A path to journalism?
May 24, 2015 9:24 PM   Subscribe

I want to be a journalist, but I'm not sure how to get there from where I am now. Looking for any advice, tips, or resources anybody can offer me.

I'm 27 years old. And it has become obvious to me the career I should have always pursued: journalism. My main "passion" (hate that word) in my life has always been current events, politics, and foreign affairs.

For some reason, I discounted the possibility of becoming a journalist in and after college. But I realize now it's really what I should be doing. It's what I care about and it's what I'm good at.

My relevant experience:
-I wrote for the student paper in high school. My very first article discussed problems with the Patriot Act.
-I was a columnist for my university paper in college. I mostly wrote about US foreign policy and the war in Iraq.
-I started my own website/blog to discuss politics and related issues.
-I wrote and self-published a nonfiction political book about US foreign policy (and why said policy is terrible).
-I recently had a piece of mine published on Jacobin.

After college, I spent 3.5 years living and traveling in Asia by teaching English. I'm presently back in the US and unemployed.

As you may have guessed, I approach journalism from a very critical/left-wing perspective. My role models are people like Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Scahill, and Amy Goodman.

My ultimate goal is to become a columnist (though I know it won't happen right away). I suppose I prefer commentary over straight reporting. I also would like to write in-depth books on subjects of interest to me.

The problem is, I'm not sure what I should be doing to get where I want from where I stand now. As I said above, I'm currently unemployed (money is not an immediate issue but it will be in the foreseeable future).

What should I be doing?

-I've tried pitching and submitting articles to probable sympathetic outlets. Aside from the Jacobin article mentioned above, I haven't met with any success. Should I just keep trying?
-I've applied for several journalism internships and jobs. Never heard back from any of them.
-I've considered going back to school for a master's degree, but I simply can't afford it. And I am NOT willing to go into yet more debt for another degree.
-I've also considered moving back abroad to teach English or something, and continue my blog and pitching on the side until at some point it hopefully might take off.
-I know networking is the best way to get a job. Unfortunately, I don't have much of a network, and I personally know a grand total of zero people in journalism.

I need to get the ball rolling somehow. So, how do I make my goal a reality? What actions should I be taking? What advice can you offer me?
posted by EmptyEmpire to Work & Money (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Journalism is in a weird place as a field right now as newspapers haven't figured out a pay model that works online. I hesitate to say journalism is a "dying" profession but that's kind of the non-sugar coated way of putting it. There are lots of very well qualified smart people with journalism backgrounds who can't find the type of position you are describing. Honestly I would think about a second and third option if this goal doesn't work out (which is always a good idea anyway).
posted by deathpanels at 9:44 PM on May 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

I would keep plugging away at your blog and find a way to monetize that. As mentioned above, journalism is a dying field. Your best bet is probably to create your own job, via the blog.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:25 PM on May 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

What death panels said is true.

You may want to consider some additional tech skills. If you can show an employer you can update websites or produce web content you'll have some edge. Photoshop skills are useful.

Networking: Find your favorite local news outlet. Call the news director ask if you can get a tour of the place. Or ask a reporter for an informational interview. Tell them you'll only take ten minutes of their time. Ask them about the job. Find out if they are hiring. This worked for me getting an internship at a public radio station.

See if the SPJ has events in your area. Go to them religiously.

Don't discount TV. TV stations frequently look for producers for their news department. It will be a lousy job. Late nights. Holidays. Low pay. If you know how to edit video quickly you may be able to get your foot in the door with TV. Depending on the size of the market, your local TV station will have the morning meteorologist. They go out into the community and do live remotes. Show up at the live remote with coffee and a danish. Give it to the photog. When whey are between live shots. Chat him or her up. The photogs know the reporters. They may know if their TV station is hiring.

If you can, move to a small town with a TV station or newspaper.

TV isn't the lefty columnist gig you want... but it will get you used to the tight deadlines and you'll learn to be creative when you don't have ideas. Plus, news people know other news people at newspapers and radio stations.

Keep on pitching articles. Make relationships with news directors and assignment editors.
posted by hot_monster at 10:26 PM on May 24, 2015

Speaking of Jeremy Scahill, he had some advice for young journalists in this appearance. As far as I know, he basically got his start by following Amy Goodman around begging her for work until he got it.

Out of curiosity, what was your Jacobin piece? I read it all the time. Edit: never mind, saw it on your profile.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 2:06 AM on May 25, 2015

If you want to be a journalist, this is a great time to be one in many ways. Publications are content-hungry, plus there's building your own platform
- learn the craft by reading and joining professional groups
- learn to shoot decent pictures and video and basic editing for both
- representing data and visual storytelling are huge trends
- get hands-on with web analytics
- get networking not just with editors and TV staff but also within your subject area; in political journalism this can really be key
- keep querying and pitching and self-publishing

Now, if you want to be paid, that's completely different. It's really tough.
posted by warriorqueen at 3:38 AM on May 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

One thing I noticed is not on your radar is getting your blog some serious attention. Paying for a marketing person to optimize your search engine visibility, audit your social media whatevers, and make sure your site is well set up for sharing/ commenting is a heck of a lot cheaper and more effective than journalism school these days.

