How to Become A Journalist: 20 Tips from A J-School Grad

j-schoolSince my co-worker Clay Duda told his story about being a j-school grad, I thought I’d tell mine and hopefully help some people figure out how to become a journalist—a real one.

Hint: it’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Before I fell in love with journalism, I loved writing. Last May marked two years since I received my undergraduate degree in journalism (with certificates in creative writing and new media.) Like Clay talked about in his j-school grad story, I dreamed of a gig at the New York Times. But I wasn’t set on a traditional journalism job from the start. I knew plenty of fellow grads who were unemployed or had switched careers entirely. No matter what, I knew didn’t want to end up under my parent’s roof. Not because I didn’t want to see them daily but because I always want my life to move forward.

I specialized in magazines, but I also worked for the school’s newspaper and magazine, as well as completing several media internships. Still, I didn’t really know exactly how people got jobs in journalism. I didn’t know how I’d get somewhere; I simply knew I wanted to write. If I were good enough and worked hard enough, I figured I’d get somewhere.

When I graduated in 2009, I already had a job lined-up. Actually, the job began as a internship but then transitioned into full-time after a few months. My boss owned four companies, ranging from a music production company to a grant writing company. I worked for them all as a communications director and did a wide range of tasks, from writing web copy to managing social media accounts. Gradually, I fell in love with social media and realized it had a lot of potential, more than talking about what everyone ate for lunch. But after awhile, I knew I wanted more from a job.

So I moved to Atlanta where I figured I’d at least find more freelancing opportunities. I started waiting tables, and then I got a job working as an online community manager for a real estate company. This job had nothing to do with journalism. I knew this going into it, but it involved writing and social media and honestly I had no idea what to expect.

Although we wrote thousands of words per day, few of my co-workers had backgrounds in writing. During my lunch breaks, I would often interview people and work on stories for a culture blog that I wrote for at the time. After writing hundreds of blog posts—about 10 per day—I became a better blogger. In his famous words about storytelling, Ira Glass says you have to produce a lot of work to get better. And Malcolm Gladwell wrote about people needing to do 10,000 hours of something to get good at it. I wrote so much and always wrote thinking that someone important would read my writing, even though I knew it would slip away into the mass of words that make up the Internet. When you’re writing (or doing whatever work you do) everyday and trying hard, you will get better.

Of course, working at such an insane pace involving things you don’t care about is not sustainable, so I quit my second job in two years. Soon after, I got this job working part-time. I worked for a while as an editor and writer of a local culture publication. Now, I’m also doing freelance work.

Here’s something you should know and believe… journalism will survive. I think it’s important to remember that most people don’t think about “Journalism.” They think about the information they need, how it affects and engages them and who they trust to give them the information they need and want. People will always need information, and even though many more people are producing content, trusting people to provide good, ethical content is only going to become more important. Journalism school teaches a lot of useful skills, such as critical thinking and ethical decision making, that can be used for a variety of things. Even if you don’t become a Journalist—and you still can—you can make it. You have to find what inspires you and grow it.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned in two years since graduating from journalism school:

10 Things to do if you want to become a journalist

  1. Hustle. Work really, really hard. In your down time, you’re going to need to work. And when you fail, you have to keep going. No matter what.
  2. Teach Yourself. Online you can find someone teaching whatever it is that you want to know how to do. You can take online classes for free, learn from tutorials or find people willing to help you if you search and network.
  3. Work for free, but only with a purpose and for a limited time. I agree that writing for free can lower the value of writing (and this goes for any type of free work) but I’ve gotten something out of everything I’ve written without pay. You have to decide what you want to get out of the work you choose to do, especially when not writing for pay. Working for free editing and writing for a local publication for creative people helped me get paid for other work.
  4. Become inspired, develop passion. If you don’t have a drive to continue, your pursuit of journalism can quickly fade out.
  5. Get to know people and keep in touch with them. This means journalists and people with stories. Twitter is a great way to find people, and it’s created many many opportunities for me, but it’s certainly not the only way to network.
  6. Pitch stories. If you can’t find a journalism job (and even if you do,) pitch ideas to publications and learn how to query properly. Keep developing ideas and sending them out.
  7. Have a critical eye. A lot of info is fake, especially online. (This slide show called BS Detection for Journalists is good.)
  8. Create an online presence for yourself. And a website. Or an profile. Or a Google Plus profile, since it is sure to appear at the top of Google search results. And make sure to include samples of your work.
  9. Call yourself a journalist. Many people describe themselves as “aspiring.” Why? Go ahead and start working and call yourself a journalist. Especially if you went to j-school and have done some internships, which is a good idea. If you call yourself a journalist, you just might become one.
  10. Have standards and stick to them. It’s good to consider ethics, but also think about what minimum pay you’ll accept and other similar requirements you can set for the work you might be asked to do.

10 Things not to do if you want to become a journalist

  1. Expect to make a lot of money. You might eventually be able to make good money but probably not at first.
  2. Think you can get away with not knowing the basics. Knowing journalism 101 including writing, interviewing, reporting and other non-techie stuff is still important.
  3. Think you absolutely must get a job in “journalism.” You might find you like something else better. And those who say a journalism degree is worthless are wrong. If you learned what you should have, you have some great skills that can also be used in other fields. Or maybe you only do journalism on the side.
  4. Expect anyone to help you. I’ve had people help me, however, you can’t sit around and wait for someone to give you a job, or an assignment. You have to create the opportunity.
  5. Burn Bridges. In college, I didn’t think too deeply about the connections I could have been making, or what I should have been getting out of the internships I did. 
  6. Listen to people who tell you journalism is dead. It’s not, it’s really not.
  7. Stop writing, or taking photos, or editing or making things or whatever journalistic thing you do. Keep working even if you don’t have an assignment. Start a blog, or a project on your own if you don’t have anything else to do.
  8. Be afraid of rejection and criticism. Both of these happen and you might as well accept them now. And remember to learn from the expereinces.
  9. Forget that everything on the Internet can be seen. This includes what is on your social media profiles.
  10. Wait. Start now. Right now.

I hope these tips help you.You might also want to check out these crowdsourced tips for finding a journo job.

Do you have any other journalism tips, or advice on how to become a journalist?

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7 Responses to How to Become A Journalist: 20 Tips from A J-School Grad
  1. [...] the rest of this post, including 20 tips for journos on The Center for Sustainable Journalism [...]

  2. [...] the rest of this post, including 20 tips for journos on The Center for Sustainable Journalism [...]

  3. Allie Fogg
    October 29, 2011 | 7:00 pm

    Nice article!

  4. Nesma
    December 4, 2011 | 2:21 pm

    hey Lindsay , I’m Nesma and I’m journalism student .I want to thank you very much about your great article and your helpful tips , and may i ask you a question : you said that you love writing.. but i want to know what’s type of writing . and is that necessary to love writing to become a journalist?

  5. will mosher
    January 6, 2012 | 2:43 am

    Actually journalism is dead. Really. It really is. Just wait a few years.

  6. Stephanie
    January 27, 2012 | 11:39 am

    Hi, nice tip there u gat. M also a undergraduate student for journalism. My problem is english. N m scared that might fail this course. Can u help me on hw i might able to improve my english?

  7. Felicia
    January 30, 2012 | 6:32 pm

    I am 50 years old and have been writing for about 10 years now I have no formal education in creative writing but have started about five different stories. I love making up characters and giving them there own personalities. But, I want to write about something meaningful and real so I have decided that I would like to become a journalist so I can write about issues out there that I feel could be interesting and fulfilling. So could you offer me some advice on how to get started?

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