Ten tips for aspiring journalists
1) Accept you’ll never be a journalist
Certainly not in the traditional sense.
Up until around 20 years ago, you could get in at a newspaper or a national magazine, and work your way up until you were a senior editor and buying a tasteful house in Highgate.
Not any more.
2) OK, you might be a journalist but that’s not all you’ll become…
As well as a journalist, you’ll also have to be a content creator, blogger, social media editor, whatever annoying title has yet to be invented. But remember this…
– Whatever platform journalists are using, become an expert on it.
Run a blog, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook account, learn how to take photos or make videos.
Watch online instruction videos, so that if you’re asked if you have experience in, say – making two-minute videos about sausages – you can say yes.
3) Shamelessly copy everyone
Read the press every day, whether online or in print (check out The Economist, which is better than anything else at explaining complex issues in a straightforward manner)
Look at how the best writers construct their articles, then imitate them.
Anyone can write, but it takes practice to actually make something people want to read. There are three books I’d recommend about the skill of writing.
– Essential English For Journalists by Harold Evans. Former Sunday Times editor on how to construct articles
– On Writing by Stephen King – An instruction on how to write a book,which applies to all journalists, too.
– Read Me: 10 Lessons In Writing Great Copy by Roger Horberry and Gyles Lingwood – this is aimed at advertising copywriters, but some of the best writing you’ll see is on adverts, so learn from them
4) Learn to sub-edit
Sub-editors are the most important people at a magazine, website or newspaper.
For those that don’t know, a sub-editor cuts and edits copy so that it fits onto the page, has no grammatical errors and isn’t full of lies and half-truths.
– It’ll make you a better writer, able to self-edit and deliver work that editors will love because they won’t have to do too much to it
– You’ll learn a skill which, though badly paid, will enable to you earn enough to pay you rent
– It will get you ‘in’ with an organisation, meaning you can pitch ideas to other editors and be considered when jobs come up
Warning: the pay rate for subs hasn’t gone up since 1992 (it’s still at £120-130 a day) so don’t look at it as a long-term career
5) Keep it simple
Don’t use a long word when a short one will do.
Anyone can write 1,000 words of fluff about a boring film no one wants to watch. However, your audience wants you to present your story simply.
You’ve got their attention for a few seconds – so get to the point.
A great exercise is to write 400 words about something – a restaurant, football match, new trousers – then write it again but this time over 200 words. Then 100 words. Then 50.
You’ll soon see what you need and what you don’t.
6) Open your mind to employment opportunities
A job comes up at a fashionable website or mag, and everyone in London goes for it. Which means you probably won’t get it.
Not to worry, working at fashionable magazine is always badly paid and ends up with the editor overdosing on heroin. Instead…
– If you’ve signed up for Gorkana job alerts, look for the posts in the B2B (business to business) section
– Magazines like Scaffolding Weekly won’t have the same amount of applicants as VICE or Dazed. But they’ll still need writers, subs and editors.
– Once there, you’ll learn all the skills you need, you’ll get paid better than at consumer mag and you can still do all your cool stuff on the side.
Then get the job at the trendy magazine.
Who you know is as important as what you know.
That’s why work experience is vital. When you’re in an office, you’ll be put in the corner and ignored (journalists are often too busy on Facebook to talk to you), but occasionally someone will ask yourself to do something, usually dull and clerical.
Do it, but don’t be afraid of telling them what else you’re capable of. And be nice: nice people get asked back.
8) Remember, you’re a brand
Just like a pair of jeans or a coffee machine.
Ask yourself why a prospective employer would take you on – then tailor your skills to them.
All purchases – and that’s what a job offer is – are about belief. Your skills will help them believe in you. So…
– Learn every skill you can – editing, subbing, photo-editing, whatever
– Set up a blog and a website to showcase your talents. “Look here, everyone, it’s my website”
– Make sure your LinkedIn profile is strong. Post on there regularly so you appear in people’s feeds. Recruiters scan LinkedIn constantly – you need to have a presence there.
9) Find a goal, but be aware you may end up doing something different
The good news is that it’ll probably be even better than your original objective.
I started off wanting to be a sports journalist – and now I edit a fancy magazine, write about restaurants and put together adverts for Mazda.
I don’t write about football, which is good because my team is shit.
10) Do it yourself (and keep doing it)
I started Umbrella with a designer friend of mine because I wasn’t getting the jobs I thought I deserved. Every job I’ve had since then has been down to that decision.
There really is nothing like publishing your own mag or website. You might want to be a news reporter, so launch a blog about crime in your area. You may fancy being a fashion editor – so start a fanzine about clothing. It’s all about your personal brand.
And once you’ve done that, you have to keep it going.
Ideas are ten-a-penny: grit and determination are rarer. But that’s what will make your name and give you the career you want.
I know people who live off reputations they made 25 years ago. This should be your aim.