How to become a journalist

Make no qualms about it, journalism is a notoriously difficult industry to get into despite the fact that you don’t need a university degree to become a successful journalist. If you’re reading this as a journalism student or as a journalism graduate you will be all too familiar with a phrase that is all too often uttered throughout journalism lecture halls, a phrase that has become more of a cliche; ‘get your foot in the door’. Well yes, but you need to ‘get your foot in the door’ if you are a rookie looking to make your way in any industry; be it journalism, engineering or nuclear physics. But HOW to get ones foot in this metaphorical door is the real question that needs answering. Below we have asked a number of successful, experienced and reputable journalists for their opinions on the best ways in which young journalists of the information age can get their feet in the door; ways which don’t involve working two months on a news desk for zero pay. The journalists interviewed also describe their own experiences of failure and doubt early on in their careers and how they overcame these experiences.

Oliver Harvey – Age 48 –  Experience – 22 years – Journalist and Feature Writer – Numerous local and national newspapers including The Sun and The Daily Mail.2711932.main_image

“Journalism is an industry where you have to have a little bit of cockiness to be able to succeed”

Ollie, how did you get your first job in journalism?

“I did my NCTJ at Portsmouth college when I was 26, so quite late in life comparatively speaking, during college I completed three unpaid work experience placements and after I had finished the course I applied at local papers and I started working on the Crawley news straight out of college, it was a very low paid job using type writers but then six months later I joined the Croydon Guardian – staff were so small so I used to do sport as well as news.”

So it sounds like you managed to get a job in journalism straight after your college qualification, Ollie. I’m guessing you don’t have much sympathy for us journalism graduates then?

“I know it’s really difficult to get into. I remember I was living in Sussex and the big evening paper was obviously the Argus in Brighton. I went to five interviews at the Argus over the course of (laughing) years trying to get a job there and never succeeded.”

Ah, so it wasn’t so easy for you then either, Ollie. Did you feel any doubt in yourself after failing so many times?

“Well no, because once I started doing journalism I was pretty sure that I could do it and that’s why I wanted to do it. So no, I didn’t feel doubt I felt frustration that I couldn’t persuade them to give me a job. So yea, it felt like it was there problem rather than mine.”

Would you recommend the local paper route into journalism for us young journalists then?

“The local paper route into journalism is really hard work. There’s a lot of very talented people that work in it and the money’s not great. Personally, to prepare myself for the next step I did work for national news agencies at the weekends and in the evenings so basically I was working the whole time. Journalism is all about making a name for yourself and getting a break. What happened to me was I was working at a national and I went to do doorstepping. I woman called Mandy Allwood had had eight babies and I was put on as the agency man for all the fleet street papers, my mission was to try and talk to the doctor but I had the same mission as a lot of other journalists. But all the other journalists had been doorstepping at the wrong address – the doctor has two houses – and I found him at his other address and he invited me in and gave me this chat and it was an exclusive – it went in the Daily Mail as a spread the next day. From then on the agency called me and said forget the local paper – you’re full time with us now – and that’s what propelled me, that was my big break. From then on I started doing shifts at different mainstream papers, again, at weekends and the evenings. I used to do a week’s work at a national and then a double shift at the News of The World on a Saturday and eventually I ended up at the Daily Mirror full time and now the Sun.”

So your career then Ollie, has been hard work mixed with more hard work and then followed up with even more hard work, correct?

“If you go through university and you immediately get a starting job on a national newspaper then you are a very lucky person. This day in age you have to do work experience but it’s not always good to do it at national newspapers. Sometimes the ‘work ex’ end up just sitting there not doing much. But on local papers with smaller staff it’s all hands to the deck all the time, so if you’re doing work experience there you end up doing a lot. You could get a byline and feel the thrill of seeing your name, you build up your confidence so you think yes, I can do this – you see your own stuff published and it’s a huge thrill and some people go into it and think this isn’t for me – but at least you know.”

