10 ways young journalists can make themselves more marketable

While many recent changes in journalism have led to budget cuts and layoffs, others have created new opportunities — to tell stories in nontraditional ways, develop different skills, and guide the industry in promising directions.

Now more than ever, young journalists need to show how they can help newsrooms navigate the changes they’re undergoing. Below, I’ve listed 10 steps you can take to make yourself more marketable as a young journalist. They’re based on a recent talk I gave at my alma mater, Providence College.

Start making contacts

  • Track down journalists who graduated from your university and reach out to them. If you’re not sure where to start, ask professors and Career Services for help. When I was a junior in college, I contacted Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark (who also graduated from Providence College) and kept in touch with him. When I began my job search, Clark put in a good word for me and helped me land a fellowship (which led to a job) at Poynter.
  • Identify journalists whose work you admire. Send them an email and let them know that you like their work and would be grateful for any job-related tips they can give you. Chances are, they’ll want to help.
    Ask for informational interviews and shadowing opportunities. If there’s a newsroom you want to learn more about, contact the editor and see if she would be willing to meet with you and tell you more about the paper. You can also see if the editor will let you shadow a reporter so you can learn from the work he does. If an editor agrees, take the time to thank her and keep in touch.

Get as much practical experience as you can

  • Apply for internships that will give you practical experience to put on your resume. Cast a wide net by applying for internships at small and large organizations. If the internship is unpaid, consider whether it’s worth applying for.
  • If you missed an application deadline or don’t get an internship, look for freelance gigs. After applying for an internship at the Boston Globe two years in a row and not getting it, I emailed an editor I had met while visiting the newsroom for an informational interview a few months earlier. I asked him to let me know if he needed any help during the summer. Soon after, he asked if I could help out by writing a few stories a week. I agreed and got the experience I wanted and needed.
  • Apply for a position on the college newspaper. This is one of the best ways to get practical experience. Being on the student newspaper teaches you how to find and pitch ideas, work with others, meet deadlines and more. If you’re already part of the newspaper staff, try moving up into leadership/editing positions.

Develop new skills

Look for opportunities to develop journalism skills, including:

  • Writing
  • Editing
  • Photography
  • Video editing
  • Delivering news on mobile devices
  • Design
  • Entrepreneurial journalism
  • Programming
  • Social media

If you’re a reporter, try learning how to shoot video. If you’re a photographer, try your hand at writing. If you have some programming experience, brainstorm news apps you could create. Developing new skills will make you more versatile and a greater asset to a newsroom. And it’ll help you gain a greater appreciation for journalists who regularly do this work.

Be active on social networking sites

News organizations are looking for young journalists who can share their knowledge of social media with other staffers. If you haven’t already, sign up for these sites:

Of course, it’s not enough to just sign up for social networking sites; you have to use them to get a better sense of how they work. It’s also smart to familiarize yourself with the sites’ terms of service, especially if you’re a photographer. Stay active on the sites and keep the content clean. Remember, employers will be looking at your social media profiles to see what you’ve posted. Think twice before complaining or being crass; you never know where your social media posts might end up.

Build an online portfolio

When applying for jobs, it’s helpful to have an online portfolio that you can share with editors.

Your online portfolio should include:

  • A bio that highlights your professional interests, a brief recap of experiences, and something fun that shows you’re well-rounded
  • A resume
  • Links to your work (articles, photos, videos, interactives, etc.)
  • Links to your social networking accounts
  • Contact information
  • A blog (optional)

Here are some sites for creating online portfolios:

Keep your online portfolio up to date, and be sure to proofread it.

Start your job search early

It’s never too early to look at journalism job postings; start looking at them as an underclassman so you can get a better sense of the skills and experiences newsrooms are seeking. NPR’s Matt Thompson offered sound advice in a recent Poynter.org piece: If you see a skill listed twice in a job description, pay attention. Chances are, that skill is really important to the news organization and to the person hiring for the position.

Here are some journalism-related job sites to check:

Research news organizations you want to work for

If you’re interested in working for a particular news organization, familiarize yourself with its website, social media presence and overall coverage. If you see coverage gaps, write them down and determine how you could help fill them. If there’s an opportune time, mention them during your interview (and make sure to note what the news organization does well, too).
Consider the location of the news organization and whether you would be willing to relocate if you did get a job there. Additionally, take the time to read up on the recent changes and challenges the news organization has faced. These changes could include downsizing, paywalls, reduced print schedules, and moving to an online-only schedule.

Researching the news organization will make you appear knowledgeable during interviews and, more importantly, it’ll give you a better sense of whether it’s a place you want to work.

Make your application stand out from the rest

Create a resume that highlights your experiences, and try to keep it to one page. Hierarchy is important; put the most important information — your journalism-related experiences — up high. Write a cover letter that reflects curiosity, intellectual playfulness, creativity, an openness to experimentation, a desire to learn from — and teach — others.

