How to Become a Journalist

Journalism is a profession that has traditionally been associated with reporting the latest news within a fast-paced and cut-throat environment, thanks to media and film portraying it in this way. This is, of course, the job for many journalists out there, but it is also a profession that has changed quite fiercely over the last couple of decades as the internet has been taking over the world.

There is a great variety of journalism professions out there; you could work as a reporter chasing news, or as an investigative journalist, researching stories and writing about them. There are also newer types of journalism, such as digital and video journalism, and many more.

If you are passionate about writing, research and sharing information, one of these might just be the perfect career path for you. It is a profession that often requires you to have a degree and nowadays a good understanding of digital tools, such as social media. You should also start thinking about the type of journalist you want to become before choosing a program or an education path.

Here is some more information about journalism, in this infographic.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Allyson Jacob

Elevation DC – Content Editor

Quick Look Bio

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Understanding My Career Path

  • I graduated with a double major in English and French, with concentrations in literature in both subjects, and I was a few credits shy of a theater minor. So basically, I came out qualified to do nothing except write papers.
  • I worked in Barnes and Noble while cold-calling marketing and advertising agencies to find out what it would take to become a freelancer in their stable of writers. I eventually networked to someone who gave me the phone number of the editor of the alternative weekly press in the city. I pestered him for several weeks until he gave me a shot writing something that was probably buried in the back half of the paper.
  • I spent the next 4+ years freelancing for CityBeat (that alt weekly), another weekly in town, and a now-defunct website called Aroundcinci.com, where I covered theater and events. I was also part of the Cincinnati Enquirer (the city’s daily) inaugural editorial panel. I picked up some white paper work, some translation work and was just getting up to speed with some corporate clients when my husband’s job changed and we moved to Fairfax, VA.
  • Once in the DC area, I had no clue how to break into the freelance writing game, so I signed with an agency and edited curricula at an educational publisher for four years, among other, much less interesting projects.
  • A friend of a colleague from the editing gig found me on LinkedIn when ElevationDC was starting up and asked me if I would be interested in writing for the publication. I was happy to take the chance.
  • In addition to writing for ElevationDC for the past two years, I’ve have been trying to stretch my wings a bit. I’ve had pieces in the Northern Virginia magazine and on a couple of blogs. I’m also a playwright and I’ve been submitting manuscripts as I have time. Plus, I teach afterschool creative writing classes for girls. I am a freelancer in the truest sense of the word.

Advice

On whether or not she recommends a formal education
First, ask yourself, is there anything else I would be happier doing? If you can answer this question with anything other than “journalism,” go do that thing. True journalists—true writers of any kind—do what they do because they love it and they can’t see themselves doing anything else.

If you are going to go into journalism now, make sure you have plenty of digital skills to go along with your writing skills. If you can pick up coding and/or web design, you will be a lot more marketable when you come out looking for a job.

Read
Read anything you can get your hands on. Journalists are generalists—I never thought I would be covering tech and startup news, but here I am.

Be honest
Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. Every single person has a story to tell; every single person is an expert in something. You can’t be an expert in everything. Admit you don’t know, ask the question, and give the person the chance to tell a part of his or her story.

Write – a lot
Write for yourself, write emails to friends, write a blog, keep a journal…get used to thinking and composing through your fingers. Don’t write in text-speak. Write. The more you write, the easier it becomes to compose on the fly, on deadline.

Use your network
Tell people that you are looking for a job in journalism. You never know who might know someone who might know someone. Follow up on every lead you are given, no matter how unlikely it might seem. Check in on freelance job boards and do some freelance work to get clips and to get your name out there.