“Although saying this, to walk into an office and try to shine in one day or one week is difficult and i’ll give you an example. I got shifted at the Daily Express, I’d already done a day’s work at a national so I rushed in and they said to me ‘Ollie, what you’re going to do is watch the news bulletins and do a point by point memo on what was said on BBC and ITV then print it out and send it to a back bench.’ So I did this and pressed print but the printer didn’t work, so I went to this news editor – an irrational news editor – and he said to ‘me, look, get it sorted’. Eventually, after ringing around I got it sorted and an hour later I printed it put it on the back bench desk and they said to me ‘what are you doing, it’s too late now, why are you bothering.’ And that was my career at the Daily Express, it didn’t go beyond that one shift.”

Didn’t you feel like you had missed out on a big opportunity though, Ollie?

“I properly felt like I had missed out on an opportunity but I didn’t blame myself because it obviously wasn’t my fault. A lot of journalism is perception – how good an editor thinks you are – and obviously the perception I immediately created was always going to stick. A good journalist is a journalist that will make that extra phone call, that extra phone call, keep going, keep going, keep going. If you’re applying for those jobs and you keep going, keep going, keep going it stands you in good stead. Don’t take no for an answer just keep going.”

The journalism industry has obviously changed a lot since you first started though Ollie, what would you do different if you were starting your career as a journalist in the current environment?

(Thinking) “Not a lot I don’t think. Online sites are a way for people to make a name for themselves which wasn’t open to us before. Having anything published that you can show to someone has got to be good hasn’t it. I don’t think you’d make much money doing it (Laughing). Build a sensible social media presence too. I would also learn another language. With the internet it makes it so much handier to have another language and it opens up so much more opportunity.”

Alexander Nekrassov – Age – 59 – Experience 30+ years – Former Kremlin Special Advisor, Journalist, PR man and Media Commentator. Komsomolskaya Pravda, TASS Press Agency, Al Jazeera News.alexander

“The moment you are able to put your thoughts on paper eloquently you are becoming a master operator for any business because top executives are absolutely useless at PR; at communication with others and at delivering speeches because they cannot deliver their messages properly. That’s where the journalists come on board and become just as powerful as the executives are.”

Pleased to meet you Alexander, who are you?

“I am a journalist and a businessman. I was a special advisor to Yeltsin during the 90s. I obviously can’t disclose some of the tasks for security reasons. My journalism career, I’ve done on and off all the time. Before my time at the Kremlin I became a commentator of the biggest selling newspaper in Russia – Komsomolskaya Pravda – the readership was something like 30 million per day and I became one of the most famous commentators at the time. Before that I’d been a reporter and political editor for the press agency TASS. A journalist who has had five years experience in a cut-throat environment at a press agency – where you have deadlines all of the time – is coming out trained to an extent that they can go into any business as a PR man. But the simple thing was that one of my friends became presidential aid – if you decide to change your career direction then of course connections are important, it helps to have friends working here, there and everywhere – Yeltsin’s popularity was very low so they summoned me to the Kremlin and asked me to help because they thought that they were going to lose. I wasn’t selected in a process, it was more of an inside friend/contact that suggested to them to use me as a PR man and as a marketing man.  I trained many, many journalists. I taught them how to achieve success in their fields. Some of them have become ministers and big businessmen and so on but started out as journalists. So developing communication skills is imperative for your career. The outside world is competitive and there are certain rules of the game which apply to any job, whoever you are.”

Could you inform us of these rules, Alexander?

  1. Letters – You have to write letters well  to the companies when you apply. I’ve had companies in my past and I’ve employed a lot of people, so I would see from the letter at once who I’m dealing with. I can tell you that an employer can tell at once if the person is not suitable; if the letter is written badly. The trick is to learn letter writing – that’s your key to the door.
  2. Communication Skills – Sometimes people are hired at a party or social function. For example you bump into someone who is looking for people and you make a good impression and they think ‘that’s a bright chap or bright women why not see what else they can do.’ There are many opportunities in life which present themselves out of the blue, that means that you have to be ready and your communication skills have to be polished.
  3. Social Skills – Socialising with others is an important one because a lot of people these days simply don’t have social skills due to computers, text messages and emails. It is crucial to meet people and talk to them. Every time you have a debate with someone you are polishing your communication skills and if you can convince somebody that you’re right that means your communication skills are getting better. So I tell anybody that is young; stop sitting in front of your computers and always deal with people, real people. Don’t buy from Amazon, buy from the shop, why, because you can communicate with the shop assistant. You have to read a lot of proper books –  classics – to improve your communication. I know it’s tough, but if you do this your advantage over other people becomes enormous.
  4. Reading – Books exercise your brain, it’s like going to the gym with your brain. Classical literature is empowering people to have ideas that others will immediately pick up as very unusual and very original, this gives you an opportunity not just to present yourself as a well-educated and well-spoken person, but as a very original person. All the great ideas have already been expressed in the past. Everything has already been said it’s just we have forgotten everything, reading classical literature will put you back into touch with great ideas of the past.
  5. CV – CVs are important. You have to work really hard on your CV. It has to be original and can’t be cliched.

