It won’t hurt but you can probably make it without one
Degree or no journalism degree both pathways can lead to success but many professionals I talked about their journies into the profession said the degree was secondary.
I was shocked by a recent comment from a colleague of mine who pursued a journalism masters. She said it was expensive, grew her network but she wouldn’t do it again.
TNW's tech journalist Matthew Hughes said “he’s never worked alongside someone with a journalism degree” in a recent article outlining the home truths about breaking into tech journalism.
I have a bachelors in journalism but added a master's in international studies to make my pursuit for journalism more attractive. The bachelor’s got me internships but no jobs and I felt like I needed a specialism.
I wouldn’t say specialism is the key but it certainly helped.
The days of working a local newspaper, learning the craft on the job and getting moderate pay are far and few between but not impossible. There’s a growing call for more locally-based journalism to create the necessary glue to keep democracy alive at a local level and both philanthropists and tech companies are putting money towards the cause.
The time might be right to pursue the local avenue.
Generally, I agree with Hughes that to make it in journalism (not just tech, in his case) you need:
*financial resources to keep you afloat while you build your portfolio
*a person that takes a gamble on you although you’re inexperienced
*a passion for a meta-topic like economics, culture or technology
That constellation is mostly luck - like someone taking a gamble on you and having money under the mattress - but it's also in your control. If you’re not lucky enough to have parents to help you out while you intern and build a portfolio, you’ll need a job that pays the bills while you work journalism gigs on the side. You choose the meta-topic you want to tackle, you can take steps to go out an meet people that might help you along.
If you’re still floating around and don’t know what you want to write about, find a focus. A lot of journalists I know were engineers, science majors or came out left field and put their knowledge to work writing on these topics. I picked international law, peacekeeping and the political economy.
This begs the question: do you even need a degree in journalism to be a journalist? The simple answer is, probably not, but it helps. Journalism is a vocation and a theoretical understanding of libel, defamation, ethics and media production and possibly even the dying art of rapid writing known as shorthand, will show that you are committed.
I cared enough about the field to study it as an undergrad and cemented the belief that I was serious about doing it. I failed at shorthand and didn’t write a single article for my student newspaper while studying my masters and still somehow managed to get a job as a journalist. So can you.
Supportive parents and a lucky break from a person who believed in me helped me set sail. I was deficient in many areas but journalism is a vocation and you’ll learn on the job, so don't wait 10 years like I did before before getting your second article in print!
Do you think you’re moving in the right direction? Are you unsure about your next move? Let me know as I'd be happy to help you sort through the tough decisions you face.
Merciless, hands-off or amazing editor: ultimately you'll learn
I've had tons of editors over the years and, as cliche as it sounds, some were great and others atrocious. As a journalist, you're going to have to find a way to work with your editor, and most of it boils down to your attitude.
Whether good or bad, your editor is only going to get under your skin as much as you let it. Beyond that, editors are generally a good idea as you get a fresh pair of eyes on your work. You'll think your work is outstanding and exceptional until it reaches one of these types to look over it:
This editor won't get started on anything until the spelling is bulletproof and you've followed the style-guide. You'll forget a comma in the first line, and the copy will come back in an email with a comment like "please fix all punctuation, spelling, grammar and follow house-style." Wait a minute! Isn't that your job?
Yeah, well, you thought wrong. With this editor, expect your copy to keep bouncing back like a yo-yo. So, settle in, roll with the punches, and as you address the basics, things will start moving (slowly). By the time you're done with this editor, your nerves will be frayed but if you're lucky they morph into one of the other types along the way.
Herr Laisse Faire
"Looks great." That's the response after sending the copy back. Wow, you think, I'm amazing then you realize the editor barely looked at the copy and spot several errors.
Wait a minute, my editor would let this go through as is? You run with what you have and if you're lucky there's a sub that will do a final check. Running all the checks yourself forces you to question everything, suddenly nothing makes sense, and you send a revised and fixed version back to the editor.
"Looks great" is the response. As you sit there agonizing over the copy you build up enough courage to publish what you have, rely on the sub, find a colleague or read it out loud in the bathroom in front of the mirror (p.s. reading things out loud is a great way to spot errors!). Failing that, you secretly find that other editor.