Joe Mullich

Freelance Writer

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Understanding My Career Path

  • I studied journalism at the California State University Northridge, where I received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism.
  • In my sophomore year, I received an internship at a local magazine, and began writing for them.
  • Upon graduation, I took a job at a public relations company, where I edited, took photos, and wrote for a number of labor union newspapers.
  • At the same time, I pitched magazines for freelance assignments, and wrote these in my off hours. I also continued to freelance for the magazine where I interned.
  • I took a job as a reporter at a weekly newspaper in Los Angeles, where I covered all types of subjects, from health to business to politics.
  • After four years there, I applied for and landed a job at Prevention, one of the nation’s top health magazines.
  • After a year, I left to start a freelance career. I built my client base by submitting my credentials to trade magazines, and asking them to give me assignments, figuring that would be a more solid base than pitching article ideas one by one.
  • I developed a weekly humor column that I self-syndicated to publications around the country, earning awards from the National Headliners, the National Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.
  • Over the years, I kept an eye on the type of subject matter that was most in demand, and developed specialties in technology, health, business, law, travel, and essays.
  • I continued to expand to new areas — writing not just long-form articles, but blogs and a variety of online material.

Recommended Organizations

  • Meetup.com – find groups of local people who are interested in writing and journalism. If there isn’t such a group, start it. People who go to meetups are eager to share ideas and network.
  • LinkedIn.com – search for journalism and writing groups, and engage in discussions — it’s another great way to network with people around the world.
  • Society of Professional Journalists – this century-old organization has chapters around the country.

Advice

On whether or not he recommends a formal education
I believe in lifelong learning. In retrospect, I would have studied another field than journalism, because I think being on the school newspaper and internships taught me about the nuts and bolts of journalism, and I wish I had spent my classroom time on another topic.

Forget about what was
Journalism as a field is changing quickly and dramatically. Be fleet-footed and anticipate where things are going, rather than where they’ve been. Become a journalist entrepreneur. Use the web to develop your own audience. Become your own brand.

Use digital resources
I think today there are tremendous avenues for developing a journalism career that didn’t exist when I started. Today, I would start by own blog/podcast etc. covering whatever subject matter interested me. I wouldn’t wait for magazines and newspapers to give me assignments, experience– create your own assignments to gain experience, credentials, and perhaps an audience/fan base that will make it unnecessary for you to find publications/newspapers to sell your material to.

Get into brand journalism
Another key change in journalism is the concept of brand journalism. Today, instead of supporting existing publications with avenues, many companies are starting their own publications. And in some cases, these publications are as well done and journalistic as “objective” magazines and newspapers — but there is less competition to get in them because lots of journalists don’t take the time to research the new journalism landscape.

Jaime Netzer

Editor, TheZebra.com

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Understanding My Career Path

  • At the University of Kansas, I went in undecided but quickly settled on the William Allen White School of Journalism. I entered into the news and information track, focusing on magazine feature writing. I loved how much my j-school classes challenged me.
  • I ended up as the editor-in-chief of Jayplay, our campus magazine. I absolutely loved the newsroom environment, and editing the work of my peers.
  • I also spent two weeks in Los Angeles as an editorial intern at Variety. In my second week there, an editor let me take a stab at writing a feature, and to his surprise as much as my own, was impressed with the finished product. That led to freelance work with the paper after the completion of the internship, which started me (unbeknownst to me!) down a path toward freelance feature writing as a career.
  • In another interesting stop on my career path, I decided to pursue an MFA in fiction writing at Texas State University. I’ve always wanted to write fiction as well as journalism, but getting that second degree actually also influenced my work in journalism. An editor who had seen my work before and after commented that my MFA had made my magazine feature writing more descriptive, more alive.
  • During my MFA, I started building up more and more freelance clients, and one publication tended to lead to the next. Before I knew it, I was making a full-time salary on freelance feature writing alone. It wasn’t always easy—I am extroverted and so had a hard time working from home, and tax season was always a nightmare—but the experience was invaluable.
  • One of my freelance assignments actually led to my current job. I was assigned a story on a tech company called The Zebra in Austin, and when I went in to interview, I really clicked with the cofounders, and remembered I had seen a job posting a few weeks prior. I emailed them just as soon as I turned the piece in, and a few weeks later, came on as a content editor and writer! I manage, edit, and write our blog, as well as our social media presence, and I facilitate public relations efforts as well.

Advice

On whether or not she recommends a formal education
I would recommend a formal education in journalism—or at least, the pursuit of a good mentor. (A university happens to be a handy place to find them.) What I loved so much about going to J-school in Kansas was that I felt so close to my professors. In fact, I still keep in semi-regular touch with several of them, and I certainly feel I could ask them for their career advice at any given moment.

