Becoming a Journalist in the Digital Age
All of the gloomy reports about newspaper circulation rapidly dropping, network news ratings declining and reporters being laid off might lead you to believe that journalism itself is dying. But journalism is alive and well. It is just that the way reporters do their job is changing.
With the growing popularity of the Internet, gone are the days of print-only or TV-only newsrooms. Media companies no longer have to wait for the evening broadcast or tomorrow's edition to report the news. Almost all media outlets are breaking stories on their Web sites, and the news cycle has become 24-7.
Journalists need to change, as well. Instead of thinking of themselves as only print journalists or broadcast journalists, they need to think of themselves as journalists, period. And they must be able to report the news in publication, online or in front of a microphone.
But while the way journalists do their job is changing, the fundamentals remain the same and as pertinent as ever. Journalists today still need to be able to gather information and tell a story. Most importantly, they need to be able to think.
A journalist's most important tool is not a notepad, tape recorder, digital camcorder, computer or even the ability to write a story. A journalist's most important tool is her brain. As a writer for the masses, journalists have to cut through the flab of all the information around. They need to question, question, question. What happened? Who does this affect? Why is this important? Critical thinking precedes good writing. So, future journalists need to learn how to think. They also need to learn how to learn.
The media isn't the only thing changing. The world of work is changing. More and more, people are becoming multi-skilled workers. They are having to manage lots of projects and priorities and develop new skills all the time.
A graduate today can expect to still be in the world of work in 2050. The one thing that young journalists can be certain of is that they will be applying skills that haven't even been thought of today. They will have to relearn and relearn and relearn.
Think you've got what it takes? Here are a few other things you'll need to break into journalism:
Attitude is Everything
There are some fields that almost any semi-intelligent and college-educated person can get a job in. Journalism is not one of them.
You don't have to be the next Hemingway, but a career in the media does require a certain talent. More than anything, it requires passion. You've got to really want to be a journalist.
If you think you're going to go straight from college to the foreign desk of the New York Times or to sideline reporting for ESPN, you're delusional. Glamorous jobs like that require lots of hard work, experience and some lucky breaks.
You may toil for years and earn peanuts working at a tiny newspaper in the middle of nowhere before you get to the next level. From there, you may have to make a few stops before you finally reach your destination publication or broadcast station. But, before you can even get an entry-level job, you may need to do a couple unpaid internships. In order to get just one internship, you may have to send out 50 or more resumes.
If you're unwilling to do all of that, step aside. With 200,000 students majoring in journalism at the moment -- the most ever -- there's a long line of people who happily will do the scut work.
That's why it's important that you see journalism as being more than just a job. There are definitely easier and higher-paying jobs. But unlike other fields, journalism gives you an opportunity to expose lies, explain dangers, inform the uninformed and, occasionally, make a difference. At its best, journalism can be a lot of fun and very rewarding.
But don't take my word for it. Find out for yourself. "I would visit some newsrooms -- in several media -- to see whether you think you could fit in," advises Joe Grimm, a longtime newspaper recruiter and journalism career advice columnist. "While you're there, ask the newsroom managers what they are looking for in new hires. Interview some reporters about the rewards and frustrations of the job."
In order to distinguish yourself from all the other applicants going after the positions you want, you need skills and training that employers want. Being a good writer alone is not enough. Newspapers are currently laying off Pulitzer Prize winners. So, if you want to get a journalism job, you're going to need to be able to offers skills your employer needs -- namely, multimedia skills. All newspaper reporters now entering the profession will have to do online work.
If your college isn't teaching you new media skills -- and many aren't -- there's nothing stopping you from teaching yourself. Recruiters will be impressed by such entrepreneurial activities and weigh them the way they do clips and a resume.
So, take a web design class or pick up a book like Building Web Sites for Dummies. Purchase a digital camcorder -- which costs less than an iPhone -- and toy around with video editing software that comes standard on your computer -- iMovie, if you have a Mac, or MovieMaker, if you have a PC. Expand your repertoire and expand your skills from there. It's really not as scary or difficult as you think.
Of course, it's impossible to become an expert in everything. There's so much to know: how to record sound, how to shoot video, how to edit sound and video, how to write using search engine optimization, how to create slideshows, how to put it in Flash, how to create a webpage for all your content, etc. And, if you try to do all of that in addition to reporting, something is bound to be substandard.
So, be realistic. Try to become a master of one or two multimedia tools, but knowledgeable of all. Your specialty may be Flash. You might not be able to shoot video particularly well, but you should at least be able to recognize when footage is too grainy to be used.
It's kind of like a liberal arts education. You study all kinds of different subjects, including art history. If you go into a museum, you may not know that painting is Cezanne from his dark period, but you should at least be able to recognize that it kind of looks like Impressionism.
Equally important is experience. If you're interested in working in the media, doing an internship while you're in college is an absolute must. You can likely get academic credit for it. You may even get paid for it. Most importantly, you will gain valuable hands-on experience that will impress prospective employers and give you an edge over other applicants when you're applying for your first job.
"I can't emphasize enough the importance of summer internships," says Randy Hagihara, recruitment editor for the Los Angeles Times. "The more the better. In a competitive job market, editors will want to know that their entry-level hires will be able to hit the ground running -- on a wide variety of assignments."
Journalism internships are offered by many newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations and websites, large and small. Students can intern as reporters, bloggers, photojournalists, production assistants, copy editors, multimedia producers and designers.
Summer is the popular season for internships, although some media outlets offer them throughout the year. Some internships are part-time and last as little as a few weeks, while others are full-time and may run for several months.
Many media outlets have a formal application and selection process while others arrange internships on a case-by-case basis. Some internships may target students from certain regions, schools or backgrounds. Check with each media outlet to find out its requirements.
One final piece of advice on landing a journalism internship: apply early and apply often! Some applications are due several months before the internship starts. And competition is fierce.
To find journalism internships, visit CubReporters.org's Internship Guide.
Don't Fear the Future
If, after reading all this, you decide to pursue a career in journalism, be prepared for significant changes. But don't be afraid of what the future may bring. The media is in a state of flux right now. That's nothing new.
The history of journalism is a history of technological change. Don't be scared away from the field by doomsayers who predict newspapers and network TV will soon die. Sure, the way journalists do their jobs may change, but there will always be journalism and a need for journalists.
And, you can always use your journalism degree to do something else. The skills you learn as a journalist (researching, efficient writing, listening and observing, interpersonal communication, critical thinking, etc.) are easily transferable to and valued by many other professions.