This rare breed will take your copy, make necessary fixes by using the tracking tool so you can see the changes; they will write detailed notes in a separate email explaining significant changes to the wording and give you the space to decide if their decisions are right. This editor will discuss with you, go through your copy line by line to improve clarity, make it sharper and smooth it out to make it flow like poetry.
This editor is not only talented, but they bring out the best in you and your copy; believe in your ability to improve and care about your words and craft. Either that, or their people skills are exceptional, and they've found a way to brutalize your copy but be hideously nice about it. Maybe that's their genius?
No matter which editor you get, be happy you have some to look over your work, question your judgment, find those logic gaps, or force you to take another close look at your work. Each editor teaches you valuable lessons and the copy (and you) will improve. So, revel in their wisdom and save your frustrations for after work drinks or the gym.
Have clear and confident answers to these important questions before you pull the plug.
I made a conscious decision to quit my job as a full-time journalist two years ago. The thought of staying in a role that didn’t balance my family’s needs and was not helping me grow, scared me more than the unknown world of freelance and self-employment.
The reasons for quitting are plentiful and not everyone will agree with what you are doing or plan to do, but that’s okay. Tune out those voices and try to figure out what you want. Not any easy questions to answer (I’ve written about this here with some help on how to tackle it).
I decided to plan and control my exit and do it own my terms. It was not an easy decision and I quit a great-paying job that many journalists would die to have but deep reflection (some tears, heavy, early morning CrossFit workouts to decompress and meditation) revealed that my career was not moving in the right direction, so I gathered the courage to do something about it.
I have an awesome wife who supports me and both of us knew that other aspects of our life were in jeopardy if I continued the work I was doing. My health (physically and mentally), our relationship, my sanity and the strength of the relationship to my kids were all deteriorating in many respects. I did not want that.
We both felt I was ready to work independently and try something new. The kids certainly wouldn’t mind having one parent home more frequently.
Before quitting, here are the questions I took some time to answer and reflect on:
Those are tough questions to answer but essential. Your situation may demand a different set of questions but these are the ones that were important to me.
My decision was not taken in isolation as being married means you make decisions jointly by balancing the needs, desires, fears and wants of your partner. There are more questions that need to be answered, sure, but get those down that directly address your biggest fears and that will help inform your decision.
If, for example, I had identified that financially it would not have been possible to go freelance then I may have found a new job first and not chosen the freelance path.
Quitting a job is a messy affair and no amount of planning makes the transition easy. It’s been two years since going freelance and, what I can say for certain is that I don’t regret leaving full-time employment. I have a new and more complex playground of my own making but I now shoulder the full responsibility for what I am doing.
In many ways there is more weight to carry, in other ways an abundance of opportunity exists beyond what I imagined. The hope for a future of my choice lessens my worries on days when things look murky on the new mountain I have decided to climb.
Motivation is an illusion. You need to know what you want and a mission.
Since switching from being a full-time employee at a major news agency to working from home as a self-employed freelance journalist, I’ve decided that motivation is a farce.
As full-time staff, the environment creates both the pressure and forces discipline on your routine. Once those structures fall away, you have to generate steam to power the motivation engine. You can’t just roll out of bed, rock up to work and grind out the day. You need to continually spark motivation, or it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t just appear magically every morning. No, I’m motivated because I’m tapping into what I want and my mission.
Motivation is the reason for doing something; its Latin route is the word ‘move.’ Movement drives us to take consistent action towards something we want. So, you need to find out what you want, first.
Besides being a freelance journalist, I wanted to be an author. So, I wrote a book. My desire, my want sparked my motivation. Once I had figured out what I wanted, it lit a flame, and no amount of crappy Netflix shows could stop me from achieving that goal.
So actually, motivation - for me at least - boils down to figuring out what you want. That’s the tricky part but here two strategies I’ve found useful:
Motivation is curiosity
Find out what you are naturally curious about. How do you do that? Write down 100 questions you would like to answer.
