Journalism entails all aspects of the practical discovery, research and production behind media and news writing, as read all around the world on the internet and in various different publications.
Journalists are paid by owners of media companies, usually newspapers or websites, to find and report local, national and international events as they unfold. This means going out into communities and other areas to discover and track significant events so that the general public can find out about the problems, changes and developments around them.
As the work follows events in the world it is necessarily varied and usually entails working in and out of an office environment, as well as in different locations and on the move. Similarly, work can be exciting, world-changing and dangerous or menial and boring, as the situation dictates.
A huge number of men and women are employed as journalists around the world, most working long hours on computers to manufacture news for different media channels, and the industry is a competitive one.
Starting salaries in journalism are relatively low, usually ranging from £15 -20k pa, although starting rates are slightly higher with more commercial publications (consumer magazines etc).
More experienced journalists can earn from £18 – 40k pa, depending on whether they work as a salaried writer for one publication or on a self-employed, freelance basis.
Top-level journalists and editors can receive in excess of £100k pa but the number of such positions is very limited and they are highly sought-after.
The daily role of a journalist is varied and includes tasks such as:
- Finding or thinking of new stories or features to write about
- Conducting interviews
- Reading press-releases and attending press conferences
- Typing up stories for submission to an editor
Although some people have a cynical approach to the media and accuse journalists of everything from scare-mongering to outright lies, a sense of integrity and responsibility is important to the ideology behind journalism.
Given that contacts and reputation mean a lot in the industry, integrity may also be of some practical use to journalists, as serious employers will not be happy to commission work without evidence of such professionalism.
Most prospective journalists are expected to have a good number of GCSEs, reasonable A-levels and a university degree. However, while it is possible to take a full BA or MA degree in journalism this is not necessarily the best way to become a journalist.
Although employers do look for a good understanding of language they also look for breadth of knowledge. Therefore a good degree combined with evidence of an interest in writing is often as valuable as a degree in English or even something specifically media-related.
The best way to get involved without academic qualifications is to find work experience and start wherever you can.
Many journalists take courses at some point in their career in order to learn new skills, such as feature writing or software use, or to improve existing ones. More information on training can be found on the following websites:
Inquisitiveness, linguistic and inter-personal skills are the most important attributes a journalist can have. A good journalist will also be thorough in their research and have good computer skills, as well as knowledge of modern marketing and PR techniques. This will allow them to sift through irrelevant material, false accounts, propaganda, spin and PR-driven web content.
Taking facts, opinions, witness accounts and hard evidence, and bringing them together in writing in a way that will sell media requires not only a certain amount of intuition and judgement but also an ability to see both sides of an argument – the grey area between black and white. Experience is also important when assessing and analysing different sources and producing accurate portraits of what is happening in the world.
The practical skills that make this all possible include:
- Writing in shorthand
- Touch typing
- Being able to communicate with a wide range of people
- The stamina and flexibility to work long hours in different environments
- Good knowledge of the internet
- A willingness to travel
Working in the real world obviously brings a varying degree of comfort and discomfort or safety and risk – a war correspondent will expect far greater problems than an average travel journalist – but most journalists work long hours and do a lot of travelling.
Many hours may also be spent in chaotic open-plan offices, an environment which some people thrive in, more than others.
As mentioned above, experience is usually essential, whether for securing a permanent job with a newspaper or pitching for freelance work. Building a network of contacts and a good reputation are very important and it would be very difficult to find consistent employment without a track record.
However, for those entering the industry for the first time, employers will look for more general signs of interest, which might include:
- Previous writing experience (at school or for a blog, for example)
- Experience of working for a university newspaper or publication
- Work experience or internship as a researcher or editorial assistant
Journalists can work for a huge variety of publications and websites in every country in the world. Some of the biggest employers in the UK are:
As with other competitive jobs, getting your foot in the door is difficult. Most people start by doing an internship or some work experience and trying to impress the employer during this time.
After this initial stage most people try to find work as a junior reporter or as a junior editor in a particular department, often covering local news or low-level stories before moving up to become more senior (covering more important stories) or more specialised (always covering the same kind of news – foreign affairs, for example).
