If you’ve ever taken a journalism or communication class, you’re probably familiar with “the doomsday spiel” – newspapers laying off hundreds of staff, ad money being lost forever to Craig’s List, anonymous bloggers taking all the wind out of journalists’ sails, and old media struggling to adapt to the Internet.
The good news for you as a writer? The old guard is still strong enough for you to have an established guide for getting into journalism, but the new guard is growing so exponentially in both size and power that an infinite amount of opportunity exists for you that didn’t exist ten years ago. The journalism world is indeed being turned upside down, but once someone figures out a working economic model for online media, the writers and reporters of tomorrow will have a world of choice before them.
So how do you get started building a personal brand as a journalist and a journalism career?
1. Build your portfolio.
Save any and all clips. Whether you dream of writing for TIME and the New York Times, or of blogging your way to fame and fortune, you need to be able to show you have experience and skill. When applying for a job with a publication, the first thing the editor’s going to ask for is some writing samples. Whether it’s a column you submitted to your hometown paper, a fun feature you wrote for your campus publication, or an article your wrote for class – cut it out, date it, and save it. These will all help to build a brand and a portfolio. You can scan them into your computer to e-mail or post, or make paper copies to bring to interviews. Either way, keep an organized binder with all the originals for future reference. For pieces published online, save all the links and make sure the site keeps an archive.
2. Branch out.
The best way to get your foot in the door is to show that you have experience – and a variety of it. Even if you’re a great writer, editors won’t really buy into it unless you can show you’ve done a lot with it – your A in news writing class isn’t going to cut it on its own. So go after any and all real world opportunities to write and get published. Even established journalists often find themselves being thrown into a wide variety of job assignments – sports, columns, political coverage, personal profiles, local news, world news, arts, and the list goes on. So be prepared for everything and don’t depend on one particular beat too soon. Get experience with interviewing and some event photography too – the more well rounded you are, the better.
As with most career fields, networking can be instrumental for aspiring journalists. Does your relative’s company need someone to write newsletters? Is your friend of a friend looking for blog contributions? Does your journalism professor have contacts at the Washington Post? Be proactive – find out and take advantage.
4. Start small and work your way up.
Don’t get discouraged about starting out small. Many of the big time journalists will tell you they started out at a local TV station in Maine, or a tiny newspaper in the middle of Virginia. Working your way up is often part of the deal. Always do your best regardless – a fantastic article published in your small town paper is still a fantastic article and will impress your potential employers. With that being said, in today’s online world, there is more of a chance for writers to break out and build a following – without the traditional crescendo. Creating your own blog and publishing well written and researched articles can work wonders for your personal brand – and reach an incredibly extensive audience. And even if you eventually decide to write for a traditional publication, you’ll still have credible, well-read articles to show.
Here is a general list of places to look to get started:
- Local papers. Many small, hometown papers have even smaller budgets and staffs, and would welcome new contributors. Even if it doesn’t get you a big paycheck – or any at all – it’ll still provide you with great reporting experience.
- College publications. Most schools have at least one if not several publications on campus, whether its a newspaper, magazine, or website. Get involved – go to a meeting or call the editor and get an assignment.
- Businesses. While not a stereotypical journalistic job, writing newsletters can be great practice for reporters. You have to do research, cover events, and conduct interviews about a business you’re probably not very familiar with.
- Blogs and Ezines. There are a million blogs and online magazines out there where your work can be published. Do a Google search or ask around and find a good site to contribute to.
- Major publications. Take a chance. Review a book or movie, or write an editorial, and try sending it into the New York Times, Washington Post, or Boston Globe of your area. They could always be looking for something to publish that appeals to the younger generation.
- Your school’s internship offerings. Many schools, especially those with a separate journalism department or communication college, might have joint programs with area publications. Boston University’s College of Communication, for example, has an internship program with the Boston Globe, as well as a “study-abroad” program in Washington, D.C. where students work as real correspondents for New England papers and cover U.S. politics in the capital. Do some research and see what your school offers. An internship can be invaluable experience when you need a job after graduation – you’ll meet lots of influential people in the field and grow as a writer.