Want to be a journalist? Top editors share their advice: 'Show you can give 100 per cent, or it will end in tears'

Press Gazette asked some leading journalists who deal with graduate recruitment what they look for. This piece first appeared in our How to be a Journalist magazine, the new edition of which is being sent out to every sixth form and university careers library in the UK in October.

Media consultant Sue Ryan, who deals with graduate recruitment at the Daily Mail and Mail Online:

“The Mail group take on more trainees than any other media organisation, and the graduates that are taken on progress through the ranks very quickly.

“I would advise sixth formers to take the degree subject that interests them most, at the best university they can get into. Do as much student journalism as possible and aim to edit the University paper.  Also try to get as much work experience in the holidays as you can. After University either do a post grad or one of the 17-week NCTJ courses.

“An understanding of grammar and the ability to write well is the obvious basic necessary skill, but on its own  it is not enough. Journalists need to be passionate about working in the media, curious about the world around them, have a sense of humour and a willingness to work hard and unsocial hours. News is not a nine-to-five phenomenon.  They also need to be robust, good at lateral thinking, and creative.

“When recruiting graduates, we put attitude at the top of our list. An applicant might tick all the boxes but if he or she is not ready to put 100 per cent into the role, then it will end in tears. “

Paul Clarkson, managing editor of The Sun:

Consider why you want to do journalism. It can be a wonderful career, but it might not be as lucrative as other careers unless you are extremely talented or fortunate.

Consider how you intend to stand out from the crowd in what is a very competitive industry.

There are good university degrees and courses that can give you a solid grounding in the fundamentals of media law, ethics and journalistic practice.

The rest cannot be taught. We are most impressed by aspiring journalists who have shown initiative.

There are no longer any excuses for not being a published journalist by the time we consider you. There are school, college and community newspapers and websites in great need of content.

Anyone can publish a blog, anyone can uncover a story of real public interest. There are so many platforms and forms of journalism now. Have a thick skin when it comes to personal criticism, but be sensitive to the impact what you write or create will have on the public.

A thorough grasp of media law, privacy and data protection law is a starting point.

An ability to research and check facts. A questioning nature, but also a natural charm can go a long way.

An ability to handle pressure situations.

A journalist in the digital age has to deal with immediate deadlines. They have to ensure their content is accurate or there can be severe consequences for the title they work for.

They also have to be able to face hostile situations and ask questions that would make others wince.

Most journalists go through the university route, but it should not be the only way to a career in journalism.

Sun publisher News UK have engaged with students as young as 16 and we are considering apprenticeships for the myriad of jobs available in this industry.

Less than a quarter of staff at a traditional newspaper will be reporters.

There are highly-skilled artists and designers, subs and picture editors who are just as important.

Our industry is evolving rapidly and we are recruiting people through very non-traditional avenues. These include Youtube stars who create fantastically innovative video or people who have created niche expertise in certain fields.

But a simple CV, examples of published works and cover letter can still work.

Experience trumps academic qualifications every single time.

A journalist needs to be able to work well in a team. A sense of humour goes a long way.

A dose of humility combined with confidence is important.

Robin Searle, managing editor Travel Weekly:

Trade titles have the same basic requirements as consumer titles when it comes to recruiting journalists.

One of the challenges of working for a trade title in an ‘attractive’ industry like travel is the misconception that we write about travel rather than the business of travel.

There are opportunities to write colour, particularly in our features sections and niche magazines and guides, but the underlying driver for our content is how it informs, educates and helps our readers do business.

Like any publication or website, we have specialist news and feature writers, and specialists within those teams. The majority of our journalists have a background in local, regional or national newspapers – however, the contraction of that particular sector means the pool of available talent coming through the newspaper route is becoming smaller and respected websites are slowly becoming more reliable sources of quality candidates.

Solid grounding and training is the first thing we look for when recruiting journalists and that is why newspapers continue to be the benchmark of quality.

The traditional NCTJ basics of news reporting, story and feature structure, media law and government (and preferably shorthand!) are still the building blocks upon which all good journalism careers are based.

In addition to those traditional building blocks of print journalism, an understanding of how those skills translate to production and new media is also increasingly desirable.

Experience is key, particularly when we are looking for someone who will be capable of immersing themselves in a particular industry and sector and quickly developing a level of expertise to be able to write about and for that market with authority.

We occasionally take on new starters if they have a solid bank of work experience and have completed a well-respected and recognised journalism qualification, but typically we would be looking at those with a minimum of two years’ experience of frontline journalism for a junior role.

When it comes to applying for a job, research and understanding of the company you are courting is key. There is a wealth of information available online and in print, so using that to demonstrate your understanding of a media portfolio, target markets and core content will not only impress potential recruiters, but will also demonstrate your ability to embrace the fundamentals of the role for which you’re applying and the career path you’ve chosen to follow.

Jenny Stevens, formerly managing editor of Vice:

Tenacity, commitment and passion are what I look for in journalists.

When I was starting out, I was told that 90 per cent of journalism is actually wanting to do journalism, and I think that’s still true.

Finding stories is hard graft, and we’re looking for people who are totally committed and passionate about doing that, and won’t give up when hurdles are put in their way.

I think the key things needed to be a journalist are an interest in the world around you, a passion to tell stories, and the ability to go out and talk to people. Read the papers, read books – learn as much as you can about the world we live in.

Journalism training is very useful, but it’s not essential, and most people can’t afford to do it. I got a Scott Trust bursary, which helped, and there are a few others available.

Some news organisations offer graduate programmes too.

The most important training is going out and finding stories though. Try and get work experience, make contacts with local journalists, seek as much professional advice as you can.

If you can afford to do it, try and get work experience on a local paper. If not, find stories and pitch them to editors.

A nose for a great story will stand out to editors and potential employers far more than a CV full of placements at news organisations.

Picture, credit: Reuters.

Comments

3 thoughts on “Want to be a journalist? Top editors share their advice: 'Show you can give 100 per cent, or it will end in tears'”

  1. This is all so trite. The simple fact is that if you want to be a journalist today there are so few paid jobs compared to 40 or even ten years ago. Dead tree publishing is finished and internet publishing has been totally devalued by the fact that anybody can do it – usually badly. Yes, I have my NCTJ and yes, I have travelled the world and had a ball. But those days are long over and I am a dinosaur.

  2. Such BS advice. Suck up to the Editor is probably more realistic advice. I know a large number of Journalists who have given 100% however it’s often those who suck up or whose ‘faces fit’ who get the best jobs and attributed bylines…

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