Now, sounds simple but it’s tough. Your head will steam; there will be repeats in there; some won’t make sense but, that’s okay keep trying to reach 100 and patterns will begin to emerge. Once at 100 go over them and highlight the ten most inspiring ones. Once you have those, rank them by order and then center your activities on answering and making those questions come to life.
I didn’t come up with this tactic, by the way, it comes from Michael J. Gelb’s How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci.
Reflect on your future self
Who do you want to be? Another great exercise to find out what you want is imagining you’ve reached the ripe old age of 106 (you can go higher or slightly lower, my Grandfather lived to 106, so I’m partial to that number). Now imagine you get a time machine and come back to today and have 30 minutes to chat with your current self. What do you tell yourself?
Set a timer for 30 minutes and write as much down as possible, questions, comments, anything, just let it spill on to the page. Doing this will help crystallize what you want and eliminate the trivial from your life to give you that laser focus.
Again, not my Jedi mind trick but Tal Ben-Shahar’s. Check out more here.
So, motivation comes from knowing what you want. Once you’re clear about what you want - and these can be short-term or long-term goals - your mind will be at work even as you sleep to make it happen. You still have to get up in the morning, put your ideas into action and work but it’ll be a ton easier.
Once you’ve sparked motivation, you need to keep the flame from going out. The easiest way to do that is to surround yourself with like-minded people and the type of person you want to be.
“You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Arguably, an overused quote, I know, attributed to Jim Rohn. Writer/philosopher Maarten van Doorn puts it like this:
“You can accelerate your personal growth in whatever direction you desire by spending time with people who already are who you want to become. That will infect you with the behaviors and attitudes that helped them achieve their success, making it more likely that you will realize similar results in your life.”
That’s one of the reasons why I started The Journalist., a private Facebook group for the aspiring journalist which connects aspiring journalists with established professionals. When I started on the path of becoming a journalist, I lacked direct access and mentoring from people I aspired to be and a strong network. The Journalist. aims to give you both. Request to join for access to a community of like-minded journalists and growing base of elite journalists to help launch you on a path to success.
If you're an established journalist and want to give back by mentoring, let me know.
In those moments before you hit publish panic may strike, let it.
You may have seen Will Smith’s speech on his fear of skydiving or heard Jack Canfield’s saying “everything you want is on the other side of fear.” When it comes to putting your work out there, that’s the advice I follow but the fear of hitting publish is real, so learn to recognize and manage it.
Every time you hit publish you’re expanding the boundaries of your experience. Come what may: crickets (no feedback), praise (woohoo, high five) or a potential lawsuit (yep, I’ve had one of those. Panic).
Whether someone reads your work or not is secondary, you’re getting in your reps to improve your skills as a journalist. Mistakes will happen and are part of the process, so get stuck and then get unstuck by learning from them. Easier said than done but truthfully, fear has gripped and paralyzed me.
I once made a mistake in a story that caused people to lose money. For several weeks I was consumed by worry and fear of it happening again. I doubted my abilities, and my work slumped. Once I had recognized that it was all in my head, I examined what I could do to improve and avoid a similar failure in the future.
I took an extra minute to go over what I had written. Made a list of words, phrases, figures or punctuation that catch me off guard. I put post-it notes alongside my screen as prompts, checked and double checked so as never to forget. “When in doubt leave it out,” became my new mantra.
Find out what trips you up and figure out a workaround, prompt or system so it can’t happen again. It might still happen, but you’ve now improved the fail-safe.
To this day, right before I hit publish, my heart rate spikes and my stomach churns as a million things rush through my head. Most are now part of a pre-flight checklist, but underneath that, there’s still a ton of FUD.
You may have heard of the term FUD: Fear Uncertainty and Doubt. The thing is, it’s the brain’s default setting before you venture into the unknown. Every time you send something out into the world - a piece of work, or skydive - you are venturing into the unknown.
Did I get the quote right? Did I misrepresent my source? Is my portrayal of the situation fair? I'm a being honest and transparent? Have I held myself to the highest of standards? Will my paracute open?
Those questions and many more will surface before the piece flies but recognize them, write them down and answer them with a rational mind. If you are still worried, talk it over with a colleague, a mentor or editor.
