So you want to be a journalist?

Hi Writers,
I just hired a new editor this week to join the Writer’s Digest editorial team. In the process of screening applicants and going through the whole interview process with a number of fine journalistic candidates, I realized a few things that I thought might help those of you who are looking for a career in journalism.

The media landscape that new journalists now face has changed quickly and dramatically, and, unfortunately, merely being a superlative writer isn’t enough any more. Magazines and newspaper staffs have been downsized at just about every media company, and the editors and journalists who remain need to have a whole new set of skills.    

So for the aspiring journalists and editors out there, here are a few old school and new media tips for landing a paying gig.  

• Good writing and editing skills are still critical. Take all of the journalism classes you can because they will teach you to think of writing as a job and not to be too precious about your words. English classes are extremely useful too—to help you to recognize good vivid, imaginative writing. Being an excellent verbal communicator is as important as it’s ever been. But being an excellent verbal communicator who’s flexible enough to write for varying platforms—print, blogs, community sites, video scripts—will land you a job.

• Publish everywhere you can. Don’t be afraid to start small: your school paper, the local alt-weekly, whatever. Being published, even in smaller outlets will prove your tenacity, which is crucial if you want to survive in 21st century journalism. Note: a MySpace page doesn’t count as being published. But an essay published in a reputable online journal does—even if you didn’t get paid for it.

• E-Media skills worth developing:
A working knowledge of HTML
Experience with managing an online community forum
Professional blogging experience
Some graphic design knowledge, including InDesign
Digital Photography and PhotoShop 
Video production and editing (in this era of free commercials via YouTube)
Digital audio recording and podcasting

And above all, you have to love it. Also, it doesn’t hurt to marry well, too, just in case (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

If you have more tips for landing a journalism job, please share here.
Keep Writing,

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12 thoughts on “So you want to be a journalist?

  1. MDS

    Journalism has been in a recession since the fall of 2001. Almost every newsroom I know is smaller now than it was five years ago, and it wasn’t a strong market before 2001.

    Basically if you want to go into journalism you have to look at it as a calling. The pay is worse than teacher money. There is little recognition or job security. You have to do it because you love it, and live it, or else its not for you.

    As far as school goes. If I had it to do over again I would probably major in Spanish and work at the school newspaper and see if I couldn’t string for a local sports section or something. Clips and unique experience are probably more important than any degree you have. If you can read and write Spanish fluently and have decent clips, you will always be able to find a job.

  2. Sweetfightgirl

    I have a communications degree and have worked in public relations, having ghost written anything from healthcare article for women’s mags to trade publication/hard science. While I have a lot of writing experience and a ton of knowledge in the field, do I need a degree in journalism or Master’s as I was thinking of going back to school. Obviously there will be a lot of opinions on this but I appreciate it more than a hot fudge sunday. I am glad to see an article for people starting out or those of us who have to make career changes. Does anyone have any thoughts? I continue to take nonfiction classes but more book oriented but was really curious about the journalism label. Throughout my career I did learn the web, blog, and writing for tv, radio, and other outlets. I now am a self-taught web language and layout design which was launched from my days as a college editor. So anyway, that is my background and really the biggest questions is do I really need a journalism degree if I am making a switch from a related field. I work constantly with editors but never ask them as they are friends and I want an "outside" opinion. Thanks to anyone who can help clarify this one missing link in the story for me…otherwise I thought it was very helpful! Thanks!

  3. Kate Doherty

    Wise words for a (mature)journalism student like myself. While our lecturers are constantly pressing the need for shorthand, the electronic side of things is being left behind. In fact in a four-year degree course there are only one or two modules that include digital journalism.

    I agree that excellent writing skills are essential though, especially in today’s world of text-speak when many of the younger generation have difficulty spelling some of the basic words.

    As for marrying well, I tried that too … but journalism’s a better option and certainly more interesting!

  4. Tom

    Glad you blogged this subject, Maria. This is of particular importance to me now, as I’m trying to jump start the literary career I set aside just a few years following college. I have been learning the hard way how much things have changed since 1994.

    Two years ago, after picking up my faithful Nikon again, I found I had to put it down and get another one. It’s not that it wasn’t functioning anymore (that thing still rules), rather I couldn’t find any photo labs locally that would do black and white print film. Plenty of labs would still do color, but they digitally scan the negatives now, so you get a digital print anyway! (Optical scanners have apparently been almost totally phased out in the space of about five years.)

    Following that adjustment, I’ve been faced with the reality of learning the e-media skills you’ve mentioned above. Almost zero of what you listed was even available to a college student when I graduated. Indeed, just knowing how to write well is not enough. I’ve noticed that a large number of writing related jobs that require print skills, "and web content writing." Out in the cold am I.

  5. Lori

    I’ll add this – don’t be afraid to take chances with your writing. Too often beginning writers want to impress with how well they’ve learned formulaic writing. Well, that’s just plain boring. Let loose with your creativity. It’s much more impressive!

  6. Anthony Buccino

    I would add to all the journalist-wannabes that your first job isn’t always your last. And it isn’t unlikely that each succeeding writing job you have will be a lot different than the last one.

    Personally speaking, I wrote concert reviews, then odd little opinion pieces – nothing like today’s odd little opinion pieces – then covered town meetings as a stringer, then wrote advertising copy for a major retailer, then worked at a trade association (those stories didn’t necessarily need BOTH sides of an issue), a local newspaper, then a state trade association, blah, blah, blah and now I edit business news.

    At each writing venue I used the same skills to deliver what someone was paying me to write or edit. So, keep your writing skills sharp and learn every thing you can from your colleagues along the way.

    You can still follow your muse to write the things you WANT to write – that novel, or those short stories, or that cluster of poems. The skills, you will find, carry over.


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