Journalism career?
April 22, 2005 11:06 AM   Subscribe

What would be steps for someone to take who wanted to move into a journalism career but is very far from that field?

I'm 27. I've been a web developer since day one of my professional life, around the age of 20. It's really getting boring. I've always written as a personal hobby and now I am thinking I want to try journalism. Writing for a paper, a magazine, a anything. This isn't so much a pipe dream; I've been thinking/obsessing about it for months and I want to see what steps I need to take to get this thing off the ground. Any tips?
posted by xmutex to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Any stories from people who have changed careers to something entirely new would be appreciated as well.
posted by xmutex at 11:08 AM on April 22, 2005

I'd say start by trying to get published. Pick up (or subscribe to) Writer's Market. If you can get a few published articles under your belt, I'd image it'll help you get closer to your dream. Good luck!
posted by nitsuj at 11:09 AM on April 22, 2005

I know somebody who was in a *very* similar situation who got into journalism (after a career in IT) by going to grad school. I dont think this is the only way, but he did Columbia's one-year MA in journalism and was able to get a job writing for a financial website after he graduated. I'm not sure what he's doing now, but that's one way. There are also tons of writing classes that might introduce you to some people, give you the opportunity to write something, etc.

Another way might be to leverage your web dev skills by getting a job at a web mag, or volunteering to do web work for some small webzines you admire who might let you do some writing. I'm guessing this is probably less useful, but might work.

I'm also in IT and write on the side (fiction and some book reviews.) I have a lot of journalist friends, too. One thing we all have in common is that we've all written for low to no-paying websites and/or newspapers at the beginning to build clips. Heck, I still do this (fiction is a much slower road for most than journalism.) There are a ton of content sites looking for writers. Depending on your interests, you should be able to find somewhere where you could get published writing music or book reviews.

One of the good things about switching to a career in journalism is that you can break into it by freelancing, which you can start doing part-time while keeping your web dev job.
posted by drobot at 11:35 AM on April 22, 2005

What sort of journalism and for who? Daily spot-coverage of fires and murders for a radio station is a very different beast than feature writing for magazines or even spot-coverage for a daily newspaper. I might have some advice, but I would suggest first that you should decide what your specific journalism goals are and, most importantly, what you want to write about.
posted by docgonzo at 11:51 AM on April 22, 2005

Response by poster: docgonzo: Well my gut tells me (and my gut's very uneducated and sort of dreamy at this point) that I want to be able to tell stories in covering the events of people's lives. Stories with some substance, or some hints at substance where I can draw things out. I like writing fiction, and I like the work of bringing stories to the surface, and that would be most important to me in covering news.

I realize that may sound vague, but my goals are vague at this point, as I'm in the incubation stage of any sort of real process.
posted by xmutex at 11:55 AM on April 22, 2005

Much of Writer's Markets is going to be difficult to break into. Start locally. Go visit local weekly newspapers, etc., and see what kind of freelancing opportunities they may have. Start a weblog, focused on an area of interest to you, (a) for practice, and (b) for "clips", which is what any publication will want to see if they're going to consider you for a staff writing position. If you write well, can take a picture, and are internet-savvy, that puts you well ahead of the crowd. Get somebody to critique your writing, especially with an eye toward employing journalistic style. If you haven't already, study The Elements of Style, the AP Handbook, and similar bibles.
posted by beagle at 12:13 PM on April 22, 2005

Many radio stations and newspapers use "stringers" to write their stories to reduce the amount of full time staff they need. This would allow you to work for multiple media outlets and get as much experience as possible. They also pay you (a little) for each story they use.

I know the AP accepts stories from stringers -- not sure if you have to be employed by a station or print outlet to submit stories, but check it out, as well as your local options.
posted by suchatreat at 12:19 PM on April 22, 2005

I became a newspaper reporter in my mid twenties after being a PA for a bit (more like I finally got around to becoming a journalist as I didn't see my first job as much of a career move).

I'm currently at work so will write more later but the basic trajectory was: Evening classes to see if I had the skills to do it, 5 month college course to learn to do it properly, job to really learn to do it properly and finally earn some money.
posted by penguin pie at 12:55 PM on April 22, 2005

Just as a note that you can be successful. This year's Pulitzer winner for Investigative Reporting used to be an oil trader on Wall Street up until 7 years ago.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 1:02 PM on April 22, 2005

Semi-relevant thread on freelance/column writing.
posted by fionab at 1:24 PM on April 22, 2005

I second beagle's "start locally" idea.

