Three pieces of advice for aspiring journalists

I get regularly asked for advice by people who are looking to get jobs in journalism, either college students or people looking to switch careers. There’s no one perfect way to accomplish this, but — assuming you have at least the basic skillset for the type of journalism you want to do — here is the advice I give.

1. Have a personal website

This website must have:

A) An “About” page with a description of yourself, so someone who wants to hire you can quickly get the basics of who you are. There should also be a link to contact you.

B) A digital version of your general-purpose resume. You might send in more personalized resumes for particular jobs, but you should have a general-purpose resume that strangers can look at, or that you can link to when making contact with potential jobs.

C) A portfolio of some form, where you can post work you’ve done, again for the reason that potential bosses can see your work at a glance. This can be as simple or fancy as you want.

Are random editors going to read your website and offer to hire you all the time? No. But perhaps you run into someone at a conference, or interact with them on Twitter, and they look you up out of curiosity. If you provide them the information to view you as “potential hire” material, then maybe three months later, when a job opens up, they’ll remember you and shoot you a message encouraging you to apply. Anything you can do to not just be another resume in a pile is to your advantage.

The three things above are the only must-have elements of this website, but I would additionally suggest:

D) Spend a few bucks to buy a custom, professional-looking domain name, so they can visit and not Domain names are cheap, $10 to $20 per year, and make you look much more professional.

E) Include a blog or some other place where you can publish your work. This is important because of my second piece of advice:

2. Publish, ideally for money

Getting into journalism can have a sort of chicken-and-egg problem — editors want to see clips of your past work in order to hire you, but you can’t get clips without being hired!

There’s a common saying: “never work for free.” And generally speaking, I endorse it. Don’t let people with money get away with paying you with “exposure,” a giant racket. So your primary goal while trying to break into journalism should be to get clips by getting paid for it.

But if you can’t do that, then make your journalism your hobby. Publish, and often, even if it’s just on your blog or threads on Twitter. Find topics that interest you, and offer some unique insight, along the lines of the kind of work you’d love to get paid for. Do you want to get into local news? Watch the city council meeting, take notes, and summarize what happened on the key issue in a blog post as a citizen journalist. Do you want to cover the arts? Publish reviews of films, books, concerts. Want to do data journalism? Make and share some charts or maps. Want to work in radio? Start a podcast.

(I will add a perhaps-unnecessary caveat: as you publish as much as you can, be careful not to publish anything that would offend people you care about offending. Publishing insensitive articles on your blog will hurt, not help, your career prospects. Offering fiery opinions about issues of the day might limit some news outlets’ willingness to hire you to cover those issues. I’m not saying muzzle yourself, just to be judicious about which bridges you burn.)

Editors probably won’t value your self-published work as highly as they would work for a professional outlet. But they will value it.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to regularly publish work if you want to get into journalism. More than most fields, journalism is a field where portfolios outweigh resumes. That’s not to say your work history doesn’t matter, but what you’ve produced in the past matters far more.

Then, once you’ve published, promote your work as much as you can, so people can read it.

3. Be a generalist with a bonus

Your first work in journalism is probably going to involve you doing a bit of everything, whether as a general assignment reporter for a news outlet, or as a freelancer pitching stories. So you want to be able to show — on your website, and in your portfolio — that you can do a little bit of everything. For my first job out of college, I wrote two or more stories per day, took and edited photos, made a few graphics in Photoshop, and at the end of the day often helped out with page design. I wasn’t necessarily the best at all of this (I look back and cringe at some of those graphics that at the time I thought were incredibly cool), but the fact that I could do all of it made me an invaluable asset for a cash-strapped newsroom without enough bodies to go around. Being able to tell an editor that you’ll be able to do anything they ask you to do will be a huge mark in your favor.

But, you should also have one bonus — one thing that you can do that sets you apart from everyone else.

Lots of the people against whom you’re competing for work will be saying they can do a little bit of everything, too. Maybe you’re a better generalist than they are. But to tell an editor, “I can do all the stories you want me to do, and also I can shoot and edit video,” or “and also I’m really good crunching numbers in Excel,” or “and also I know a lot about politics and can write informed articles about elections” — that’s the kind of stuff that will really make you stand out.

Those are my three big tips. Have a personal website where people who might want to hire you can learn everything they need to know about you. Publish as much as you can, ideally for money, but publish anyway even if not. Learn how to do a little bit of everything, and at least one thing special.

This isn’t a magic formula, but in my experience, doing these things will put you in the best position to get hired.