Double check the quote again. Go over your source notes one last time before you hit publish. Check you gave everyone a fair chance to comment. Check how you feel about all the words in your piece, are they accurate?
The fastest way to eliminate fear is to face it head on and to then jump out of that metaphorical plane. In Will Smith’s words: “The point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear; it’s bliss.” And once you’re story flies, the feeling will be precisely that: bliss.
Failure is your greatest chance to learn; there is no failure, only an opportunity to learn. So don’t fret, just hit publish. You may still make mistakes, we all do, but you took the time to look into the subject, to craft the lines, edit the scene or align the audio. It matters because it matters to you and if you don’t care, who will?
It helps to investigate like you’re on the job before you get the job.
“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” - Benjamin Franklin
I came across this quote the other day and it reminded me of one knock-out thing I did to help me land a job as a reporter. I didn’t write the story but I did have something to talk about during interviews (and put my idle thumbs to work while job hunting).
After spending time in New York, jobless and money running out, I moved with my girlfriend (now my wife) to London. Housing in London is expensive but an estate agent guided me to little flat off the main road in Kilburn that was in budget. Perfect, I thought.
It was tiny, it had one window and was on the ground floor on a side street just off the main road. On weekends, drunks used to urinate in front of our window and while it stank, at least they occasionally dropped a five-pound note or some loose change. The best shower in the world made up for its many misgivings but we had a place to call home.
It would have been great but we couldn’t get a landline installed, our mail wasn’t being delivered and there as a weird, elevated square lid in the middle of the place which you might occasionally trip over.
My mail was being delivered to the neighbours above us. I knew they were home as their staircase ran through our flat. Picking up the mail from them was not a long term solution but I did get to know them and learned a thing or two about the place.
I called the post office to check on the situation but there was no flat registered at my address. I couldn’t get a telephone line installed, which meant no internet connection so I had to walk up the road to use an internet cafe for my daily job hunt.
After speaking to my neighbours and other tenants, it turned out the last renter was forced to leave after sewage had flooded the apartment and destroyed her belongings. So that’s what that weird covered up square was in the middle of the flat is! She couldn’t get contents insurance on an apartment that didn’t exist and didn’t receive compensation for the damage.
Another resident claimed the apartment was the caretaker’s tool shed before it was converted. I called the council to investigate and requested access to the building permits. The council had rejected the proposed conversion of a tool shed into liveable quarters.
The flat was illegal.
The documents I requested also revealed information about the owner, which, once I had tracked down using a few searches and requests turned out to be a shell company run out of Greece. My efforts to track down a number and physical owner didn’t reveal much but I didn’t feel like running up against mafia and I had amassed enough evidence.
Instead of going public (writing a story for the local paper would have been one move) I enlisted the support of a housing charity and forced the estate agent to relocate us to a bigger and better flat with a garden. My girlfriend and I were in the process of bringing our dog over from New York and, somehow, the place didn’t seem right for the pooch.
I landed a job during this whole ordeal and told this story during my interviews when asked: what makes a good journalist or what makes you think you’ve got what it takes to be a journalist?
Do you think I should have gone public and boosted my portfolio or was using this information for my agenda the right move? Let me know.
I’m a reporter at heart so being told I can’t publish usually means I have to. Even if you genuinely don’t mean any harm, be prepared for conflict and enemies if your story strikes a nerve.
I walked up to him cavalierly. As I drew nearer, I noticed his eyes glowed with anger; his fist clenched. In my mind I was innocent, but I knew I had made an enemy.
The pain I had caused him sat deep. I had sweet-talked him into setting up a call with his boss, I had assured him of my professionalism, I had convinced him that there was no danger in talking to me, but I had wrecked it all.
What did I do to cause this guy so much distress? I was doing my job and published an article. I published an article about a deal that his boss shouldn’t have talked to me about. That’s not all. I released the story after he called me and pleaded with me to hold the story as it may put the deal in jeopardy, losing months of hard work and millions.
