January 7, 2013

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:

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Mallary Tenore Tarpley is a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication and the associate director of UT’s Knight…
Mallary Tenore Tarpley

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