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How to Break Into Journalism

Ever wondered how to get started working in PR, entertainment, finance, or another profession? Our "How to Break Into" series brings you everything you need to know about breaking into these cool fields and more, brought to you by those who know it best. Keep checking in for an inside look at how to launch your dream career!

Have big dreams of spending your life in the newsroom (or even bigger ones featuring you in the EIC suite)? If writing, reporting, or telling a great story is your thing, then working in journalism might be the perfect career for you. Of course, being a good writer is only step one in breaking into this wildly competitive world.

To help you navigate it, we’ve talked to three women who have created successful careers in the publishing world. Read on for their advice, then check out some of the folks working in editorial jobs on The Muse (and see if there are any perfect job openings to help start your career).

Caroline McMillan

Business Reporter, The Charlotte Observer

Years of Professional Experience: 3.5 years

Brief Description of Job: I cover small business and entrepreneurship in Charlotte, North Carolina. I write a mixture of features, daily stories, and long-form pieces, while also tweeting, blogging, and representing the newspaper at business events.

Why did you choose this field?

Not only do I love to write, but I love story-telling. I love meeting people. I love asking questions. I love digging. I’ve always been an avid reader and writer, but the older I got, the more I discovered my passion for using my talents to tell stories.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

A couple of months after I graduated from college, The Charlotte Observer hired me as a clerk and reporter for one of the regional sections. That meant I did reporting as well tedious tasks, such putting together the crime blotter and MLS listings.

Six months later, I was promoted to a full-time Community News Reporter position, and two years after that, I was promoted to the business desk, where I now cover the small business and entrepreneurship beat.

Here’s a key component to my landing that first job: references. When The Charlotte Observer was looking to hire a couple of graduates, they approached professors in my journalism school and two of them—both with lots of newspaper experience and contacts in the field—recommended me for the job, independently of each other.

Now, because the print media industry is so results-oriented, no amount of good references would have gotten me the job if I didn’t have strong clips (from multiple newspapers and publications) and experience (I was Editor-in-Chief of a magazine on campus and a columnist for another). But having those two strong recommendations from industry insiders put me at the top of the pile and ensured that the editors saw the clips I’d worked so hard on.

Then, once I snagged my first phone interview, it was all up to me to impress them.

What is different about the hiring process in your field than in other fields?

Perhaps no other field requires so much experiential learning of its applicants as journalism—and print media in particular. The tangible products matter more than the formatting of your resume or the great phrases in your bullet points.

So when it comes to experience, it’s not good enough to have a couple of internships. (Though you absolutely need those, too.) You also need a portfolio of stories from those internships, clips from a school publication (or two), online experience, a strong social media presence, and a handful of people—preferably in the journalism field—who can vouch for your skill set and professionalism.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

First, if you’re gunning for a print journalism job in the current climate, you’ve got chutzpah—and we need you. But do know what you’re getting into. As you’ve no doubt heard, the industry is reinventing itself. It’s an incredibly hard field to be in right now and jobs are scarce, which is unfortunate because adequately feeding the 24/7 news cycle requires more reporters than ever.

But if print media is all you’ve ever wanted, here’s my advice:

Be passionate: Because you have more reasons than ever to be frustrated, and when the industry veterans get to complaining and reminiscing about the golden years—when pay raises were plentiful, staffs were flush, and editors weren’t afraid to throw money at the wall—it’s hard not to get a little discouraged. (No lie: The Charlotte Observer actually used to pay for a reporter to live on the coast for the summer, just to write columns from a beach chair. Sigh.)

Find Mentors: Don’t write off those (occasionally crotchety) veteran reporters and editors! They have a vast, vast knowledge of the journalistic art as well as of the ins and outs of practically everything you’d ever want to know.

Be Nosy: Don’t be afraid to do long interviews. Ask great questions. Get all the little details that another reporter rushing from one story to the next might leave out.

Be Enterprising and Assertive: In the old days, it was much easier to advance. But now, when even internal job openings are scarce, you want to rise to the top and be the new star reporter the editors talk about in their daily news meetings. Volunteer for stories outside your beat. Try to work for different editors (in all your “free time” of course). Which brings me to my last point:

Give Up the Notion of a Regular Work Week: You might have to pick up a weekend shift. If you’re working on a big story, you’ll probably have to stay late. And if you’re at the bottom of the totem pole—as you will be—the editors might decide you look pretty available when your desk is cleaned up and your computer is shutting down. Then, all you can do is smile, reboot the computer and repeat to yourself: “This is what I love. So off I go: Time to dive in.”

