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If you’re thinking of a career in journalism, beware the Hollywood stereotypes. Newspaper reporting today is more about computers and deadlines than typewriters and whiskey. Many have gone into the business only to find that it isn’t quite what they expected. Oftentimes, the realities of news coverage — the moderate to low to awful pay, the long hours and stress — increase over time, while the things that draw people to journalism — the excitement of the breaking story, the thrill of seeing your name in print — quickly lose their luster.
Yet for some, journalism is vocation, and even a calling. Journalists enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their words in print, the industry’s merit-based upward mobility, and the influence and importance they have in the reflection and shaping of their communities.
While studying journalism in college is a way to get started in the newspaper world, it certainly isn’t the only way. Journalism school is good for contacts, for sharpening writing skills with relaxed deadlines, and for finding out what you want to do within the business. When it comes to finding jobs, however, experience as a freelancer or at a local or campus paper is much more important than a major listed on a transcript.
College isn’t the only way to go about finding a newspaper job, however. Journalists come from all sorts of backgrounds and educational levels. The one thing that most reporters have in common is writing skill. Critically evaluate your own skill level; if you think you’ve got the stuff, start searching for the jobs.
It’s generally a good time to be looking for a reporting job, but not necessarily for the right reasons. The flood of young people to high-paying dot-com companies means that newspapers are tapping new outlets for reporting talent, and going to great lengths to recruit and keep good journalists.
The trouble is, some editors have failed to adjust to the new economy, and believe that cub reporters should come to them rather than the other way around. And most editors are too busy to push hard in the recruiting area. Which means that the work is still mainly up to you.
Try the normal job outlets, the newspaper itself (most papers run “house ads” listing vacancies), along with other print and online resources. But beware; due to the reasons listed above, some of the best opportunities may not be readily apparent. Check out specialized publications: Editor & Publisher, Publisher’s Weekly, and Quill, the newsletter of the Society of Professional Journalists, are good places to start. Look at specialty websites concentrating on journalism jobs.
Once you’ve found leads, verify who should receive your resume. The high turnover that creates job opportunities also means that editing and hiring responsibilities are frequently shifting within an organization. Quick phone calls to the newspapers you’re interested in can make sure you’re in touch with the right person.
In a package to an editor, include a succinct cover letter, your resume, and writing clips, if you have any. The standard rules as far as what to list and how to layout your resume apply in the newspaper business. Make it easy to read and, most of all, make sure your writing is clear and completely error-free. You will be judged on this, and a misspelled word might mean the difference between an interview and the garbage can.
The people making hiring decisions at newspapers are often the same ones wading through copy every day, and putting out the day’s news is a more immediate concern than chatting with prospective reporters. So be persistent, not pushy. A few days after you’ve sent your resume and supporting materials, make a follow-up call. Don’t be content to leave a message; try back again until you actually talk to the editor. Reporters have to chase sources every day, so editors will expect you to be tenacious even in the contact stage.
If you haven’t heard back from the editor in a few weeks, it’s OK to call again. Things change rapidly, and the editor who had a full staff last month may be severely shorthanded next week. If you don’t get an interview, at least ask the editor to keep your application on file.
Hopefully, you will get a chance to talk with the editor. Again, they’ll expect you to express yourself as you would to other editors and potential editors on a daily basis, so effective verbal communication is important. And again, the standard interview tips apply in the news industry. You also may face a test that could include spelling, writing, style, or cobbling together a story from a set of facts. This isn’t the sort of thing you can study for, rather, your overall language proficiency will be key.
After the interview, call back in a few days if you still haven’t heard from the editor. Remember that reporters aren’t known for their tendency to quit, and in today’s job climate, anyone with a good command of the language should be able to land their first job in the exciting world of newspapers.