Journalism can be a fulfilling career for recent graduates with determination, curiosity, a talent for storytelling and outstanding writing skills. If those characteristics apply to you, here's how you can become a journalist.
The good news is that you don't need a degree in journalism to get a job working for a newspaper, magazine or online publication. Journalism is one career that benefits from a diversity of perspectives and approaches, and a strong liberal arts education is excellent preparation for the challenges you'll face as a journalist.
As the editor and co-owner of an alt-weekly newspaper for more than 20 years, I’ve hired (and fired) journalists who came from all sorts of different backgrounds. The number one predictor of success was their curiosity combined with their writing ability. Curiosity leads to asking thoughtful questions and finding answers, while writing ability allows you to convey those answers into stories that are interesting to read and impactful.
To illustrate my point, check out this Twitter thread by Theodore Kim, the director of newsroom fellowships and internships at the New York Times. Kim sparked a heated discussion among journalists when he said that the most productive writers come from a smattering of elite schools.
It didn’t take long for other journalists to disagree, sharing their own varied journeys to journalism success. Gustavo Arellano, the former editor of OC Weekly and a current staffer at the LA Times, joined the conversation:
Arellano was a film studies major.
Earning a degree from a prestigious university is an excellent accomplishment, but it's not a prerequisite for a successful journalism career. Editors and hiring managers will look at your resume to see if you have practical experience. Fortunately, that experience doesn't have to be limited to paid jobs. My experience went more like this:
- Attended a commuter college while living at home.
- Majored in English and cobbled together a minor in writing by taking every writing class I could, from technical writing to journalism 101.
- Tutored in the writing center, which was a great introduction to editing. Coaching writers to improve their prose made me a better writer too.
Four tips to help you get a start in your journalism career
1. Get published
In journalism, your experience matters most. Clips — examples of your published work — are the number one ticket to your first job. They demonstrate that you're motivated and that you already know how to write well.
You can build your writing portfolio while you're still in college through internships and writing for school publications. I wrote for the student newspaper, served as editor of the literary magazine and interned at a city magazine, the last of which resulted in one tiny but glossy clip that was the golden arrow in my fledgling portfolio. That one clip is what earned me my first job after graduation.
What if your school doesn't have a student newspaper? Start a blog. Pick a topic that's important to you and write stories that showcase your writing talents and interests. Find stories to tell about what's happening on campus or in your town or city. Your hustle will prove to an editor that you are willing to do the work.
2. Build a professional journalist resume
Once you start accumulating your writing clips and expanding your knowledge of the industry, it's time to learn how to write a resume that highlights your skills. The meat of your resume will be your writing experience. Here's how you can build an impressive experience section, even if you've never held a paid position.
- On-campus experience. If you wrote one article every week for the student newspaper, say so on your resume. The same goes for working at the on-campus writing center. To show off your editorial skills, ask someone you tutored if you can use a piece of their work — anonymously, of course — to show how you improved their writing.
- Relevant coursework. If you're a journalism major, the hiring manager will have a general idea of what kinds of classes you took. But if you majored in something else (business for example), list any classes that gave you the skills to be an excellent journalist. From business writing to journalism 101, make your college coursework count.
- Internships. Internships offer hands-on experience, excellent networking opportunities and the chance to see if you would enjoy a career as a journalist. They look great on your resume and candidates who already know their way around a newsroom have a distinct advantage.
Pair your work experience section with an engaging summary that explains your journalistic ambition and displays your writing skills.
3. Follow your favorite editors, reporters and publications on Twitter
Journalists love Twitter, and it's one of the best places for an aspiring journalist to network and learn. You can find deep, broad conversations amongst journalists taking place all day, every day. It's the first place journalists go to break important stories as well as share work and feedback.
Take part in discussion threads to broaden your understanding of journalistic issues and to "meet" professionals.
4. Read the trades and forums to increase your knowledge of the industry
Keep abreast of industry news and in-depth discussions of ethics, reportage, writing and other topics important to the field. Journalists love talking about their industry. Here are some excellent sources to get started:
- The Poynter Institute — This Florida organization is a journalistic thought leader that also has online courses and seminars that can boost your skills.
- Columbia Journalism Review — Columbia University's center for coverage of the rapidly changing world of journalism.
- ProPublica — A nonprofit newsroom that's on the cutting edge of journalism trends.
- Reddit — A journalism feed that has a robust discussion about the latest happenings.
You can also explore the many professional journalism organizations. Some are focused on types of journalism like health reporting or food journalism, while others are dedicated to diversity in journalism.
And of course, read. Good journalists are curious, so read everything and anything.
If you combine the skills you've developed during your education with your experience and a solid resume (you can use our Resume Builder, or our Journalist Resume Sample) you'll be a competitive candidate for many entry-level reporting jobs. When you apply for a journalism job, your cover letter will be an incredibly important way to bring your experience and skills into one powerful pitch. Make sure it's the best it can be by using our Cover Letter Builder to get started.