Wednesday 24 October 2018

What You Need to Be a Journalist

I was asked the other day what one needs to be a journalist in the UK.

To be precise, the question was "What I need if I want to be journalism in UK?", so my first answer could have been "Fluency in English." However the questioner was serious, so instead I replied that that was a difficult question to answer as the profession had changed so much. 

"Excellent English skills are key," I warned.

My questioner thought this amusing and admitted that her English was poor.  However, she was willing to learn. 

"If you want to do journalism in the UK, your best chance--if you can fix your English to a C1 level--is through contacts in the Catholic Church," was my next advice.  

That may sound odd, but I was writing to a Catholic who, in her small way, is a mover and a shaker and a founder of pious groups. Moreover,  Catholics still subscribe to and publish newspapers while all around us mainstream media streamlines and collapses.  I suspect that when The Scotsman is no longer printed on paper, there will still be a plethora of Catholic newspapers for sale at the back of Sacred Heart, Lauriston Place.

"Why do you want to be a journalist?" was my next question. "It is badly paid. Especially in the Church." 

"I like writing," she said simply. 

Well, there is no arguing with that. I like writing, too. You have to like writing to be a print journalist--there's no way around it. You have to like reading as well, and if you don't like phoning people up and asking them difficult questions, you have to get used to it. You also have to do the hard slog of transcribing interviews, either your own or someone else's. It's very detail-oriented, but at least it's working with words. 

There are two ways to break into the industry that I know of. The first is to volunteer for your school newspaper and then go to journalism school. Presumably J-school arranges internships for you and, I sincerely hope, helps you to find a job after graduation. 

The second, and more traditional, is not to go to journalism school but to write all the time and then fall into journalism by accident, which is what I more-or-less did. I sold a couple of pieces to the National Post when it still paid top dollar for content in the then-splendid Arts section, and then I stepped into the breach when a books editor in a Catholic newspaper wanted one of my professors to write a book review. She didn't have time, so she asked me to do it.  I think I was paid $50. I'm not sure. It may have been $40. Perhaps less. But that's not the point at first.

The point at first is getting something you've written into print in a respected newspaper or magazine and to keep doing it, keeping track of all your articles on your CV until you have your own column, at which point you keep track on your CV of how long your column lasts and where else it appeared.  

Starting out may mean writing for free, just as you did for the high school newspaper and do now on your blog. (If you don't have a blog by now, you're not cut out for journalism.) There is no shame in not being paid; just make sure your work is appearing in a respected newspaper or magazine. (By respected I mean a newspaper or journal people are--or a Bishop is--willing to pay for.)  

Editors like new writers, especially if the new writers use spellcheck, understand the principles of grammar and style, and write with the editors' own audience in mind. This means pitching articles about golf to the editor of a golfing magazine and articles about quails to the editor of a poultry-keepers magazine. It also means checking a bunch of back issues to make sure nobody else has written on your theme recently already. 

When it comes to religion and politics, it is a good idea to be in sympathy with the most dearly held views of the editors. It amuses me greatly to think that once upon a time I had the bona fides to write for America. (I never attempted it, mind you.) There is some ideological wiggle-room with some of the papers---the ones whose editors sincerely believe they want "balance"---but a good rule of thumb is to pitch to journals you actually read and enjoy reading. 

I hasten to add that I am talking about opinion or informational pieces, not fiction or poetry. As I will never forget, I once sent a short story to my favourite indie arts journal and got a staggering rejection from the general editor, who asked if I had ever read the journal. I think that was in the 1990s, and it hurts to this day. The only advice I have there is "Don't give up"--although personally I have given up for the time being. 

This reminds me: to be a journalist you need to develop a thick skin. Many people do not like journalists, and some verbally abuse journalists by name in print. Sometimes you have to write unpleasant but important news about somebody many people like, and then those people get nasty on Twitter. You may also be called upon to be as politically incorrect as you can be within the narrowing laws, and this means a difficult and careful walk on the thin line between cowardice and hardheartedness. It's tough. It is probably much easier to test recipes for Chatelaine magazine: what a good gig that must be. 

1 comment:

  1. I only work a tiny bit right now, turning down some opportunities and not seeking anything out (that's my disclaimer), but I don't publish writing for free, on a blog or otherwise. I only publish writing for pay.