Use active verbs in both your resume and your cover letter. If you’re submitting the same cover letter to multiple news organizations, make sure you send the right cover letter to the right editor. The last thing you want to do is send a cover letter to the San Francisco Chronicle explaining why you want to write for the Los Angeles Times.

Get the most out of your interview

When you do land an interview, treat it as a conversation. NPR’s Thompson elaborates on this in the aforementioned Poynter.org piece:

“Interviews often start out as interrogations — a back-and-forth series of questions and answers. But great interviews don’t tend to end that way. With the interview, I’m not merely trying to unlock the bits of knowledge in your head, and I’m certainly not trying to see how well you anticipate the answers locked in my head. I am trying to assess how you think, what you’re passionate about, how we gel as colleagues.”

Be sure to think of some questions to ask the editor(s) interviewing you. Doing so will show them that you’re curious and inquisitive — two traits that all journalists should embody.

As you talk with editors, try to get a sense of what you could learn from them if you did end up working for them. Interviews aren’t just meant for editors to get to know you; they’re a chance for you to get to know them.

Show that you’re a hard worker (and that you like to have fun)

When you do get a job, work hard. Set daily, weekly and/or monthly goals for yourself that will keep you motivated and give you something to work toward. If you’re naturally hard-working, it’s easy for work to become all-consuming. Don’t let it.

As the late Jim Naughton used to say, we need to make time for fun in the newsroom, no matter how hard the work day gets. He used to play elaborate pranks on his colleagues in the newsroom as a reminder of the need for laughter and fun.

No matter how secure you think your job is, or how much you like it, always keep a Plan B in mind. During times of change, it’s best to be prepared.

I asked my followers on Twitter for more advice. Here’s what they had to say:

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  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    I think your writing idea would definitely be better than the plan of working multiple unpaid internships. The people who advocate that or who indulge that are living in the past. At one time, maybe that was the only route to get clips or to build a portfolio. Now, however, there should be many better opportunities.

  • http://twitter.com/DigitalDionne Dionne N. Walker

    The best advice they can give a reporter, especially a new one, is to think of all of the ways you can write outside of the industry. Then wet your feet in one of them – enough to get a little notch on your resume. Nobody in the industry can afford to lack a back up plan. And quite frankly, the whole “know a bunch of stuff” routine is pointless at a newspaper. I’ve yet to hear of Twitter saving someone from the axe.

  • Siddharth Mathur

    I Appreciate your blog, now days journalism job are getting more hype and people are accepting these kinds of jobs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    OK, were those Twitter posts not for publication? I might edit my response if that were the case.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    Yeah, I remember that, too. I also remember bailing out one fool who assumed a bunch of people had been charged with 2nd-degree murder, when they never had been. I was a nice(r) guy back then and didn’t call him out with printouts, evidence, etc. That was a mistake.

    The erosion of the copy desk happened in many ways. Some of it apparently happened before I joined up, when some people in the newsroom decided editin’-and-stuff was just too darn hard. They started the redefinition process.

    Things became worse with computer pagination. Pagination itself — great. But higher-ups decided they could pocket some $ by dumping all the work onto desks, and then not expanding the desks (or the deadlines) to cover the additional work. That was not so great. Pair that with the obsession about page appearance (see previous paragraph for the roots of that trend), and a full-blown mess was born.

    Not long after that, we started getting ads for “copy editing” positions that weren’t really about editing at all. It was all downhill from there.

  • SFMH57

    Copy desk? I remember that. Saved many a reporter and editor and newspaper from big, big problems as well as routine grammar and punctuation mistakes. But, hey, “reporters can edit their own copy” (because they’re all so well trained to do that!) and “what else is Spellcheck for?”

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    What a shock — one of the first tips refers to “being inexpensive.” There’s a great negotiating ploy.

    I did see one sensible tip:

    “Learn everything, but be wary of becoming a jack of all trades and a master of none. Whatever you want to do, do that best.”

    Then be prepared to fight like crazy to do that best. One of the worst things I recall about the “trade” was constantly having to wedge in time or to justify actually looking at more than the first graf of an article. Far too many desks became pagination factories. NOT what a copy desk should be.

    Good to see Steve Outing with that one-trick pony approach, too. Just having a “strong social media presence” does not mean having something of value to share. There are journalists here who have been tweeting for 2-3 years, and I doubt they have shared anything of value in all of that time, unless you count the pleas for sources/help to do an article. (I don’t.) Foursquare messages saying: “I’m at the town council meeting tonight!” add nothing. Blogs about buying woks, etc., add nothing.

    The worst thing people or schools can do is encourage younger journalists to work for little pay, waste their time tweeting about unimportant things, and then wait for the “big payday.” There’s a glut of “writers” doing those things right now — no need for more.