Do you know any journalists? Or do you have friends that are friends with journalists? Like almost everything, journalism (an writing in general) is really about who you know. I'm a fiction writer, not a journalist, and these days almost all my assignments are commissioned by editors I know. But when I started out, I went down the same long, cold road most writers do: writing, writing, writing and submitting to anywhere and everywhere.

Here's a little practical trick I learned from my Dad (who is a filmmaker, not a journalist): it's easier to sell a piece to a magazine or paper if the piece ties into the anniversary of something. He used this trick and sold an article to 'D' Magazine (the Dallas, TX magazine) about the 50th anniversary of air conditioning. And with the web it's super-easy to look up a date and find out what went down ten, twenty, twenty-five, etc years ago.

So I'd say write a few short fluff pieces like this, sell 'em to editors, and Maintain Contact With Those Editors. Send friendly email notes, Christmas Cards, whatever you feel comfortable with. Basically you're trying to keep yourself in their mind, so when they have an assignment they'll stop and think of you: "We have to do a piece on pencil sharpeners. Who was that person who wrote about the 25th anniversary of the wall-mounted pencil sharpener? Yeah, call 'em up."

After a few fluff pieces, you'll start to get better assignments and work your way up to features.

Good Luck!
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 1:35 PM on April 22, 2005

This is all very good advice that you're getting, especially the education suggestions. Although you certainly don't need a journalism degree to be a journalist (my background is in international affairs, but I'm a photojournalist) education is important. Unless you write like Hemingway, the writing style for newspapers is completely different than any english class-style fiction you may be used to. More importantly, journalism ethics is a field unto itself, and it would behoove you to have a pretty solid understanding of it; you know, so your fiction won't bleed over into your stories. For years the media has been battling the damage caused by writers that should have stuck to writing novels or scripts.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 2:07 PM on April 22, 2005

It's incredibly hard to break into big-city newspaper work without lots of experience, but not nearly as hard to get small weekly papers to pay you to write.

When I was at a weekly paper on the East Coast we hired a guy who was changing from a career as a programmer. He had freelanced a few pieces to prove his worth and develop clips (getting a job at a newspaper requires clips), then sent off an application.

If you want to advance in a newspaper career, you will almost certainly have to move. There are different rungs on the ladder -- small weeklies, small dailies, medium sized dailies, large dailies -- and they don't all tend to cluster around the same town. Often you'll have to spend a few years somewhere rural before a small city paper will consider you, then a few more years there before you get a second glance from a city paper.

Be prepared to a huge salary cut at small papers like this, however. Low- to mid-$20,000 range is probably what you could expect in the Seattle area.

Like in any field, getting ahead in journalism had a lot to do with networking at getting to know people. There is also a huge meritocratic element, however. Your work is published and viewed by thousands of people. If you do good work, people notice and you win awards. If you do really bad work, you lose your job.

If you consistently do good work for a year or more at a weekly newspaper, your odds of getting work at a small daily newspaper start to increase. These will pay about $5,000 more per year and have better vacation and benefits. You don't need a special degree for them to consider you, either. Just a bit of experience and good clips.

A few years at a small daily and you may be considered a candidate at a metropolitan paper, where salaries start to be a little more decent and the work load more managable. These are much harder to break into, however, and you can probably expect a lot of rejection before anyone takes you seriously.

Before you even start freelancing buy a copy of the Associated Press Syle Guide and study it. It's especially key to know newspaper standards for time, place names, states and punctuation. These style rules may not be the same as the writing you were taught in school, and almost every newspaper uses these guildelines or a modified version. (AP still uses old-school postal abbreviation for states, for example -- Penn. instead of PA, Wash. instead of WA.)
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:35 PM on April 22, 2005

If you want to learn about the types of things news reporters obsess about, check out Poynter, Romanesko's blog, Editor and Publisher, American Journalism Review, and Columbia Journalism Review.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:39 PM on April 22, 2005

Some good advice here, I'll add my $0.02 as a freelance writer of nine years . . .

If you want to do work for magazines, learn how to write a query letter. Then learn how to make a follow-up phone call or email to the editor you sent the query to and how to briefly reiterate your idea because he/she's lost or never seen the original query. These will be valuable skills.