My story ran. The deal closed. Nothing happened — end of story. The wheels of capitalism kept spinning, I thought. So, seeing him that day, red in the face and full of fury, I saw no danger in approaching him to touch base. (Luckily he was an even-mannered guy and we were at a five-star location, not the right place for a brawl).
I had conducted an on-record and scheduled interview with his boss, and there were no restrictions on the information. His boss spilled the beans and gave me some juicy details. He didn’t say anything was off-record. The story was accurate and true and came straight from lead dealmaker. I had an obligation to provide our readers with the intel.
So, I got my story ready and sent the company a quick line that the story would run and was about to hit publish when his call came.
The only agreement I had in place with these guys was to tip them off about the headlines before publishing. For whatever reason, I had agreed to that just to get the interview in the first place. Not ideal but some companies and PR agencies in Germany only give access on these conditions. It’s only a courtesy call, not on an opportunity for them to change or stay the information. What was said, was said.
My contact, matter of factly, told me flat out that the company did not sanction the use of the information for publication. Really? Too late buddy, not my problem. You can’t tell me to hold a planned and on-record story. It’s not my fault your boss spoke too freely. That’s your problem.
Why would I wait? If I wait there might not be a scoop (the deal will close or another outlet will beat me to it), I won’t have the knock-out story. No. I alerted compliance, sent out emails to my editors to make sure I’d followed due process. I didn’t for a second consider that my contact would pay the price with the full weight of responsibility resting on his shoulders for my conduct.
His anger was justified: his job and millions on the line. He had put his faith in me, and I had misused his trust. Could I have waited a few days to hit publish? Possibly, but I’m a reporter and being told I can’t, usually means I have to.
With the full awareness of the backlash, he’d face I may have shown more empathy but I didn’t have that insight. Usually, a sleight of hand means a contact may dodge me for a while but they often come around after a few weeks or months — not this guy.
I was never out to harm this guy, following my instinct on a good and true story that was slipped to me by someone who should have known better. I had done nothing wrong process-wise but I did neglect the human element and some empathy. I'm not without fault.
Was that scoop worth the pennies it earned? I honestly don’t know but what I do know, once a reporter, always a reporter and sometimes you’ll end up making an enemy.
“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything is public relations.” - George Orwell
I choose this career for different reasons: impact, love of the process and glory but I didn’t always want them.
We’ve all heard this before somewhere: journalists shouldn’t become the story. Not only did I write my first story, but I was also the star of a story that ignited my passion for journalism.
My diary replete with pictures of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer made a print run and was distributed nationwide in Switzerland. I was embarrassed because my sweater drew substantial ridicule at school (it didn’t help that Gerard Depardieu was on the cover). Here’s the proof (please, at least smile):
Despite the initial embarrassment, that 13-year-old kid tasted the sweet nectar of seeing his name in print and some temporary fame. A little pride and inward glory befell me. I’m not sure why it took almost over a decade to get published again. Fear, I suppose.
The first time you see your name in print, your face on TV at the media outlet of your dreams, it will make you feel like you’ve conquered the world. I promise. So, if you’re not there yet, don’t give up.
There is an intricate and subtle but beautiful craft in putting together your pieces. Sometimes you stand by them with pride, sometimes you question their impact or raison d’être (reason for being) but making your work go live is exhilarating no matter how big or small the impact.
You envision bringing down a despotic regime (which might not be a suitable bucket list item, I might add), change someone’s life (doable, sometimes, you won’t know if it has), move stocks (ding, ding, ding, ding, ding… winner) but whatever it is, you want to stir something up.
If you’re privileged enough to be making a living as a journalist, you know money isn’t everything. You talk to and explore the world from multiple perspectives every day; you can be a polymath. Your impact will depend on how much and how deep your knowledge reaches and what you can unearth.
Sure, some journalists become experts in one area of knowledge, stick to it, niche down but there are others who are generalists, flitting from one scene and topic to the next. Neither is perfect.
That’s when you fall in love with the process of creation. You plan a beautiful feature, television or radio segment and then watch it soar. Being tightly bound in the process becomes immensely satisfying. I didn’t know it could be.
