10 tips for aspiring journalists on how to break into the industry

by Jenna Goudreau

This is a relationship business. If I could turn back time, I would have invested even more in building and maintaining strong relationships with mentors, colleagues, and peers.

1.   Inspiration

My love for putting pen to paper started early. Before I could even read, I begged my mom to teach me. Once I could, I loved writing stories. In elementary school I wrote and bound a 10-page book on friendship, wrote song lyrics for our all-girl rock band The Crying Onions and worked on the school “newspaper” (more like pamphlet, filled mostly with my poems about the weather). It all sounds very adorable, and I’m sure it was, but the point is: I have always been a writer and storyteller.

When I started asking more practical questions—how do I earn money with my skills?—journalism seemed obvious. You get to learn every day, meet interesting people, write and speak about new ideas, and occasionally get a sweet swag bag. How do you know you love it? I can’t answer that for you. But if you choose to pursue this field, you’ll need to have talent and passion to ride out the hard time.

2.   Education

I got undergraduate journalism and sociology degrees from New York University. I recommend pursuing a journalism degree and double majoring in something wildly different to diversify yourself. If I could do it again, I would double in computer science. Some of my colleagues in the industry didn’t study journalism and have been very successful. It’s not required, but it makes it easier.

Still, journalism is a doing field. At the end of the day, you need to be able to talk to people, see trends, organize your research and communicate it in an engaging way. Online, the editing process is changing. More and more, the onus is on individual journalists to come up with the ideas and report, write, edit, publish and promote the work themselves. That takes independence, drive and attention to detail, which can’t be taught in a classroom.

3.   Job Opportunities

Although media is evolving rapidly, I still put journalism jobs in two buckets: broadcast and print. In broadcast, meaning TV and radio news, you can either be an on-air personality or a writer/producer of pieces that end up on air, or a mix of both. My work has mostly been on the print side, but if I could go back, I’d take at least one broadcast-journalism class. Online writers are now asked to create their own web videos, and print writers generally are often asked to go on the air to promote their work. By print I mean physical and digital newspapers and magazines, wire services and websites.

On the whole, the field is contracting, but if you’re good and smart about it, you can find work. Helpful resources are mediabistro, JournalismJobs and Indeed. One good option for young, aspiring journalists is to get in the door at a wire service like the Associated Press or Dow Jones. They administer news tests through universities and, if they like you, place you in one of their markets. I was offered a reporter position in Florida just out of school but, for reasons I’ll discuss shortly, turned it down. While I had different plans, this is a great opportunity for many.

4.   Location

In media, the market you’re in means a lot. While an accountant or nurse can find jobs all around the country—and world for that matter—the market a salaried journalist works in greatly impacts their career. Most national media companies in the U.S. are headquartered in New York, NY. You’ll also find major bureaus in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco and overseas in places like London and Hong Kong.

When I was in school, the traditional wisdom was that you start out in a small market and work your way to a major market like New York. However, I was already living and working (in media internships) in New York and thought it would be better to start in the biggest market. Both strategies work, but know that there are more journalism job opportunities here and in urban centers than anywhere else.

5.   Competition

This is a competitive field. Period. It’s competitive to get a job, especially now that there are fewer of them. It’s competitive to keep the job you have and much more so to move up. It’s performance based. On TV, you need ratings and major “gets.” In print, you need big ideas, good relationships and solid writing. Online, you need traffic, social media audience and compelling work. You need to bleed story ideas and execute them well. It’s hard to sustain, but it’s possible.

6.   Process

In terms of the process of getting a job and moving up the ladder, here’s what I did. In college, I did two internships at major magazines—one paid full-time position for three months and one for-credit part-time position for five months. I wrote for both the publications while there. I also wrote for the school paper and did freelance work. That meant when I started looking for full-time salaried jobs I had a portfolio of work and work experience at big brand names.

My first salaried job was as an editorial assistant, in which I also wrote for the magazine and website. I was promoted to reporter a year and half later. Some journalists remain reporters for their entire careers, getting bigger and bigger assignments. Some become editors and move up the ladder as managers and editorial decision-makers.

7.   Timing

I recommend starting early. Some people make mid-career switches to journalism and are successful, but I believe the earlier you start and succeed, the higher you’re likely to rise. Internships are a great way to get in the door and meet people in the field. Some of them pay, so try to find those. Also, the bar is lower for editorial assistant positions. They’re usually lower-paying and staffed by young people. You don’t have to start there, but the intermediate reporting and editing jobs can be fiercely competitive.

8.   Pay

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reporters, correspondents and broadcast news analysts earn a median salary of $36,000. Writers and authors (including advertising, magazine, book, TV and film) earn a median salary of $55,000. Editors earn a median salary of $51,000. In bigger markets and bigger outlets, you’ll earn on the higher end of the spectrum. Many reporters supplement their income with side projects like book deals, speaking engagements and regular columns (for those in broadcast) or regular TV appearances (for those in print).

Negotiate. In my first job, I didn’t. That was really dumb. I was offered the exact amount I expected and took it. At the time, I didn’t even know I was supposed to negotiate. Always ask for more money. The best time is when you’re first coming into a job, immediately after an offer is made. Check sites like Salary.com and Glassdoor.com to learn what the median is for the position, company and market. They may say no, but if you don’t ask, you’re ensuring you won’t get more.

9.   Relationships

This is a relationship business. If I could turn back time, I would have invested even more in building and maintaining strong relationships with mentors, colleagues and peers. Journalism professors are often working in the field and can introduce you to the right people. Many of your classmates and internship peers will go on to work in the industry and can make great contacts. Your bosses and colleagues, whether they remain in your company or leave, can advocate for you if a position opens up. Additionally, good relationships with sources and subjects will make you better at your job. Do not underestimate or shortchange your relationships.

10. Risk vs. Reward

So what does it all mean? The industry is contracting, competition is fierce, the pay’s not so hot, and you have to be really good and, frankly, emotionally stable to deal with the highs and lows. The industry is changing, but it won’t disappear. People are consuming news more than ever and with a voracious appetite. There will always be demand for trusted news sources.

In the last few years, I’ve written over 500 stories. I’ve interviewed heads of state, corporate CEOs, billionaires and celebrities. I’ve traveled to Chicago, Seattle and Melbourne, Australia. I’ve had a coffee tasting with Starbucks’ master blender and a soup tasting with Campbell’s head chef. I’ve spoken at conferences, on panels and on television and given a seminar to other writers. I think that’s pretty cool. I’m glad I ended up here.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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