Fresh off the back of a two week stint at the Observer where she scooped a front page byline, resident OTW blogger Caroline Mortimer is revealing her tips for getting those highly sought work experience placements over the next few days. Kicking off the series: it’s all about having the right attitude…
Its the age old dilemma that plagues the student journalist as they make their first tentative steps out into the world: how do you get work experience in professional journalism?
Sure you write for your student newspaper, heck, you may edit it, but so do eighty, ninety per cent of the applicants for even local papers a lot of the time. That’s not even starting on the question of NCTJ training. More than often it can be impossible to get a week of work experience without having already done work experience.
So how do you escape this Catch 22?
Rather than rehashing the same advice about how to write your CV, how to make the most out of student media and where and when to apply first I would argue its all about having the right sort of attitude.
Of course you could employ whatever contacts you may have but for the majority of wannabes this is out of the question. Therefore a combination of tenacity, resourcefulness and a hell of a lot of luck is generally what you need.
I decided that I maybe wanted to pursue journalism for real about half way through my first term of university and from that point to the end of first year tried to get work experience on a local paper and failed every time. My local paper back near my parent’s house presented a particular challenge as they only took on Oxbridge graduates and NCTJ students for a newspaper with a circulation no larger than 50,000. Two years and nine weeks of work experience, including at the Observer, later; I still can’t get work experience there.
So what would the young would-be journalist do if they are presented with obstinate local papers, lack of money or contacts and are considered geographically undesirable (aka live outside London)?
I do not pretend to be any sort of expert when it comes to making it as a journalist. I may have done a bit of unpaid work experience and had a bit of exposure with freelance pieces in the Guardian and the Independent but I still do not have a full time job and after two years I have only just secured my first paying freelance contract.
However, as I come from a low income, no contacts environment in North Yorkshire and only graduated from my History degree yesterday, I know a thing or two about the correct combination of arrogance and humility that it takes to get your first toe in the door of this competitive industry. The following is a list over the next couple of days is ideas I’d hit upon that have been invaluable over the past few years that should go beyond the usual, and limited, advice on ‘how to write a pretty CV’, ‘how to use Twitter’ etc, etc.
1.Create Your Own Individual Journalistic Presence – It may seem counter intuitive to say on a blog about student media but being editor or section editor of your student newspaper or magazine will is not enough on its own to get you noticed in the journalism industry. Nor is it a prerequisite – after all I only became an editor in any capacity for the first time in January, after I’d already arranged all my work experience placements.
It can be dangerous to get lost in the group identity of your student newspaper, instead of defining yourself as the ‘Editor of X, student and sometimes freelancer’ maybe its better to think ‘I am a student and freelance journalist with my main project currently being the Editor of X’. It also helps to break out on your own to do as much freelance blogging, pitching articles and social mediaing (it’+s a word) as you can.
It may not seem like it but independent online media is always looking for new bloggers and new ideas (the Ones to Watch Blog included!). Although they won’t remember the specifics of the article, if a would be employer has read your name before with a byline in print or online publication, in the dim and distance recesses of their mind they will remember your name and therefore your application will stand out more than those who rely on their student media experience. ‘Editor of X’ is a great achievement but ultimately it only takes up one or two lines on your CV.
2. Get Online – As I wrote a couple of weeks back, print media will not die, at least not in the student media world. However, when it comes to transferring what you’ve done from the student to the professional world, getting online is paramount. For instance, if you should be offered to choice between being Editor in Chief or Online Editor for your student newspaper, always pick the latter. In the increasing digitised world, being able to code and build websites is invaluable as employers start to expect it in addition to regular editorial skills. I found starting out as an Online Editor and moving into print much easier than it probably would have been the other way around. If nothing else picking up basic HTML coding will stand you in good stead (despite appearances, it’s actually really easy to understand).
Whether or not you edit anything, having an online presence is far more important than your print portfolio at this stage. It’s great having a folder of clippings tucked away but you can only show them off at interviews so if you can demonstrate a web presence it may just be the ticket to getting there. When I first starting applying for work experience, I found including two or three links to my work within my email application worked wonders.
3. Work Hard – This may seem obvious but you’d be surprised how much effort can go into success. I’ve put in an enormous amount of effort into my career for the past few years (sometimes to the detriment of my degree!) and although a lot of it has been luck, a lot has been hard work. I’ve so far written over 218 online articles (and counting), worked part time and saved 80% of it to pay for work experience (though I am lucky that I was entitled to bursaries and scholarships from my university to cover the cost of living beyond my student loan). I wouldn’t say I was that special when it comes to actual talent, I’ve just put in the hours (around 10-20 hours a week, depending on degree commitments) and now I’ve got something to show for it. I understand not everyone has time, but the commitment this sort of thing demonstrates is what has always impressed my employers and editors in the past.
Look out for Caroline’s next post on how to get work experience in the media later this week.