Beyond glory, impact and the love of the process just let people marvel at the fact that you can make a living by meeting and talking to people.
The world needs more journalists to care about the issues that you care about. The world needs more of us to pick up a torch and ask (sometimes) dumb questions to make sense of things.
If you don’t do it, who will?
If today you’re feeling like a failure on the job, or you’re not there yet remember why your moth-like instincts keep you hovering around the light that journalism carries.
What I didn't think about starting out was this: the follow-up begins before that first conversation ends.
You've met someone you think can help you advance a story, job prospects or help you learn something new. First off, don't hide the fact that is your agenda. Be upfront about that. “Hey, I'm looking for a career in journalism” or “I’m blogging about making contacts, you seem to know a thing or two about that. Care to have a chat?”
That's how the initial email or conversation should go. Upfront and transparent. Once you've exchanged pleasantries, asked your gazillion questions and before the conversation ends ask the person if it is alright to get in touch down the line. Make sure the follow-up is okay. If the discussion is going well ask when it would be best to chat again. Avoid all weirdness because it’s everything is out in the open.
Grab their business card. Yeah, how many times did I not do that (see here my article on why you need a business card even if you are a student, freelancer or job-seeker) or ask to jot down their email or to connect over LinkedIn. Whatever you decide, find some way to connect with them. I've forgotten to do that so many times.
Take some notes. Now the conversation is over, and you've both moved on, make sure to take a few notes on what you both talked about — just a few keywords. I usually jot down a few words directly on the person’s business card. That little tidbit of info is critical.
Following-up boils down to developing a pro-active attitude that you care about the person. People will respect that, and if you're clear about being a student, or a journalist interested in a story, that has already set you up.
How much time do you let pass before harassing (erm, I mean follow-up with) the person? Here's the whopper: pick a day two weeks out, put a reminder in your calendar and forget about it, seriously. The reminder will pop up two weeks later and then just reach out to that person.
How you eventually decide to get in touch with the person is irrelevant, whether that's over LinkedIn, email or social media. I prefer email, but sometimes after meeting someone for the first time, I like to use LinkedIn (you’ll need to have a look if there are active).
Share a tidbit from the conversation, that always helps. Remember that note on the business card? Use it. I try to remember something non-work related like a holiday they went on. “How was your holiday in France? Hope you had a great time.” That's enough, don't overplay it.
How formal, or informal can you get in your next communication? That's a cultural thing; I’m far more formal with German contacts then I am with Americans. Since I’ve spoken to the person already, you might have a feel for whether you can be casual. If you feel uncomfortable about being relaxed, don’t do it.
Remember I'm talking about getting touch with people in a business context and of course the personal and business can mix but probably not on first meeting unless you've met your soulmate, in which case none of this applies.
I went around for a year without one trying to be cool but it just ended up being a nuisance and made me look unprofessional.
For a year I chose not to get a business card as I ramped up my freelancing and author activities. I’m going to be a renegade and stop using the little credit card-sized paper, I thought. That was a mistake.
If you’re employed, chances are you can print as many business cards as you want. Great, do that but if you’re looking for a job or just starting your freelancing, you’ll need your own. It’s not a cost worth saving on. Here’s why:
I still think business cards will become a thing of the past but until then, I’m going to play ball and have one. I’m still experimenting as I don’t have my email on the latest batch. You’ll know I like you because I’ll take the time to hand write it out (sometimes with a smiley) adding a personal touch to something that feels antiquated and old-school.
Resources (no affiliation, I might add):
Wisestamp www.wisestamp.com (ca. $25 for 50 cards) I use the Wisestamp email signature, and since all my info was in there, I just grabbed a simple design and ordered 50.
Vistaprint www.vistaprint.com (ca. $16 for 100) I’ve used them in the past, and they’ll have more designs to choose from. If you’re cost-conscious but want tons of options, try this.
If you like what you read and got something out of it sign-up for my newsletter with more content to help you improve your career, hone your journalism skills and keep up-to-date with what’s going on in the journalism field. You’ll also get access to The Journalist., an exclusive platform links you with other professional journalists, tailor-made live content, training and a chance to deepen your network. Sign-up here.