In other words yes unfortunately "keep hustling" is your only answer. If you are talented enough and lucky you'll break through. Use that Jacobin piece to knock on every similar door with new angles and original reporting. If you can, find a niche. Cancel your plans for Friday until the work is done.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:58 AM on May 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also the advice about moving to a small town is awful. Where do you live? Not DC? Move to DC. That's where foreign policy journalism is relevant.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:01 AM on May 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also: in DC it's possible to get s job based on your foreign policy expertise and interest in China. Definitely keep a day job while you bang out 5-10 blog posts / week.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:03 AM on May 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think the suggestion to move to DC and get a day job is excellent. Here's one list of positions. You may find that the work is as rewarding as you imagined journalism might be, but regardless, you can continue writing on the side. My guess is that it will be easier to find an entry-level job at a nonprofit than to find a journalism gig without more experience. But memail me and I can tell you how I stumbled into my own dream job in journalism.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:36 AM on May 25, 2015

Join the Online News Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors and go to every meetup, party, workshop, and conference that you possibly can. Volunteer as a meetup organizer. D.C. has a fabulous ONA presence. I love it.

If you move to D.C., I would be happy to get together with you or introduce you to people at an ONA event.

Data-driven stories are a big thing and getting bigger. Those people are getting jobs -- jobs that are hard to fill. No, it's not column writing, but you can do that on the side.

I started as a journalist at age 50 (!!!), and I've covered some pretty cool stories. I did get a subsidized master's, but still.

Again, go to every possible professional event, have your elevator speech ready, cards with a link to your portfolio, take every workshop possible, and meet everyone you can at these events.
posted by jgirl at 6:47 AM on May 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've tried pitching and submitting articles to probable sympathetic outlets. Aside from the Jacobin article mentioned above, I haven't met with any success. Should I just keep trying?
I'd pitch to all outlets--if you want to be an opinion or editorial writer, pitch to those who will respond favorably to your already published piece, but if you want to be a reporter--pitch to to every outlet where you might have a connection.
One issue I see with your blog is that you're linking to other news outlets, but you don't have any original sources, or quotes or interviews. If you can land an interview with someone newsworthy, you can probably sell that to a real outlet. Otherwise, you're doing for free what Buzzfeed pays people to do.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:45 AM on May 25, 2015

As an erstwhile lefty-journalist, my thought is that if you want to be like Glenn Greenwald, who made a lot of money in law* before having the freedom to enter the field and talk about whatever he wanted, you might consider separating your day job from your journalism. One pitfall I often see aspiring journalists get into is that we chase the stories that an editor will pay us for or assign, rather than taking the time to say what we want to say or write the book we want to write.

The next thing we know we're either in a hamster wheel of pooping out awful "10 Things The Media Doesn't Want You To Know About Mike Huckabee" clickbait lists for AlterNet, or writing adoring profiles of tech billionaires for Rich Tech Bros Monthly, or in any case not doing the stuff that we wanted to do in the first place.

* do not go to law school
posted by johngoren at 10:03 AM on May 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

p.s. Also, the more critical/left-leaning, the less compensation. A lot of these folks can afford to write for The Nation because they're independently rich or have other means of support. One of my journalism school professors, for example, was a wonderful progressive writer with beautiful prose but he wrote out of guilt at his father owning diamond mines.

MeMail me if you want my hard-earned lessons after similarly pitching my liberal blog really hard, making national news and then having all kinds of adventures with the D.C. media world.
posted by johngoren at 10:39 AM on May 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

-I've also considered moving back abroad to teach English or something, and continue my blog and pitching on the side until at some point it hopefully might take off.

Do this. You need a day job. Being abroad will give you more interesting things to pitch. I don't know if anyone can make a living in journalism these days without incredible luck. I know a lot of people at major foreign policy publications in DC and NY, and it's a very small, cut-throat world. Get on Twitter, start interacting with interesting people, start pitching stuff.

jongoren is totally right - I know a lot of people at The New Inquiry, Jacobin, and such. They have other sources of support. Even places that pay well (al-Jazeera America is the best I know of; they do $400 for a short column, and up to $5/word for longer foreign reporting) aren't sustainable unless you're actually on staff (and they mostly hire editors, not writers). Even if you're writing a column a week, that's $1600/month, and...not enough in major East Coast cities.
posted by quadrilaterals at 11:48 AM on May 25, 2015