Write, over and over again
No matter how technology changes, good writing will always be an asset; writing simply and writing well is not as easy as it should feel to a reader.

Learn to ask questions
I think most importantly, why? Why do you feel like that? Why did this change come about? Why does this new statistic matter?

Read
Or otherwise consume, with a critical eye, everything you can get your hands on that you’d like to emulate. Want to be an investigative reporter? Seek that out. TV newscaster? Turn it on nightly. Watch and read actively, rather than passively.

Find your niche
It only takes one clip that someone recognizes to beget the next clip. The beauty of the way publishing is changing is that there are multitudinous opportunities for publication. Find somewhere in your niche, write something about which you really have something to say. Then pitch it. If you’ve never been published, go ahead and write the thing first, send it over whole. You can prove yourself that way. Later on, you can do it the other way around.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Journalist?


Most colleges and universities have at least a traditional journalism program among their academic portfolios. This being said, if you are not looking to be a traditional journalist this is not necessarily the path for you and you should look for alternative degrees. For example, digital media, communications or a subject-matter focus, such as environment or politics might just be the right choice, if that is what you are looking to write about.

Of course, many journalists are also self-taught. You can learn by studying journalists and writers that came before you and by practicing. Today, it is easier than ever, since you have the option of running your own blog or generating a following on a social media platform. Another option is to find a mentor. Keep in mind, however, that if you would like to have a stable job at an agency, newspaper, etc, it might be little bit more difficult for you if you don’t have a degree, since a lot of your competition will.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A JOURNALIST?

  • University of Missouri
    Located in Columbia, Missouri, the University of Missouri offers one of the top journalism programs in the US. On the undergraduate level, students can choose one of more than 30 specializations, such as Emerging Media, Television Reporting, News Editing and many more. The department also offers Masters and Doctorate level studies. Estimated tuition for undergrads is $10,286 for in-state and $24,312 for out-of-state.
  • Penn State University
    This school in State College, Pennsylvania, offers a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism through its College of Communications. Students can specialize in broadcast, print or photojournalism. They also have the option to obtain a Sports Journalism certificate. Resident tuition is estimated at $17,502 per year and non-residents pay $30,452.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC Chapel Hill offers a variety of majors, specializations and special programs to students interested in journalism. These include advertising, broadcast, business journalism, Latino/a journalism, multimedia, and more. Students may also participate in international exchanges in Australia, England, France, Spain, Argentina and Hong Kong. In-state students pay an estimated $8,374 per year, while out-of-state pay $33,624.
  • Western Kentucky University
    Located in Bowling Green, Kentucky, WKU offers 6 different journalism-related majors, including photojournalism, advertising and broadcasting, as well as related minors and certificates. The program makes a strong focus on integrating technology within all journalism programs. Students may also pursue Master’s level studies. Tuition per semester for residents is $4,570 and $11,676 for non-residents.
  • Northwestern University
    The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, offers a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, with a curriculum strongly focused on a well-rounded education, integrating courses from other departments. Graduate students can also take an Integrated Marketing Communications Master’s program, if they wish to further their studies. Tuition here is $46,836 per year.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Finding a source of income as a journalist will depend almost entirely on the type of journalist you would like to be. If you are looking for a traditional newspaper job, whether print or digital, a great way to get in is by taking an internship and proving yourself. This might either result in a job or a wealth of freelancing opportunities. In either case, getting published is your best bet at getting your name out there and receiving invitations to write articles and columns, possibly leading to a permanent position in the future.

Another great way to get started is to focus. If you would like to write about politics, or environment or entertainment, make sure that a wealth of your work is on the subject you are interested in. Become an expert and always be on top of what is going on with regards to that topic, this will make you extremely valuable to focused publications.

As mentioned before, another wonderful tool is the internet. There are hundreds of free platforms, such as WordPress, where you create your own blog for free. You get to curate your content and it will allow you to be pro-active in building a readership. Later, these can often be converted into a source of income or lead to a job opportunity.