The old media institutions of television and newspaper have seen their once-loyal audiences fractured by the Internet, and the job market for newsroom-based positions has declined. What does today’s journalist need to know? How can students earning a journalism degree prepare themselves for what's to come? It’s a mix of new skills and traditional tools. Journalism students and grads looking for career opportunities might want to consider these top tips and non-newsroom careers in order to fully utilize their degree.
Top 6 Tips for Aspiring Journalists
1. Master the fundamentals
Good grammar, punctuation, and style aren’t good enough. A journalist’s skills must be impeccable. Once you commit yourself to journalism, you will not be able to read a simple paragraph without analyzing its structure. You will never go to a movie without examining key scenes to figure out why they worked. It’s maddening but fantastic, because if you’re doing these things, you’re stretching yourself and your work will improve. If you have any weaknesses in these areas, find help and improve.
2. Master the new tools
From databases to interactive graphics, video to slide shows, journalists today work in a range of media. There are way too many tools available for one person to become an expert at everything. You’ll at least need a working knowledge of the capabilities and if you have only one strength, work to develop another skill. Additionally, it can be important to surround yourself with likeminded journalism students and individuals who can share their own knowledge and skills in the field. Since there are many areas of expertise, joining a group or society can introduce you to journalism professionals who are experts in their own areas, who can also be willing to share.
3. Develop research skills
Most people who aspire toward journalism careers are insatiably curious, so taking those observation skills to the next level usually is easy. Honing your research skills will also help you get up to speed quickly when time is of the essence. Once you’ve practiced for a while, noticing details and researching will become second nature.
4. Know your way around city hall
No matter what topic you cover, at some point you’ll wind up dealing with a government agency, the police, or courts. You don’t need to know the ins and outs of the Electoral College, but you will need to know the basics. Take a few political science electives to build your background knowledge.
5. Be prepared to start small
The New York Times or CNN gigs don’t come overnight. Most entry-level journalism jobs are in small towns or at small publications. The advantage of starting small, though, is that you get to try a lot of different things. As with anything, the best way to become a better journalist is to simply do it. Contact your hometown newspaper about freelance or internship opportunities. Small weeklies might not have the budget available, but it’s worth doing a few unpaid gigs so you can begin building a portfolio. You might wind up loving some of them so much that it changes the course of your career.
6. Remember the story
Regardless of the medium, journalism is always about the great story. At the very least, the story has to be something the audience is interested in. At the very best, the story will evoke a strong response – laughter, outrage, joy. The most brilliantly, creative interactive graphic will fall flat if it doesn’t have great content backing it up.
Non-Newsroom Career Options for Journalism Graduates
Now that you have a better understanding of how to stand out as a journalist with the tips above, it’s time to explore some career options that bypass the newsroom.
Journalism grads already have an understanding of how the media operates, they should know how to tell a story, and they have a strong sense of how to engage specific audiences. These qualities often make journalists a great fit for public relations careers. While the workload can be intense, PR professionals generally work normal business hours – a stark contrast from the 24/7 news grind – and many become their own bosses if they launch their own firms. Plus, public relations is a growing industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This position is where your passion for writing can really pay off. Content producers handle the flow of information from company to consumer, and every business has a story to tell.
“The person with a degree in journalism and mass communication can help them tell that story,” said Teresa Taylor Moore, an Associate Professor and the Program Chair of the Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Mass Communication. “Additionally, with the advancements in technology, students will find that there are many opportunities within digital and social media platforms.”
Students looking for content producer roles may consider getting a head start while still in school. That means taking advantage of freelance writing opportunities, starting a blog, and paying extra attention in journalistic reporting and composition classes.
Students who want to tell stories but don’t want to follow the traditional newsroom path can write and report for specialized fields such as sports, entertainment, government, or business, according to Moore.
“The reality is that all fields have information that needs to be disseminated to the public,” according to Moore. “[A journalism] degree is especially useful for those who choose to chart their own paths by becoming bloggers and writers.”
Advertising and promotions
While the ideal route to these industries may be through a marketing degree, journalism grads may find themselves a good fit for a company’s creative team. According to Moore, today’s students must learn how to analyze audiences and tailor messages for specific forms of media. Having the ability to engage customers through writing and presentation can lead to roles outside of journalism.
These suggestions are not intended to deter journalism students from pursuing their passion but instead to show their options aren’t limited to traditional media.
How Technology is Redefining Journalism
Under the pressures of technology, journalism has transformed from a hard, rock-like structure to a form that is more conducive to society as a whole, rather than a few elite who understand the jargon of journalism in times past. So, the overarching question that we face is: “Does journalism still matter?” The simple answer: “Now more than ever!” We depend on dedicated journalists to be our eyes and ears in places we cannot be and provide us with information that is timely so that we can make necessary decisions to lead full, productive lives. Technology has made delivering this information both more efficient, as well as more competitive.
Few industries have changed as dramatically in the past decade as journalism. Not too long ago, the typical newsroom consisted of several people each performing a single role. In television, for example, a reporter would conduct interviews with the help of a photographer, then write the story for air while the photographer edited the video, and the story details would be passed along to a news writer or Web editor responsible for posting it online. When short staffed, one might expect some crossover between roles, but for the most part, everyone stuck to their assigned duties.
To compete in the era in which citizen journalists are breaking stories before a reporter even arrives at the scene, today’s news organizations are becoming leaner and are placing a premium on versatility. A person who could serve as both reporter and photographer was once known as a “one-man band.” Newsrooms have replaced the term with “multimedia journalist” or MMJ – someone who can, at a minimum, report, shoot and edit video, write for the Web, and go live from a scene, all while keeping an audience informed via social media.
“The very nature of fast-paced, on-demand news has caused a shift in the amount of time available to gather and present news events,” said Moore. “The ability to use basic editing software, podcast, and streaming video is vitally important to future journalists.”
The titanic shift toward digital storytelling has prompted many journalists to train themselves on new tools in order to acquire skills needed to compete in modern newsrooms. Universities like the University of Arizona Global Campus are also evolving with the times, Moore said, and redesigning courses so students are exposed to a broader range of software and techniques relevant to modern news gathering.
“We focus on the necessary skills that can be transferred to a variety of platforms,” she said. “For example, students can essentially tell the same story as a photojournalist by taking a picture with their cell phone as they would a high-end camera. It is the technique of framing and connecting the photo to the news story that we aim to teach.”
While technology does allow news organizations to combine traditional roles, Moore doesn’t foresee a time when it will replace journalists. Despite the emergence of data storytelling, in which a program can transform pieces of information into an online article, Moore said people skills and relationship building remain two irreplaceable functions of journalism.
“News media invest a great deal of time and finances into branding journalists who can establish a relationship with the audience so that a sense of loyalty and trust is established. Nothing can replace the journalist in a community who can empathize with the public about issues in their community.”
Journalism today is dramatically different than it was a decade ago. At the same time, the basics haven’t changed. Use these tips as a checklist and consider some of these non-newsroom careers to make sure you have what it takes to succeed in today’s media landscape.