“If you have these components you are already in a position to be superior to other candidates in whatever position you are looking for.”

So after taking these skills on board we get a job interview, two weeks later an email comes stating that we’ve been unsuccessful. What now, Alexander?

“I would not pay that much attention to these failed job interviews because if you start becoming insecure you will fail even more. But you have to be prepared for the interviews. You have to find out about the company which means you need to do the research beforehand. So when you go in and people start asking you questions like; why do you want to work for us, you can give them a straightforward quick answer. Give them facts about the company, they will appreciate this and it will show them that you know what you’re talking about. Ideally, you can even look up the company and say where it has problems – this will obviously be very brave but will work on some occasions – and if it hits the right note then that’s it, done. Remember to look smart but don’t overdo it. The way you dress is the way you think. An interview is where people see who you are, communication skills and confidence must be there, but do not get desperate if you fail because that’s how life is – you need to be tough.”

Finally, what kind of books do you think could help us the most, Alexander?

“If the writer is dead chances are he’s a good writer. If the writer is still alive then there’s a 99% chance he’s shit.”

William (Bill) Coles – Age – 51 – Experience 30+ years – Journalist and Author – Local and National papers including ‘The Sun’.william coles

“If you’re in journalism and enjoying it and hungry that is utterly fantastic and you can carry on doing whatever you’re doing. If you’re not hungry and you start in journalism and it’s not for you then you’re completely wasting your time – only the hungry do well – you’re unlikely to get a job if you’re not hungry.”

Bill, we are hungry journalists, what’s our best way in?

“To my mind that is, what is going to get any trainee a job is bringing in exclusives. Let’s assume you’re going to work on a newspaper but if it’s a radio station or a newspaper it all works exactly the same. Go and look through old copies of the newspaper you are trying to work for, these will tell you what they’re interested in and all you’re looking for is any stories where you’re reading through them and a little bell goes off in your head that says ‘I wonder what happened next’. Because what you are banking on is that the initial reporter has been so bloody lazy that he or she has not followed up their story. So, you go through all these back issues and you hopefully come up with about ten stories where you are wondering what happened next – anniversaries are very good as are those stories about families with 10+ children one year on – and you’re calling up the main players and you’re finding out what happened next and one in five stories something will have happened next – the dog died, they won an Oscar – whatever it is but you will be doing whatever the initial reporter should have done. Then when you have got your interview with the paper, instead of going in and saying oh, I love your paper and I dream of working for it blah blah blah – they get hundreds of CVs every week, it’s very difficult even if you’ve got a quadruple first from Cambridge it’s very difficult to shine – but if you go in with a story and say yes, I love your paper and guess what chummy, I’ve got you a little present, I’ve got you a follow up and I know you’re going to like it because you splashed on it last year. Finding brand new news stories is tricky, you need to have good contacts and most young people don’t have good contacts but getting a follow up is relatively easy just a day or so in the library – the town library of whichever newspaper or radio outlet you are going for.”

OK, Bill, great! But how do we scrape ourselves up off the floor after our continuous failed job applications prior to your follow up tip? 

“When I was moving from my paper in Gloucestershire and trying to get onto an evening paper – it was like the next step up – I cocked up six interviews on the trot before the deputy of news took pity on me and offered me the job but I’m sure it was in part because I hadn’t spent the time looking at what it takes to interview and be interviewed.  It’s slightly on your temperament – how long you want to dwell on these things. I’ve made tones of mistakes in my career and have had many failed job interviews. If you’re not making mistakes then you’re not pushing very hard and you’re not stretching yourself.

