Breaking into journalism: Tips from graduates

To be a journalist, or not to be? That’s the question.

You’re probably graduating this year and trying to secure a job. Or maybe you’re just a first year student struggling to find an internship. Either way, after hearing the Today presenter, John Humphrys’ unsolicited ‘advice’ offered to aspiring journalists: “Don’t do it!”, you’re likely to be feeling pretty powerless.

But don’t give up hope just yet! If you have a deep-rooted passion for such a racing career as journalism – then look no further my friend, and don’t even think of taking Humphrys’ opinion on pursuing journalism.

The best introduction to journalism is that of Dominic Utton, a freelance journalist and the author of several non-fiction books, including How to Go Wild, who hadn’t set out to become a journalist at all. He offers his advice on breaking into journalism as someone who’s done it himself:

“A brilliant editor once told me the solution to meeting the deadline was to beat it. Never miss a deadline. It’s wiser to fulfill the brief than give it a miss.”

Utton, who dared to face the boss of his lousy train company by writing ‘deeply sarcastic’ letters of complaint and posting it on his blog, believes that it’s really important to build your portfolio of work, because editors are more intent on seeing if you can write than they are by your qualifications or grades.

“A ground rule is not to fall in love with your own work,” says Ailsa Leslie, who graduated from London College of Communication in 2009 with a BA in Journalism and now works as commissioning editor on the Femail section of the Daily Mail.

“Once you’ve written a piece, re-read it, then take out the sentence you’re most proud of; it’s inevitably the worst. Treat yourself like a brand and consider everything you do and how it helps or hinders your brand.”

Leslie strongly emphasises that internships are a great place to kick-start your career. Who’d have thought it?

Belt up as many internships as possible and stay super keen and relentless at all times.

“I can’t stress how important internships and work experience really are. The three years BA students have at university is an invaluable time to fit as much of them in as possible, particularly during holidays.

“I found it was best to go for the undersubscribed to work experience programs: I knew I wanted to go into newspapers, but found none of the big ones (The Sun, Mail, The Times) would take me as a BA student with little work experience, so ended up applying to the Daily Express. It was one of the best things I ever did.

“Journalists and colleagues often recommend interns to me, suggest them for stories and paid writing and jobs. It really is a huge network, and who you know is hugely important so making those contacts is invaluable,” says Leslie.

“Don’t be shy with them too: there’s nothing better than an intern who uses their initiative rather than one who hangs back silently. Pitch ideas, write stories, ask if you can help with a job or just research, and at the end, don’t be shy to ask for a debrief and advice. Everyone knows how hard it is out there, and most will be more than happy to help.

“I’m always amazed at how few people ever pitch stories to me – I hardly ever hear from any new, aspiring journalists. I never know why, perhaps shyness? I think far too few people actually pick up the phone and pitch something – it may be a no, but at least you’re on an editor’s radar and next time it may be a yes,” she added.

“Who you know is hugely important so making those contacts is invaluable.” – Ailsa Leslie

Freelance journalist, celebrity interviewer and blogger, Rosie Gizauskas who previously worked full time as a writer at Now and Fabulous magazines:

“I did a degree in English Literature at Leeds and always knew I wanted to write at magazines, so I was intern at Cosmo, Red, and Tatler during my holidays. My two year long experience involved writing all the reviews pages, working on the website, attending events for work and much more.

“Now, I write commissions (features and interviews) for places like Look, Now, Fabulous, the Mirror, etc. I also do shifts at Fabulous, Look, Heat, OK, Stylist, the Mirror, etc. I still stick to celebrity news but am now branching out into features.

“It takes a lot of hard work but if you’re willing to keep striving you’ll get there and honestly writing is the best job in the world. I love my job now.”

Lastly, Leslie shares her most profound tip of all – don’t be hostile!

“Treat people nicely – you never know when a contact, editor or fellow intern will help you or be your boss. Have fun too: this job is hard, relentless, and punishing but also the best job in the world and worth every bit of blood and sweat.”

Photo by United States Mission Geneva via Flickr