevent you from having to move out to the middle
of nowhere.

Yeah, journalism is hard. But when you talk to
media professionals who have stayed the course, they’re likely to
begrudgingly admit that it was well worth it—even if they did have to
cover the occasional “World’s Largest Garage Sale” once or twice in
their early days.

Zac will be contributing to The Writer’s Perspective from time to time, so please welcome him. Also, feel free to post any comments or questions for him here.

Keep Writing,

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5 thoughts on “Journalism: Breaking In

  1. Lori

    I never got to cover the world’s largest garage sale. Now I feel like I’ve missed out! Although I did cover a meeting where a regular, disturbed attendee declared herself a witch and cursed everyone on the city council. Fun times…

    Welcome, Zac!

  2. Brian Broome

    Great insight!

    Another benefit of the basic journalism foundation comes from an old slogan we kicked around in my JM School years ago: "Journalists do it daily."

    Where else can you get daily practice in honing your writing and editing skills? Even if the pay is low at first, the discipline a young writer invests in his/her work will pay off later many times over.


  3. Cheryl Wright

    Welcome Zac,

    Those are some great tips, several of which have served me well in my freelance writing career.

    I look forward to reading more posts from you. Hey, maybe Writer’s Digest will let you set up your own.

    All the best.