“You’re making mistakes all the time as you’re learning – that is part of learning. If you really want to evolve and improve that involves making mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes that I made was that it’s very dangerous to piss people off. I’m a perky guy and generally I can’t resist a little joke if the opportunity arises and if someone comes out with a quip at my expense generally they’ll get it back with a bit of spice added. Anyway, that’s fine if you’re doing it with other idiots but do it to the wrong person and they will shaft you. So be careful who you put down – you don’t want to make too many enemies as eventually you’ll find that the person you shafted on another newspaper has been sent to yours to be your boss!”

Bill, speaking as an experienced newspaper journalist, what characteristics do you think young journalists should look to grow?

“If you want to be a scientist or a salesperson or a musician you would be surprised how charm gets people to the top and it’s the same for a journalist. Journalism students, when they are taught, are taught to go in with the questions – what, when how, where, which – this is fine but in my mind it is second to connecting. Until I got to The Sun I didn’t really know and this chief reporter John Kay was talking about the silver tongue and he was saying that whenever you’re on the doorstep you have to talk about whatever they want to talk about and that bit of chatting away before you get down to the formal details is essential. If you don’t do that then they can clam up and you can get thrown out and this is what differentiates bog standard reporters from top class hacks because if you can do this engaging business then you will go a much longer way. So young journalists should make it their business to interact with strangers and what I tell my young students is; five strangers a day – interact with five strangers a day. When you pick up your newspaper instead of saying ‘thank you for my newspaper, bye-bye’ you say whatever you want – are you watching the football tonight, isn’t it wet, you can talk about whatever you want but you’re trying to engage you are pouring energy in you are learning what lines work for you, you are getting confident as well.”

“So after one year, supposing you did five a day, that’s 2000 people and that puts you in a much better position so when you have a crunch interview with the big boss you have all these strangers who you’ve worked on and have brushed up your social skills on and that’s really the only way to do it, I mean you can read all these books about looking people in the eye but it’s not nearly the same as actually doing it and the more you do it the better you’ll get at it, but for me it took me some time to learn this. However, one day you’ll be at a party and you will see the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen in your life – and who are you going to put your money on; the person who has spoken to 5000 strangers or the person who has not bothered to interact with any strangers at all who’s turned into this stuttering gimp.”

David Banks – Age – 51 – Journalism Experience – 28 Years – National and regional media.david banks

“Journalism is difficult – it’s a simple thing – what journalism is is just finding stories and telling them well. But with experience you learn.”

But how do we gain this experience if we can’t get a job, David?

“If you’re looking at getting a job at a newspaper – in print – there are fewer there then when I started. Unless I had very good contacts in print I probably wouldn’t be looking at print journalism, I’d be looking online and doing things that are interesting online. One thing people wanting to work in journalism have now is when I wanted to be a journalist the only thing I could do was work on a newspaper, whereas now they can write, they can blog, they can create great video content without a great expense and they can go to an employer and say here’s the content I’m capable of producing. Now young journalists can go along with a whole set of skills that they’ve acquired in online publication – so I think that’s the thing to do – to learn those skills like creating video content that publishers are interested in and then you can create the site and create the content where people can begin to want you and begin to poach you because you’re showing you can do the job. Being able to tell stories is still the most important thing but that’s not necessarily by writing. Writing is still important but for many, many people I think visually telling stories via the medium of video and audio are definitely where the future lies. Journalistic skills of spotting a story, knowing how to get it and knowing how to tell it are still essential to journalism but they might be very different now to 30 years ago when I was first starting.”

What if we want a paying job ASAP though, David?

“There are many other publishers and websites where there’s work. There are still other jobs out there, they’re just in different places. People still want content and good quality journalism, they just want it in a different format.”

It’s easy to imagine that stepping into a newsroom as a rookie for the first time is a daunting experience, how can we stop these nerves, David?

“When I first started [working in a newsroom] the people working around me had been working in journalism for 30-40 years, they were enormously experienced, they were always willing to give you a helping hand if you were struggling on a story. They had fantastic contacts, they’d say ‘try this chap’ or ‘try this woman’ and you’d break a story because you were assisted by the people around you.”

On more than one occasion we’ve had job interviews with reputable publishers in journalism but haven’t got the job, what are we doing wrong?

