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A journalist investigates and reports upon events and issues to an audience. They can do this through many different kinds of media: newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and online.
Journalism can be separated very simply into two main schools, the first being news, where stories are broken - or reported - as they happen, investigations are carried out into issues, and in-depth studies, or features, into interesting subjects that may not be on the news agenda.
The second is opinion-based journalism, which includes columns, where a journalist can give their thoughts on a subject of their choosing, and reviews.
An inquisitive mind is key for a journalist, as is a good grasp of grammar, excellent communication skills, and a personable attitude.
While it can be a fun and glamorous job – especially at the top – with invitations to parties and press trips to see different parts of the world, it can also be very demanding and draining, with long and unsociable hours, shift work, and the need to be relentless in chasing the leads for a story. Expect to start at the bottom - you have to pay your dues in order to reap the benefits.
The contemporary face of journalism is changing, with a requirement to be able to work across the different media platforms, and especially online as the importance of print continues to decline.
How to get into journalism
Experience, luck and contacts are key. Journalism is a popular profession that is oversubscribed and competition for jobs is fierce. It is essential to demonstrate an interest in the profession and get as much experience as possible.
Involvement in student media is a great starting point, from working on the college or university newspaper, to helping out in your radio station. Setting up your own blog is also an ideal place to hone your voice, showcase your abilities and demonstrate your understanding of websites and social media, which are quickly usurping print in importance.
A degree is usually required of a candidate who wishes to get into journalism – this degree doesn’t have to be subject-specific. There are undergraduate journalism degrees available at some institutions around the country, however a lot of people study an academic course for their undergraduate degree and then take a postgraduate journalism course to learn the basic skills for the profession.
Many of these courses will lead to professional qualifications, the most prevalent of which is the NCTJ, or National Council for Trained Journalists, which is changing its basic qualification that takes in all the core skills a journalist needs to the ‘NCTJ Diploma in Journalism’ in 2011.
This Diploma covers News Reporting, Media Law, Shorthand, Public Affairs – which provides an understanding of the political system – and Portfolio – the requirement for candidates to showcase their work across the different media available. There are also specialist options to choose from, including sports journalism and video journalism for online.
Whilst at university, it is beneficial, if not essential, to gain work experience placements at media outlets to increase the breadth of your portfolio and to start building up your contacts in the industry. The range and amount of work experience will be one of the key differentiators in helping you to stand out against other candidates when applying for a job.
The route into employment is then varied. Some candidates will go to local newspapers and work their way up the ranks, eventually graduating to national newspapers after a few years’ experience building on their basic skills and knowledge. A lucky few may find themselves on a graduate training scheme with a top magazine or newspaper. Some will take junior positions, such as an editorial assistant, at a top glossy magazine and work their way up from there.
Qualifications and experience
Qualification requirements to study a journalism degree are up to the institution you wish to study at. However, due to high competition for places, grade requirements are usually high – mainly As and Bs for A-Levels. Candidates may benefit from studying English or Communications, but these aren’t vital. Subjects that require writing in some form, even if it is just essays, are useful.
For a postgraduate diploma, an honours degree or previous professional experience is a must, with a degree result of a 2:1 or above usually being required by most courses.
The average journalist salary is £27,000. Journalism is traditionally a poorly paid profession, with salaries at local newspapers starting as low as £12,000. Top editors can earn a substantial amount more, however. Senior editors at a daily regional paper can earn £50,000 to £85,000.