Definitely look into the DC policy route if that's at all interesting to you. Even better if it's an org that has its own blog that you can actually write for. That world is pretty competitive too, but if you can wrangle a junior (assistant-level) role with a supportive boss, you can build a platform there: writing for their blog, using the org's name when you do publish things (with their blessing, obviously). Hell, if you play your cards right, you might even be able to get the communications staff, who help the higher-ups place op eds, etc., to give you advice on getting your stuff placed.
posted by lunasol at 1:03 PM on May 25, 2015

Do you know how to make videos? Lots and lots of news orgs that aren't hiring at all in other departments are absolutely hiring people who know how to create and produce original video content. A reel is going to get you a lot further than a clip book these days.
posted by Charity Garfein at 4:10 PM on May 25, 2015

My advice:

-Find a place you can write for on a regular basis and build a body of work. That may be your blog, but ideally you can write for some outlet that is decent and legitimate and not yours. Now, it doesn't need to be the NYT -- the simple fact is you will need to work your way up, which means writing for something small that is going to be far from perfect. But write for a real outlet with a real editor and some semblance of an audience to show what you can do.

-Yes, keep pitching ideas to outlets where your work would match their voice. At a minimum, you are making connections and people may keep you in mind in the future if it sounds like you have good ideas. I would start small. As you get stuff published, you can try for bigger and bigger outlets.

-Pitch to local outlets in your geographic area. You probably have a daily newspaper and a couple weekly papers in your area. Try to gain some legit by-lines by writing for them. That is just as good or better than some random small internet publication.

-Columnists get to share their opinion generally because they were reporters first and have some established authority on a subject. I don't think trying to be a columnist will get you anywhere. But being a reporter with a left-wing point of view or for left wing publications seems more feasible.

-Maybe try to network online in communities of like-minded people. Perhaps a website like Daily Kos?

-You have no formal training, so teach yourself things like AP style, best grammar practices, and how to structure an article or column. Simply googling "how to write an op-ed" will give you good advice on how to write a compelling op-ed. (Also, know the difference between an op-ed, a letter to the editor, and a column. You could send op-eds to some medium/small newspapers to get a by-line. Large newspapers will not give an op-ed byline to some random guy.)

-Don't listen to naysayers who say journalism is dying and no one wants your writing. That isn't true. Journalism is in indeed a weird time, but there are still places that will pay you money to write words. If you love it and see it as your calling, you can definitely moonlight and try to break into journalism while you keep another job -- that's the nice thing about being a writer: you can do it whenever you want. That said, know that this is not something that will happen overnight. It will take years of building a portfolio and a network from scratch, but if you love it, I think you should freelance on the side and keep working toward your dream.
posted by AppleTurnover at 4:39 PM on May 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I speak as an ex-journalist: freelance on the side or blog, but looking for a full time writing job is...not something to holed your breath about. And for the love of god, don't try to get another degree--you don't need it and you'll never be able to pay it off.

I'm thinking about trying flexjobs sometime--it requires you to pay, but the general stuff I've seen written about them seems to indicate that they're more reputable for finding work than say, Craigslist.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:55 PM on May 25, 2015

Response by poster: Thank you for all of your answers. I will be MeMailing some of you in the near future.

I, in fact, live near DC. I've thought of applying for jobs in the nonprofit world located in DC that I could perhaps leverage to get into journalism later on. The problem is, I can't seem to find any that are suitable--even the so-called "entry level" positions require experience that I don't have.

al-Jazeera America is the best I know of; they do $400 for a short column, and up to $5/word for longer foreign reporting

Do you know how I can pitch them? I've scoured their website and can't seem to find any info on submissions.
posted by EmptyEmpire at 1:29 PM on May 26, 2015

The problem is, I can't seem to find any that are suitable--even the so-called "entry level" positions require experience that I don't have.

Definitely apply anyway and see what happens. You might need to intern first, which might not be worth it to you given that it's not your ultimate career goal.
posted by lunasol at 7:27 AM on May 28, 2015

Honestly, I think your best bet is to keep banging away towards an internship at a solid alt weekly or other paper somewhere. It's a way to pump out clips that show that you've got the gumption and hustle to do original reporting (that involves talking to human sources), AND you stand to develop working relationships with journalists who, while they might not be in your desired field, can teach you a lot about the craft that you'll be able to take with you as you move along. That's important.

You say, though, that you've never heard back from your other internship applications. I'd reapply to all of them (seriously), and keep hammering on their doors until you get an answer one way or another. It might seem a bit dense and old-school, but it has to happen. While hearing nothing back and moving on might seem pragmatic, you're going to need to be more persistent. You are not the only one who wants this.

And that's what I think it boils down to: dogged, shit-eating tenacity.
posted by sacramental excrementum at 9:36 AM on June 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

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