Rethinking journalism advice

About a year and a half ago, I gave the following advice to a young professional who wanted to break into journalism. Given the changing landscape of our field, do you think it’s still valid? What about it is still good and what needs to be reworked?

1) Write, write, and write some more. Start a blog about something you’re really interested in. I know a guy who only blogs about The Beatles. The Beatles, as musical icons, are intrinsically linked to every aspect of his life and it shows in the care he takes with writing about them. Make it meaningful to you and the writing will be meaningful to others. If you’re interested in music, go to live shows and write reviews. Write the reviews short. Write them long. Just write them. Experiment. Write every day; set daily deadlines for yourself. Keep in mind that a blog of this nature isn’t to necessarily draw millions of readers, but to work on your writing “voice.” I’d say do it as a journal and not for the world to see, but some internship coordinators take well-written, thoughtful blog entries as clips/writing samples when “traditional” clips/writing samples aren’t available. No one’s going to give you a chance to write if you haven’t demonstrated in some form or fashion that you already know how to write.

2) Learn different aspects of multimedia. By the time you graduate from grad school, simply being able to write more than likely won’t get you a job. Journalism is moving to the Web. Learn to shoot and edit video. Learn how to create podcasts. Know how to do the basics in Flash and Dreamweaver. Know how to use social media. Whatever you do, do it well. The more you know, the easier it will be to position yourself as the candidate outlets want to hire.

3) Hone your voice by reading the work of good writers. Writers don’t operate in a vacuum. Reading good work begets good work. If you want to be in magazines, you must read the annual editions of The Best American Magazine Writing. If newspapers are your thing, read the annual editions of Best Newspaper Writing. Part of finding your voice comes from knowing what has and hasn’t worked for other writers.

4) Get involved. Join some associations. There’s the Society of Professional Journalists, the International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association, and the Radio Television Digital News Association, to name a few. There are so many associations out there. It doesn’t make sense to not be involved with those that fit your needs. Establishing relationships in the field goes a long way in helping you achieve your goals.

5) Know that you’re getting into a field where your earning potential is stunted from jump. You will have to take a vow of poverty to be in this business. Don’t be surprised by that. People don’t get into media for the paycheck. They get into it because they want to tell good stories (and see their names in print).

The bottom line: Don’t wait for someone to hand you an opportunity you can create yourself. You have to take the initiative to make your dreams come true. That means when you get to grad school, you write for the school newspaper, magazine, yearbook, online venture…whatever’s available, you do it. If writing is what you want to do, take—and make—every opportunity possible to help you get to where you want to be. It may not pay off immediately, but it will eventually pay off if you’re serious about it.

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  • Scott

    That advice is still all true – and used quite a bit. I assume that’s for a reason.

    I’d add a few points:

    1) Don’t just JOIN associations – participate in them. Go to the conferences/conventions, do the networking events, take advantage of online/on-demand training. And if you say, “I can’t pay for this stuff,” then FIND ways to do it. Put $20 or whatever you can afford from each paycheck into a special savings account to be used ONLY for professional development. Look for scholarships, fellowships, grants to pay for this stuff. There’s one certain way to never be able to attend: Don’t try. Make some sacrifices. Do you REALLY need that smart phone with $120/month phone/text/data plan? Really? How about waiting a few years until the technology becomes cheaper and, you know, you can ACTUALLY afford it.

    2) Don’t just “be on Twitter and Linked In” and the other standard, tired advice. Participate. Actually “talk” to people. Engage. Pay attention to who are the influential people on these platforms and follow them. And take part in the “chats” and other conversations happening in real time. Twitter and Linked In and many of these sites aren’t designed as one-way, narcissistic self-publishing platforms (though they’re used for that by many people). It’s a multi-way conversation. Sometimes shutting the heck up is the best thing you can do for yourself.

  • Scott – this is a good list. But I think what’s missing (and not enough young journalists are being told this) is something to this effect:
    Give back. Recognize that even though it’s more competitive than ever to break into journalism, journalism is more collaborative than ever. Never pass up the opportunity to extend a helping hand — pitch in on stories, volunteer at conferences, connect friends/colleagues/classmates with similar interests.

    Journalism is a “small world” and people are more connected now than ever– your reputation and decency will help your competitive portfolio stand out above others.

  • Scott

    Good point, Emma. That makes me remember my new favorite journalism catch phrase (don’t know who coined it, but I absorbed it from David Cohn of Spot.Us): “Content is king, but collaboration is queen. I am just a pawn.”

  • Multimedia should be extended to data. More and more of our world is spilling online in a form that can be quantified, queried and visualized.

    If you know how to make skillful use of a campaign finance database or the county’s payroll records, you will have an edge. If you can build a map that shows where that environmental pollution has been reported for that story you’re building that connects the pollution to a nearby factory, even better.

    Collaborate with people who complement your skills. Definitely.

    And going to an organization with your skills is a way to give back and network at the same time. Contribute your savvy to your local SPJ chapter and help us all improve our craft and our communities.

  • Tip #2 is extremely important. For example, as a freelance writer, I get requests from clients who may want you to “log into their wordpress control panel and post the content for them,” or “put in the HTML codes of a post,” or “upload a video to youtube,” etc.

    Hence, having an understanding of different multimedia platforms comes in very handy.

    Also, when you’re just starting out, you’re probably not going to have the funds to pay someone to handle the technical problems that comes with publishing a blog, for example. So it’s important to know how to upload your own content and troubleshoot simple problems.

    Yeah, it’s a pain, but it’s so necessary.

    You don’t have to be an expert, but do know enough to operate your online presence without relying on a paid technician.

    Great article.

  • Tauhid Chappell

    This is an awesome post and I’m so glad that I read it. If you don’t mind, I’m hoping to quote a part of this post in my next blog post about the importance of Twitter and how it’s relevant to college students like myself.

    I had a bigger post written out but firefox shut down on me unexpectedly 🙁

    For some reason it’s having trouble posting my blog as my website. Here’s where I’ll be posting:

  • This is awesome advice and I intend on fully taking it in and putting it into action. This is all the stuff I’ve been telling the staffers and junior editors at my school newspaper, many which are yearning to get into the field.

    Thank you!



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