Once you have some experience it is easier to do more of what you want to do, and this can be anything from working in a fashion magazine to writing for travel guides.
Also known as…
- Investigative Journalist
- Press Worker
What’s it really like?
Flora, 26 is a freelance journalist currently working in Beijing, writing stories for a range of publications, including the Beijing publication of Time Out, the Sunday Times and the New Statesman. An example of her work can be found here:
How long have you been working as a journalist?
I started working in journalism four years ago but I’ve been freelancing for a year and a half. When I got my first job I was lucky to be accepted for work as a reporter on the foreign news desk at the Sunday Times, as a Foreign Desk Research Assistant.
This was quite a general role and involved everything from writing to editing. I am now working in Beijing in China, looking for stories to sell to newspapers, and although I don’t work for the Sunday Times any more they do sometimes buy or commission stories from me.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
I pay to rent my own office in Beijing with three other freelancers and we share the cost, so when I get in, usually at about 6.30am I check my emails and read the headlines from the UK press and then the international press, including US papers and news headlines from websites such as Google.
I then get translations of the Chinese press headlines from my assistant whom I pay £200 a month to work for me part time, helping with translation, research and administration.
After drinking some coffee I think about how what to do next, which varies depending on what projects I have on at the moment – if I’ve got a story on then it could mean making phone calls or getting my assistant to make calls and translate, or it could involve going out and about to get quotes, see what’s happening in the city and find people to interview. If I have all the materials I need then I sit at my computer and begin to write the story.
Today I got into the office at 6am and it’s now 5pm. I’ve just filed 1,950 words to the Sunday Times for a ‘focus’ about the Olympics – I’m not sure it will go in the paper, but I will get paid for the work anyway.
If I haven’t got any stories on then I try to find some new leads or find inspiration for an article. Last week I was in Chengdu and if there’s a story developing elsewhere in China I go away from the office for a few days and hire a translator and driver in the local region. This obviously takes time and is expensive so I don’t do this very often, only for important stories – I would take my assistant to save money but local translators know the area and the local dialects.
What do you like and dislike about the job?
I like the freedom of being my own boss – I don’t have to go to work or do anything if I don’t want to but I nearly always do and work about 6 days every week. I like the excitement of having a story to investigate, of getting information, and being able to speak to so many different people.
I also like the adrenaline that comes from the work and get a kick out of all the stress (sadly!).
On the down side, this independence can mean that life is boring and depressing when I don’t have any stories and I feel under pressure to produce material and find new stories no matter how I’m feeling.
If I don’t go out and work then I will very quickly run out of money to pay for the overheads (my accommodation, office rent and bills and assistant’s wages). I also don’t like working alone – it would be more fun to be in a team.
What advice would you give to prospective journalists and how are you planning to proceed with your career?
My best advice would be to get some work experience and then some solid experience with a major newspaper. After that you decide if you want the framework of working within one publication and try to climb the ladder there or think about starting out as a freelancer.
It is also important to read newspapers and blogs and books and magazines all the time. This is important for developing your current affairs knowledge but also for immersing yourself in language and seeing new ways to develop your writing style. Having said that it is also important not to get stuck in front of a computer and miss what’s actually happening outside.
After working in China for a little longer I’m hoping to go to Washington DC for a stint with a broadcasting team during the presidential elections there, but there’s a big possibility I won’t get the position so I’m also searching around for other ways I can get to America for a 3-to-6 month stint.
Any other advice?
I was always told that the key to a career in journalist is contacts and it’s kind of true – all of the things I’ve ended up doing and the opportunities I’ve had have come from contacts. By contacts I mean people in the industry itself but also people in general – every time you go anywhere or do anything get people’s names and contact numbers – that’s where the next opportunity comes from.
In terms of salary, when I was at the Sunday Times I was on £24,000 a year, but that was unusually good for someone of my level (a graduate without previous experience). Working here I get between £200 and £900 a story depending on how big it is, in size (word count) and importance.