Callie Schweitzer

Director of Marketing and Communications, Vox Media

Years of Professional Experience: 2

Brief Description of Job: I work with Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff to grow Vox and the individual publications’ brands. Vox publishes tech/culture site The Verge, gaming site Polygon, and sports site SB Nation.

Why did you choose this field?

I’ve always been driven by a desire to bring quality content to people. I call it “news people don’t know they need.” We live in an age of 140-character and 24-second news cycles, which means there are only a few moments to capture someone’s attention. That’s exactly what I get to do at Vox. I’m in charge of making sure as many people as possible see the journalism of all three sites. I believe in the quality of the work we do, and I am so excited that I get to wake up every day and tell the company’s great stories.

What did you want to do growing up?

My nose for news started during my days at the high school newspaper. I got to do a phone interview with Hollywood director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter, I Heart Huckabees). He was an alumnus of my New York public school, and I invited him to come by and visit us. Much to my surprise, he took me up on it. I spent the day with him, touring around the school and talking with him. I had my first front-page story, and my life has never been the same. I’ve always wanted to talk to him again and say thank you for changing my life.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

My first job was at the political website Talking Points Memo, and it was a phenomenal experience. I started as the assistant to the publisher and was promoted to deputy publisher overseeing the business, publishing, and tech side of the company. I was also responsible for project and digital product management of mobile, tablet, video, and content partnerships, and increasing and maintaining audience growth.

I had been offered an internship there in the summer of my junior year of college but turned it down to stay at the University of Southern California where I was running, the online-only student news organization covering L.A., California, national, and international news, science, tech, arts, culture, entertainment, opinion, sports, and food.

I stayed in touch with Talking Points Memo during my senior year and interviewed again. They didn't have any full time reporting positions open, but I expressed my interest in knowing more about the business side, and the position of "assistant to the publisher" was created. It was a dream job for my first out of college.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

Be persistent. You know those naggy e-mails you think everyone hates you for sending? They don’t hate you at all. Send them. (Keep in mind, there's a happy medium here. Sending daily e-mails is excessive, checking in every so often is not.)

Your top priority is someone else’s bottom priority, and that’s not personal. The reality of our busy lives is that we need a reminder from time to time, and your little nudge to answer your e-mail, get coffee, chat for a few minutes, or whatever, is extremely helpful. That kind of follow up makes you stand out from the crowd.

Jennifer Best

Journalist & Author

Years of Professional Experience: 28

Brief Description of Job: Freelance journalist for daily newspapers and online outlets

Why did you choose this field?

I am an obsessive writer. I've always enjoyed the process. My first publication was in the newsletter created by and for the clients and parents at a childcare center—when I was about 10. I went on to serve on my high school and college newspaper staffs, but while I watched others thrill over having their name in the byline, I just liked sharing a good story.

What did you want to do growing up?

Like most American children, my dreams for my then-future drifted, but they always involved writing. At one time, I thought I'd be a high school English teacher who could also teach music and coach my sports, swimming and water polo, but when I started taking classes in the English department at the University of Utah I discovered it was writing—not reading and analyzing—that I enjoyed most of all.

What was your first job in this field, and how did you land it?

After my college newspaper, I worked for the Salt Lake Tribune as a zone reporter. I met one of the paper's reporters while attending a Society of Professional Journalists conference in Denver. I had applied for an internship at the paper, but was not selected. About three weeks after the conference, I received a call from him telling me I had an interview with his editor that day and he admonished me to be there. I had the job hours later.

What has been the most surprising thing about working your field?

The most surprising thing, clearly, is the change technology has brought to all creative fields. With the internet, and so many people willing to work without traditional pay schedules or simply free of any charge, professions in writing, graphic arts, photography, and the like have become inundated. Many publishers now accept work from untrained, unprofessional sources who provide their work free of charge.

What advice would you have for someone breaking into your field?

Learn the cutting-edge technology. Be ready to program. Be ready to design and manipulate websites, applications, and other outlet software. Don't simply study journalism, but specialize. A journalist with an extensive background in, say, sciences has a far better chance of selling science stories than a general journalist.

While there are fantastic writers who spend all hours focused on the art of writing and related research, those positions seem to be fewer and further between. Daily news sources, particularly print, are tending toward the high tech and constantly cutting staff. A reporter who can research and write stories, shoot photos, format stories for the internet, and manipulate web pages or applications will be more marketable than a simple reporter.

What is different about the hiring process in your field than in other fields?

If you don't have the clips, tear sheets, or proof of publication, many places won't give you a foot in the door. Do whatever it takes to get some experience, then move forward from there.

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Photo of female journalist courtesy of Shutterstock.