Your biggest obstacle starting out is not having a track record, so if you know any magazines - even teensy local ones, even online ones, anything - that will run a story of yours on spec which'll let you exhibit your chops, that'll be enormously helpful as an appendix to your query. For that matter, even a couple of really tightly written blog entries might do if the writing's strong enough. Good editors don't care where the thing ran if it exhibits great voice, narrative skill, etc.

That said, you will almost certainly encounter lousy editors who are all about who you know and what the circ of the publication is. Ignore them as much as possible. Be persistent. Beyond raw talent, the most essential skill a freelancer needs is a thick hide. A healthy dose of arrogance helps too (if you don't believe in your stories, no one will). Also one of those infallible bullshit detectors Hemingway loved to talk about.

One other thing: if magazines are your thing, and you have the means, give serious consideration to an internship. (Almost all magazines offer them; here, for example, is a link to an application for an internship at Harper's.) It'll probably be unpaid and may involve moving to New York, but there's no more efficient way in, and it'll save you the cost of a journalism degree (which similarly exists as much to provide a way into the professional network as it does to actually teaching "skills," since you can't really teach someone how to find and tell good stories).

Good luck. It's a lousy business but a great way to make a living.

And my email address is in my profile if you want to ask any follow-up questions.
posted by gompa at 3:07 PM on April 22, 2005

I think you meant a great way to make a lousy living!

Seriously - think about the fact that journalism is one of the crappiest paying jobs around. Is that okay with you? (It's terrifically fun though, and hardly ever boring, which makes it a no brainer trade-off for me.)

I'm opposed to j-school on general principle, but in your case, I think it might be a good idea. You won't learn much that's useful, but you will meet people and as someone said earlier, that's very important. I got my current job because I ran into an editor I knew years before at a party and by luck she happened to be looking to hire someone. The two keys are to put together some decent clips - no matter how - and make contacts. Plus, if you have a thin clip file, you probably have a better shot at an entry level job if you have a degree attached.

Definitely think more about what kind of journalism you want to perpetrate on the world. Consider interning at various news organizations to check them out. Also, like the guy who wanted to start out as a columnist, you need to be aware that most people have to put in years of grunt work before they land a great job. Then again, running around to fires and talking to cops about murders can be enormously appealing even if it is grunt work.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:49 PM on April 22, 2005

Don't just put that Web programming experience aside, xmutex. I heartily second drobot's suggestion that you consider pitching those skills to a news organization.

The newspaper industry seems to be on a bit of a death spiral right now, and however it pulls out of this tailspin, I'm pretty sure it won't look much like it does today. But while circulation at newspapers is falling rapidly, readership of newspaper Web sites is increasing.

But I don't want to be stuck doing programming anymore, you may say. I want to be a journalist.

As a programmer, you've no doubt learned ways of delivering information that can tell stories even more compelling and useful than a 90-inch series on newsprint. The ability to tell stories in new ways and to synthesize information with programmatic efficiency will probably be much greater assets to you in journalism than three years working night cops.

You already have a Web site, which means you have a fantastic platform to start building the best portfolio ever. Really, nothing says you have to work at a news organization to do awesome journalism. Two people in my town started up their own community journalism site last year, and it's a giant hit. Start something like it for your neighborhood. Seattle's a giant place -- even all its weeklies and dailies and tv stations and whatnot can't have coverage everywhere. Get out on the street and start reporting and writing stories on your own. Find someone whose editorial skills you respect and ask them to edit you, 'cause everybody needs an editor.

At any rate, consider starting your search here. Consider shooting an e-mail to this fellow. Consider e-mailing me.

Best of luck!!

Backstory: I was in a somewhat similar position as you just two years ago. Only I was a year out of college, and my practical work experience consisted of basically zilch. (My practical journalism experience was probably in the negatives.) With a few clips accrued from my then-scant foray into blogging, I applied for and very luckily got the best fellowship ever (that FAQ is out of date, and the position's been filled for '05-06).

When that fellowship was over, I had the option of getting an entry-level reporting gig in some pretty high-profile newspapers or tv stations, but I was jonesin' to work on the Web, and my friends who were already in entry-level reporting gigs at newspapers were fleeing from the inverted pyramid cookie cutter in terror. So I took a job as a Web reporter at a mid-sized paper. I report, write, blog, design, script, record, edit, etc., and I couldn't be happier with my choice.

posted by grrarrgh00 at 7:51 PM on April 22, 2005

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