“It’s something I’ve got experience in myself so I sympathise. You’ve got to keep faith in your own abilities, keep on the lookout for stories, keep on the lookout for things that are interesting. You will get into it eventually. If you can show people that you can create content then you will get a job eventually. I know that’s tough if you’ve been getting a lot of refusals but remember, don’t look at London as the only place you can work, there are opportunities outside of London.”

Martyn Andrews – Age – 37 – Experience – Broadcast Journalist, TV presenter and reporter – Presenter on Russia Today as well as several other international television networks.martyn-andrews-03

Hello there Martyn, for us wannabe broadcast journalists in the world, put simply, how do we become television presenters?

“There’s a spectrum of what being a TV presenter means; serious news journos, kids TV presenter, MTV daytime presenter, TV chef; all completely different to each other with a completely different skill base. Shopping channel presenter; you could earn over 100k a year but nobody will know who you are. But if you want to be a TV presenter I’d say to every single person; be a journalist, because it opens a lot more jobs.”

”To get into TV you’ve got to be three of five things, a wannabe; a journalist; a celebrity already (chef/comedian); an expert or come through the reality TV route. Anyone who wants to be a TV presenter is already a wannabe but you need more than that. Get on Twitter, get out there and build your profile up. Tenacity is everything, keep hounding doors, work for free maybe and get work experience. When I was younger my main aim in life was to become a Blue Peter presenter. I did work experience on Blue Peter and News-Round when I was 17. You need to set yourself a task of sending 50 emails a day. But not just in the UK, go abroad for a few years, there’s more to life then channel 1-5 in the UK. I’ve got friends presenting sport in Singapore, news in the Cayman Islands. TV presenters are needed all over the world.

“If you say yes to things in life then eventually they come back to you – the more thumbs you can get in pies then the more likely you are to pull out a plum. You’ve got to make contacts everywhere in the hope that one day it will come to fruition and for me, it did. And it will for you too. When I was young I was excited, nervous, scared, apprehensive but mostly carefree I didn’t have the professional fear that I have today. Now I’m more concerned about what I look like, appear like and everything I say is checked three times. It’s about taking risks, you can take risks as a young person.”

Would you say that television presenters need certain characteristics then, Martyn?

“You need to be vivacious, a little flirty, popular. Tenacity is everything. Keep hounding doors. You have got to have nice teeth, you have to be groomed but intellectually as well as physically. You’ve got to be as smart as you can, you need to read, you need to know what’s happening in the world; what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening with Brexit, the gun laws. You just need to know about life. I know from personal experience you can get critcised verbally in public, I try not to look at any of my comments on YouTube, you’ve got to have a thick skin. A lot of young people in life say they want to be the next Ant and Dec or the next Holly Willoughby, chances are that’s not going to happen. For every one successful person there’s probably 5000 others trying to get that successful job, so it’s not easy.”

Would you recommend becoming a TV presenter then, Martyn?

“I would recommend it, you get paid very well, there are lots of perks, I’ve received loads of free clothes over the years, I’ve seen a lot of the world and it’s a nice public job. But I don’t do my job for money, or approval, or ego or because I want to be famous, I do it because I love the making of TV from editing to storyboard to scripts to researching, I love the process.”

So, we’ve wanted to be broadcast journalists/TV presenters for as long as we can remember, we’ve studied broadcast journalism at university, done some work experience too but we are still getting rejected at job interviews and are being told we need more experience – Martyn, what now?

“I could write a book on rejection. Over the years just get used to the rejection. It’s a very thankless industry. You have to follow up every email you send out – I’d suggest instead of emailing send the editor a letter or a card and send it to them in the post, people don’t do that anymore – you’ll have auditions, and not be told why you didn’t get the job. People can appear very rude. People in TV and showbiz have large egos there’s lots of rivalry and competition. But be tenacious, don’t give up and make contacts with everybody. Do radio, magazines, anything you can to get through the front door. Join development teams in different production companies – always train and learn and improve your craft and skill. If you just want to be the next Davina McCall then you’re in for the biggest, hardest journey of your life. It’s a great job but hard work and the rejection is far higher than the success rate. But anything regarding rejection – scrape yourself up off the floor, analyse why you didn’t get the job and just keep trying. Winston Churchill said never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up. I’ve got a poster on my wall saying just that!”


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