Anyone wanting to work as a journalist is likely to find that practical skills are every bit as important as formal qualifications. You do not have to be a graduate, for example, although the increasing number of young people embarking on some form of higher education in recent years has meant that most people entering the profession are now graduates. There used to be far more opportunities for school leavers to break into the business without attending college or university, and this is still possible if the idea of higher education does not appeal.
For similar reasons the minimum education requirements for prospective journalists tend to be quite low – normally two A levels, of which one should be English. But don’t be misled into thinking that this means getting into the business is easy, or that journalists in general are not well educated. It is simply a reflection of the fact that in some cases practical skills and specific qualities may be of more interest to editors than academic qualifications – mainly because academic qualifications are not in themselves an accurate indicator of whether someone will be a good journalist.
The same applies to your choice of degree subject should you choose to go to university before entering the profession. Unless you have very specific choice of careers in journalism in mind – working as a foreign correspondent, say, or a business specialist – editors will normally be happy to consider applications from candidates with a wide range of traditional university qualifications, from English to economics.
However it’s worth noting that editors are very wary of media studies qualifications, since these are frequently very generalised and do not include any practical journalism training. The explosion of interest in media careers in recent years has resulted in a corresponding increase in the number of such courses provided by colleges, but editors would often prefer candidates to have studied a traditional mainstream degree course or a recognised journalism qualification. if you are 19, have a good grasp of the writing essentials and have plenty of contacts - or the ability to got out and get them - you could even win a place on a course normally described as "postgraduate".
(The training courses section of the website discusses which courses are recognised by different bodies.)
You need to consider whether you have really got what it takes to succeed in what can be a very demanding environment. Potential employers are looking for signs that your interest in the job is a genuine commitment, not just a passing fancy – and that you have the qualities as well as the qualifications required to cope with the day-to-day demands of the business.
Those interested in specialised careers in journalism would be expected to take relevant university courses – languages in the case of a would-be foreign correspondent, or business studies and/or economics for someone interested in becoming a specialist business correspondent. The same would apply if you dream of becoming a political correspondent, for example.
Two things are worth bearing in mind when choosing a university course. One is that the course will not in itself bring you any closer to becoming a journalist – you will still be expected to undertake one of the short postgraduate journalism courses to acquire those all-important practical journalism skills.
The second point is that there is a lot you can do while you are at university to make yourself a stronger interview candidate – by editing the university magazine or newspaper, for example, or contributing to the local newspaper, working as a freelance or doing anything else which helps to establish your commitment and enthusiasm as well as providing hard evidence of your ability to get your writing published.
You can also set about acquiring some of the practical skills required by working journalists which are not normally taught at university – like shorthand, and a knowledge of media law and government, both at a central and local level.
Journalism is not for the faint-hearted or the half-hearted and there are a number of specific qualities editors are looking for when they interview candidates for trainee vacancies.
What sort of person makes a good reporter? An ability to communicate easily, both verbally and in writing, is an important and fairly obvious prerequisite. But are you genuinely interested in people? Are you inquisitive, curious or downright nosey?
Are you good at interviewing people? Are you good at listening to what they say – a much underestimated journalistic skill? Are you good at researching a complex subject and explaining it in plain English?
Can you communicate well with people from all walks of life? As a local reporter you would be expected to attend inquests and funerals, courts and council meetings and interview everyone from disgruntled council tenants to the mayor or chief constable.
Sheer enthusiasm is a virtue which is hard to ignore. Editors don’t expect trainees to know all the answers, but they do expect them to be eager to learn. Candidates who appear cynical, disgruntled, arrogant, bored or indifferent will be quickly weeded out.
It’s worth thinking at an early stage about what else the job involves. You will need to meet deadlines, for example, which means working at speed and often under pressure. Is that something you would relish, or something you fear? Evening papers have tighter deadlines than morning or weekly papers, so reporters on those titles will be expected to produce clean copy very quickly indeed once they are fully trained.
It should be obvious that none of the academic qualifications you gain give any real indication of whether you have the above qualities, so the initial interview will be important. But the best way to prepare for the interview is to have practical examples of your published work to show an editor.
Indeed, many papers will not interview any candidates who do not have hard evidence of their ability to do the job, possibly gained through one or more work experience placements.
The problem for editors is that the CVs of ten typical graduates will look very similar. They will therefore be looking for any evidence that sets you apart from the crowd. Persistence and determination are valuable qualities in a journalist, and editors will be on the look-out for evidence of these from the outset. That means not being put off if you are unsuccessful at your first attempt. It will count in your favour that you have continued to take practical steps to overcome any obstacles places in your way. Editors will also look favourably on candidates who take constructive advice in good faith and who set out to follow up any practical guidance offered.
As for any applicant, your CV is a showcase of what you can offer a potential employer. For prospective journalists, it’s particularly important that any CV avoids being pompous, verbose or wordy.
Keep your CV and covering letter concise and to the point – and above all, make sure that every word is spelt properly and that the application is addressed to the right person. Many applications have been thrown straight into the bin because of basic errors which smack of carelessness or incompetence.
This should be self-evident, but it is surprising how many letters of application contain glaring errors simply because the applicant has not checked their facts or proof-read the final draft carefully enough.
Increasingly, editors are also looking for a clear demonstration of your commitment to the industry in the form of work experience - preferably resulting in published work.
In some cases editors will only invite candidates to interview if their CV includes such experience.