Advice to young people trying to get into journalism

I very frequently get emails from young people, usually studying now at one of my alma maters, asking me for advice on how to enter journalism. Obviously, their hope is that I have an internship or something even better to refer, but I just don’t. And really, I don’t. But I do try to respond honestly with my advice.

Since my replies have over time become more and more similar, I thought I might just publish my most recent one, written a few minutes ago, here:

Dear [OMITTED],

I sympathize very much, because around the time you were born I was writing these letters to journalists in the medium of our time, cuneiform clay tablets.

I have to rain on your parade a little bit, hopefully without drenching you. It was hard to enter journalism back then and it is much harder now. Back then it was merely glamorous (=> too many young people going after too few opportunities). Nowadays the industry is still glamorous (not sure why) but also decimated by the interwebs or whatever that thingy is you people use.

In short: all the mainstream media organisations that you can think of have been laying off people for about a decade or at least not hiring new talent en masse. For every good job, there are now many, many very qualified and experienced journalists lining up. Most of the ones my age have taken to drink, although I would not advise that option for you yet.

The energy has for years, especially in the US, been with the “new” media, by which I don’t mean social media but these start-ups, such as, for example, [OMITTED] or [OMITTED] in [OMITTED] journalism. Those kinds of things are where I would start my search, if I were you now. They hire young and exploit you in ways last seen during the years of Manchester Capitalism. You will burn out within a couple or years and leave disillusioned. And then you will discover that you now have “experience” and can get a real career.

Beyond that, and most urgently, I would advise you to start a blog (not just twitter) and actually put good stuff on it frequently. That can

  1. become your portfolio over time and
  2. actually force you to practice writing and thinking (though not necessarily reporting), thus allowing you to get better. (And even if you’re good, you can always get better.)

I would also advise you to get some real expertise in, well, something. I personally got a Masters in international relations and then joined a bank for a year or so, which was both miserable and educational. You’ll find that journalism is much less about writing stunningly beautiful sentences that obviously (!) deserve a Pulitzer and much more about knowing what the heck you’re talking about when you interview somebody in a suit and then go back to the newsroom to convince an editor that this was remotely interesting.

All that said, don’t get dejected. I think I’m saying: don’t think there is a shortcut. It took me, back in the 90s, about [OMITTED] years from my graduation to the career I’m now in.

Chin up and good luck,

A

20 thoughts on “Advice to young people trying to get into journalism

  1. “You’ll find that journalism is much less about writing stunningly beautiful sentences that obviously (!) deserve a Pulitzer and much more about knowing what the heck you’re talking about when you interview somebody in a suit and then go back to the newsroom to convince an editor that this was remotely interesting.”

    Splendid! After a year at Forbes, I felt that journalism in a nutshell is about getting your sources to talk and your editors to listen.

  2. Excellent! Just the right amount of pessimism. Can’t start them on the road to misery too soon. Since I am not a journalist (but I did spend a night at a Holiday Inn Express once), I probably would have advised Mr. [Omitted] to get an early start on that great novel/historical drama/volume of poetry that is his/her real calling.

  3. You deserve a lot of credit for taking the time to respond honestly and helpfully.

    @cyberquill Rilkesque perhaps but a little too much self deprecation for Rilke you think?

  4. “…….the mainstream media organisations……..have been laying off people for about a decade……..”

    If this bespeaks that the Journalist is now an endangered species, it shouldn’t be surprising given that nearly half of current jobs may become extinct over the next 20 years because computers and robots will do *them instead*.

    The article says there’s already software “…….that can write newspaper stories about sports games directly from the games’ stats or generate a synopsis of a company’s stock performance each day from bits of text around the web…….”

    And perhaps not only sports and stock performance stories. Already, much of the journalism I read nowadays about anything seems quite …………….machine-like?

  5. Did you really use the e-word [e***], or is my eyesight failing?

    For an ellipsis I normally use three dots […].

    It is important draw the attention of potential recruit to the realities of a profession. That way you test their resolve. You do so without condescension and without discouraging genuine ambition.

    All that glisters is not gold.

    • There once was a papal emissary
      Who ended his book with a glossary.
      In mediaeval times
      You looked for the rhymes
      But sometimes omitted the pestilence.

      He’d say to a young missionary:
      Your position will never be stationary
      Once you start on the job
      Your heart will just throb
      There’ll be no time at all for the rosary.

  6. My first paid national journalism assignment was to watch all 31 Elvis Presley movies in a fortnight and write a little blurb about each one. It put me off of journalism, cinema, and music…but the experience caused me to change my wardrobe and wonder about why I was not surrounded by lovely bee-hive hairdo women in bikinis singing about water-skiing at all times.

  7. Thank you so much for your honesty. That’s telling it like it is. I think I’ll take you up on that advice of starting a blog and just trying to write some good stuff.

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