So you’re looking to get a writing job in journalism? Maybe you’ve got your heart set on a sweet gig reviewing concerts or fancy yourself the next Jon Stewart. More power to you, but I hope you enjoy working nights and/or weekends, meeting deadlines, writing stories assigned to you, juggling several assignments and have skills wrangling social media — because those are some of the realities of a working journalist.
Just to be clear, there are lots of different types of writing jobs available — from full-time reporters to freelancers to columnists to bloggers. For this article, I’ll consider all these sources as “getting a job in journalism” — although not all of them are paying jobs.
First let me dispel some commonly assumed things:
-Myth busting: “I have to have a degree in journalism to be a writer.” Nope, not true. You don’t necessarily even need a college degree. There are a lot of “self-made” success stories. What matters, degree or not, is having the skills to do the job. I really like working with writers who are passionate and eager, but if they can’t spell, fact check, dress properly or show up to work on time, that passion doesn’t mean crap.
-Myth busting, Part II: “A job in journalism means writing a couple of stories for the paper.” So wrong. Journalists are getting news out to people through Twitter, Facebook, smart phone apps, text messages, blogs, video, online. We are constantly adapting to whatever new platform is out there, and I’ll expect you to be able to do that too.
-Myth busting, Part III: “As a reporter, I’ll get all kinds of free access to concerts and games.” No, you won’t. Reporters get “free” access to events with press passes, but those reporters are there to work, not to cheer about a sweet dunk. In reality, we journalists aren’t allowed to take things for free because we don’t want to have a conflict of interest. We’re offered tickets or backstage passes in hopes that we’ll write about it, and if we’re not, then it is not ethical for us to use them.
There are basic things I look for when hiring people to write for our publications. If you don’t demonstrate those skills or traits, I’ll probably continue searching for someone who does. Not surprisingly, a few of these transcend journalism and apply to any kind of job.
– I’m all about accuracy and details: If you can’t do this, it’s a deal breaker, because in my businesses, a misspelled word or name can turn a story into a joke around the coffee shop or, at worst, a libel suit. So details matter to me. Don’t know the difference between its and it’s or there, their and they’re? Look it up and learn it before you apply to get a job as a writer. And if you’re writing anything to me — an email, cover letter, resume — use good grammar and make sure everything is spelled correctly.
-First contact: There are a lot of ways to get the attention of a hiring editor. I don’t mind when writers call or email me just to introduce themselves, share their work and ask if we have openings. At this point you want to make a decent impression, so it helps to know which publication you’re calling (seriously) and have some basic knowledge about the paper and/or web site. (In other words, learn what’s important to the editor and publication and talk about what you may have to offer.) What doesn’t help is expecting me to hire you on the spot or for me to pay for a piece that doesn’t work for our readers.
-Editors are busy, so plan accordingly: After you’ve made that excellent first impression, don’t overload the editor with every step you’re taking to try and get a job with them. You won’t impress me if you tell me every bloody detail about how you got a story or an interview — I’ll just be imagining how needy you’ll be on the job. Be specific and strategic when you contact me. Respect my time, and I’ll hold you in high regard.
-Getting your foot in the door: Yes, you can go the traditional route and apply for jobs that you find online or in the classifieds. There are other ways, albeit less lucrative ways, to get your work on an editor’s radar. I’ll give you some real life examples, but the common theme is “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Write a story about an event that the publication won’t be covering and offer it to the editor the next day (or better yet, call in advance and offer to write it for them for free). I’ve hired bloggers based on pitches that explained to me the importance of their niche interest and how it could inform our readers. In essence, you show the editor what you can do, you get your name out there to the publication’s audience.
And it could turn into a paying gig.
Michelle Maxwell is the senior editor for content at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. She has absolutely no regrets about escaping from Ohio to Oregon in 1995