I am frequently asked for advice about journalism and careers. Below are some answers to the most common questions I receive.
Do I need to attend j-school?
No. Absolutely not. I went to grad school for financial economics and Medieval literature, not journalism. What you really need to succeed in journalism is deep curiosity about the world. That’s the advice my first editor at The Patriot-News gave me and I agree with him. Study whatever you want in college or grad school but get immersed in it. That’s what the best journalists do.
I’m not saying there is zero value to journalism programs. I have many friends who did attend j-schools and found it valuable. This is especially true of people who started a career in another field and then wanted to switch and become a journalist. But ask yourself: Can I get a journalism job without going to j-school? I started at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., a regional newspaper where I had to do it all: write, edit, take photos, shoot video, help with page design, etc. That was my training and I loved it.
What does it take to get that first journalism job?
Be prepared to work for $30,000 a year with no benefits. At every media company I’ve worked at so far, the hiring process has gone something like this: Super talented person in their 20s gets hired as an intern and is a rock star. That person then gets asked to become a “temp,” who is paid by the hour and can be fired at any time. This temp period stretches for months. Then, if all the stars align, the person is still doing amazing work and half the office is lobbying the top boss to hire them, the person finally gets a full-time offer with benefits.
It’s brutal. It’s not right, but that is what typically happens. You have to REALLY want these jobs and you have to be prepared to work long hours for low pay for a year or two.
How can I help myself stand out in the hiring process?
Two things: Ideas, ideas, ideas and 3 strong “clips.” Every day editors and producers start their morning looking for good ideas. What’s trending? How can their news outlet make the story real to people in a way no one else is? What news can they break? What trend can they spotlight that others haven’t seen yet? Don’t waste your cover letter or introductory email rehashing your resume. Instead, send a list of story ideas.
I also highly recommend following journalists on social media that you want to work with/for. Interact with them. Read/watch/listen to whatever they are putting out. In short, act like you already work there by being familiar with what the outlet is doing.
How do I pitch an op-ed?
Everyone has a story to tell. Yes, op-ed pages are often filled with politicians and famous people’s views. But here’s a secret: Op-ed editors love publishing new voices and they are especially keen to find more women and people of color.
Pitching an op-ed is simple. You typically write a 700 to 900 word essay and email it to the op-ed editor. It’s usually easy to find the name of the op-ed editor online. If you have never written for the publication before I suggest sending the full 700 to 900-word essay in a Word document. In the email write a really short (think 3 sentence!) plug for your piece. What is it about? And why are YOU the right person to write this.
Generally speaking, the best op-eds are written by someone who has a personal connection to the subject matter. It gives you instant credibility.
Lastly, pitch often. As an op-ed editor, I would often see a first-time writer I thought had potential but the timing wasn’t right to run their essay. If I rejected a man, 9 times out of 10, he would pitch again the next week. If I rejected a woman, 9 times out of 10, I’d never hear from her again.
Should I work in TV or for “print”? Should I do big media or small/regional media?
I loved my time at The Patriot-News. Writing for a local/regional media company puts you at the heart of the community. People come up to you in the grocery store or at the gym to talk about what you wrote or give you tips. And you can have a huge impact when a story is on the front page or opinion pages. It’s rewarding. I highly recommend spending at least a year or two working in local media to build your skills and understand how media can impact the people right around you.
National media is exciting because you cover the biggest stories in the country and the world. It’s truly that “front row to history” experience. TV has a lot more glamour to it (yes, the makeup room is cool!) but you often don’t get to go as in depth as you might like. At CNN, I worked on a few 7 minute packages, which were considered super long for TV, where “segments” often last 3 minutes and then it’s off to the next topic. Print (which is basically media speak for digital publications) gives you more chance to go deep on a topic and do multiple follow up stories.
My advice is to try to do it all. Both TV and “print” are evolving quickly and unlikely to look the same in a decade as they do today. My first love is writing so I have spent most of my career at print/digital publications, but I also do a lot of TV, video and podcast/radio work as well. The more skills you have, the better. It’s a multi-media world.
Is media a good career for women?
A middle-school student asked me this a few years ago and I didn’t entirely know what to say. When I look around The Washington Post newsroom, I see a lot of star female reporters and editors. The opportunities are there. But it’s also a career field that has had a lot of sexual harassment and glass ceilings.
At almost all the places I’ve worked, men have far outnumbered women at the top ranks. And when I have tracked bylines on the front page and on the op-ed pages of many places I’ve worked, male names have outnumbered female names, often by a lot. There are still barriers to break, but it’s an exciting time to be a journalist and women are now a critical enough mass at most major media companies to support each other and form the networks needed to help younger women move up the ladder behind them and get more senior women to the very top.
I would caution women, especially in their 20s, to be wary of sexual harassment. A senior female mentor of mine once started our lunch conversation by asking me how many times I had been molested in my journalism career so far. That gives you a sense of how prevalent it has been for many women in this field. Build a network for female friends and mentors early.