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BY Michele Weldon

Get The Scoop: How To Break Into Journalism

By Michele Weldon

woman reporting

Photo credit: © Leszek Czerwonka / Adobe Stock

If you have your sights set on breaking into journalism, you have many different possible entry points, but all have the same basic requirements. You need to be curious, ethical, passionate about accuracy and have a strong drive for good storytelling.

Those foundational credos apply to all platforms—text, digital, audio, video, visual, data, graphic as well as social media. The good news is there are more outlets domestically and internationally looking for journalists to create content remotely than ever before in history. 

Some would say the best way to start a career in journalism is to have an undergraduate or graduate degree in journalism from any of the hundreds of junior colleges and universities around the country with journalism programs. But if that isn’t the case for you, you can definitely still launch your journalism career. Critical thinking skills are needed and a distinct skillset in information gathering.

You can begin as a freelance writer or contributor to a niche site and build up your “clips” or links to examples of your work. You can build your skills in audio or video with your own blog or as a contributor to an established blog. You can work in related communications fields—public relations or content strategy—where you concentrate on writing well and quickly. Or you can start with an internship or entry level position at an established media outlet where there is an defined pattern to working your way up the ladder.

My own start in journalism is exceptionally corny. At 10, I published my own newspaper, The Juvenile Journal. I had 50 paid subscribers—all family and neighbors mandated to subscribe—for the monthly mimeographed four-page, typed newsletter that cost 50 cents a year.

I gave up my personal publishing empire when I went to high school, and I started contributing “teen stories” at 13 for the local newspaper for $25 a piece, a modest fortune in 1972. Since then, I have worked as a journalist full-time and part time for almost four decades, written five nonfiction books and taught several thousands of undergraduate and graduate journalism students for 18 years.

It’s a critical time to be a journalist in the era of “fake news” claims and assaults on accuracy. With the onslaught of self-publishing and blogging, anyone who publishes can claim to be a journalist.  

Yet while there is overlap, it is important to know the difference between journalism and blogging. Many blogs do not offer vetted sources and what I call “off the top of your head” writing. There is a line between independent editorial work and sponsored content—or ad-supported stories.

While some journalists blog, not all bloggers commit journalism. According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics,  gathering and verifying information from multiple outside sources in order to create a balanced story with context is at the heart of good journalism. Much of blogging is personal opinion and using sources that pay for the content.

As in many fields, you need experience to get hired as a journalist and it is hard to get experience without experience. So one suggestion is to contribute guest columns or reported stories to your local newspaper, magazine or regional online outlet. Study the site or the issues and come up with an original idea that is reasonable and doable and pitch it to the top editor in an email.

Join networking journalism groups, including Journalism and Women Symposium, Association for Women Journalists-Chicago or other regional groups. Do research online for what opportunities are available with sites such as Journalism Jobs.

If you are agile on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Storify and Pinterest, you can be a valuable addition to a newsroom staff or media outlet. If you join a media organization’s social media team, learn everything you can about the news gathering operation and ask for opportunities to report, write and contribute.

Here is additional advice from veteran journalists on how they started in their careers and other tips.

“The times and the profession have certainly changed since I started my journalism career with a clear path from small to medium to large newspaper, from intern to reporter to editor to columnist. But some values remain constant,” says Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning journalist, columnist for Roll Call and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK.

“Remain open to new adventures and opportunities that may not be part of the plan. Build skills in a variety of disciplines and media skill sets. Come to those first job opportunities with clips and tapes and evidence that you’ve been practicing journalism before that first job,” says Curtis who has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer, and is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project.  

“Be curious about people – even and especially those whose challenges and triumphs might seem unfamiliar to you. That’s where you will find the best stories,” says Curtis, whose coverage specialty is the intersection of politics, culture and race, and she has covered the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential campaigns.

Karen Springen agrees on that main point. “Be curious,” says Springen, lecturer at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, where she teaches, directs the Journalism Residency program and chairs the student affairs committee for the university's Faculty Senate.

A former correspondent for Newsweek magazine, Springen says, “When I was a newbie journalist in New York City, I always wondered where I could find free, clean bathrooms. Voila -- a story idea. I mailed a short pitch to an editor at the New York Daily News and, amazingly, even though she didn't know me, she said yes. “

Springen, who has published in Publishers Weekly, Reader’s Digest, Chicago magazine, Chicago Tribune, Stanford Magazine, Marie Claire, Delta Sky, Parents, Booklist, menshealth.com and goodhousekeeping.com, adds, “It was an early lesson to just go for it. Or, to quote former hockey star Wayne Gretzky, ‘100 percent of the shots you don't take don't go in.’"

When you are job hunting in journalism, be persistent.

“Give your job hunt the personal touch,” says Caryn Ward, is an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist.

“When I was looking for my first job in TV news I took a very long road trip. I traveled to every television station in Georgia and Florida and met with every News Director or Executive Producer or Producer who would see me,” says Ward, who spent more than 25 years in television newsrooms as a reporter, editor, executive producer, managing editor and news director.

“Yes, it took time. Yes, it took money. And yes, I heard no from almost everyone. But it only took one yes and I was on my way. That yes would not have happened if I had just sent a resume and cover letter,” says Ward, who also writes for online and print publications including The Chicago Tribune, Al Jazeera, Huffington Post and InterMat. 

While journalism is a profession that is expanding, it also has its challenges with a legacy of not being diverse or inclusive. That necessary cultural shift begins with hiring.

Stacy-Marie Ishmael, a fellow with the John S. Knight Foundation at Stanford University, editor and author of the Ms. management blog for Source, and former editor at BuzzFeed, writes that editors and managers of newsrooms and editorial sites need to do a better job at hiring.

“It is not enough for us to merely admit that we have a problem, though there are still many of us for whom that would be a useful first step. Because there’s knowing that we make a series of negative snap judgements about someone based on characteristics they have no control over, and then there’s taking deliberate action to change that,” Ishamael writes in Source.

So take your shot and aim to get hired for a job in journalism that you really want to do.

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Michele Weldon is the editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. 

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