Five top tips for young journalists trying to break in from someone who has been there
Journalist and editor Michelle Johnson, who was recently a mentor at a PressPad speed mentoring event, answers some common questions she gets from young people about getting into journalism.
I recently had the chance to join PressPad for a remote ‘speed mentoring’ evening hosted via Zoom. PressPad is an award-winning resource for aspiring and trainee journalists founded by the BBC’s Olivia Crellin and multimedia journalist Laura Garcia. It aims to lower the financial barrier of entry into journalism by connecting young people with work experience placements to experienced journalists who can offer a spare room. They also create intern networks and host a variety of events.
In short, they’re brilliant [editor’s note: thanks so much Michelle, we’re blushing!] So I was delighted for the opportunity to get involved in a small way, by joining a group of experienced journos who could offer some advice to the next group of rising stars. The diversity of the attendees – in terms of background, life experience and areas of interest in mentee and mentor alike – was really interesting, and it was a lot of fun to speak to people about their various long-terms goals and short-term questions.
Although I was, naturally, mainly paired with those interested in magazine or lifestyle journalism, there were a few questions that came up repeatedly, and that I have since received varieties of in my DMs, so I thought I’d share my thoughts. Do you agree?
I’m applying for jobs but getting nowhere. How do I get that first role?
The million dollar question. The media industry has been hit hard by various economic dips – including Covid-19 – and yet, being such a popular creative industry, every job vacancy attracts a high level of applicants. Young journalists can sometimes expect to intern for 12-18 months before landing that first full-time role, and so you must develop resilience and determination early on. Make your portfolio, cover letters and CVs stand out by tailoring them closely for each application.
Another thing to consider is the type of roles you’re going for. Many young journalists immediately apply for features writer roles but, particularly in national titles, there are entry levels roles that are often more suitable – and more available – to journalists getting that first foot in the door. In addition to internships and fixed-term placements, I’d suggest going for editorial/features assistant roles; social media or online junior jobs; positions in local publications and even roles in sister-industries such as PR, where you might gain copywriting experience. Once you’re in the industry, you can make sideways moves to get to where you want to be. For example, I was interim editor of local title West Essex Life before moving to international title magazine HELLO!, as assistant to the international managing editor. This might have looked like a step down on paper, but it was a huge step for me in terms of the scale of experience and training that I would go on to receive.
Once I’ve got the entry-level role, internship or work placement, how do I make sure I stand out?
Say yes. Once you’re in your placement, your editors will be looking for how well you work within the team as well as how to build on your potential but, more importantly, it’s your opportunity to experience as wide a variety of editorial duties, sections and style as possible to further your career. Approach your work with enthusiasm, whether you’re taking notes in a meeting or putting together forward planning lists, transcribing an interview or conducting one yourself. Welcome constructive criticism/feedback and always ask questions! Better to get a thorough explanation of a task and get it right the first time than miss out on deadline or opportunity for feedback because you weren’t sure of how to begin. Accuracy, resilience and enthusiasm are the three things that leap out to me when we have interns or work experiencers in-house.
I want to freelance within my specialism/interests, but how do I find stories that will sell?
This is a tough one, as it varies so much between sectors. The best advice I can give is to consume as much news as possible. Know your target publications: understand both what kinds of stories and subjects they are writing about, and know their style before pitching. It’s important to understand how you (as the writer/subject) relate to various trends.
I’d also recommend keeping a blog of some kind, as your social media acts as a business card but also gives you an excuse to engage with interesting people in your areas of specialism. Finally, think local. Perhaps there’s a national story that you can offer local insight about for your regional newspaper, as one of our brilliant mentees did. This is an excellent way to begin building a specialist portfolio.
What makes a freelance pitch good enough for an editor to take notice?
Pitching often relies on building a quick rapport and trust between yourself and the commissioning editor. They need to trust that you can deliver what you promise – on time, well written and to the brief. I would always recommend phoning the publication’s switchboard and finding out the email and name of the best person to get in touch with. Then you can find out whether they’re accepting pitches and when the best time to pitch is.
Your pitch itself should ideally answer three questions: What is your story about? Why is it perfect for this audience/publication? Why should you be the one to write it? I’d suggest building your list of target publications and working your way down them, tailoring your pitch each time. Remember, rejection is part of freelancing. Don’t let it get you down and, if you get feedback from the commissioning editor, use that as an opportunity to refine your next pitch and build your network!
Should I ever work for free?
I would love to say ‘no!’. Generally, I would advise that young journalists never work for free. Try to be up front about fees and ensure that your work is remunerated. However, I remember starting out and some publications telling me that payment just wasn’t available – particularly in local newspapers. I can remember the dilemma: should I take the work in order to build my portfolio, or say no but then have no portfolio to share?
My personal rule was to never do more than one or two pieces for free for any publication, and to only submit work for free publication if I got something out of it – i.e. it was a subject that could assist my next sold pitch, or a publication that I knew would boost my exposure. If you can work without working for free, that would be the ideal. Every journalist I know agrees that the quicker our industry gets back to something near a standardised rate, the better we know it will be. However, the simple truth is, you have to do what’s right for you. So, if you feel that publishing a piece in a specific publication is more valuable to your career than the monetary fee, that’s absolutely cool – just know that your work has value, and you should always aim to get something of equal value in return.