There’s no getting away from it, you’ll need qualifications to fulfil your ambition – it’s almost impossible to become a working journalist without them.
Unless of course you aim to become what many TV stations are beginning to call a ‘citizen journalist’, in which case you probably won’t be paid anything, you’ll waive all your rights to the story/picture you’re sending them so they can syndicate them worldwide without paying you a penny, plus you could be held responsible for any inaccuracies or infringements of media law.
To become a real journalist you’ll need to demonstrate enthusiasm for your chosen career by getting some work experience in your chosen field even before you apply for a job, or a place at university or college.
The traditional way is to start in local newspapers, gain experience and training then, if you want to, work your way up to the nationals (Direct Entry). Pay is pretty low on most local papers but many offer training while you’re on the job with the first three to six months as a probationary period, then either NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) distance learning or a 12-week block release course at an NCTJ-accredited college. Some larger newspaper groups operate their own NCTJ-approved training schemes.
There is a possibility that, with a minimum of five GCSE passes, including English, at grades A-C you’ll be accepted by an editor but it’s more likely they will require two A levels at the very least. There are year-long Pre-Entry post-A-level courses accredited by the NCTJ. Their Preliminary Certificate is recognised as a professional qualification for newspaper journalism as most editors have trained in this way and recognise and require the standards set.
An even better way also enables you to keep your options open as long as possible: Get a degree in a ‘pure’ subject like history (great for research skills) or English, then obtain the Preliminary Certificate through a fast-track, post-graduate, NCTJ accredited journalism course that includes: law, PA (public administration, local and national government), newspaper journalism, shorthand (to a minimum 100 wpm) plus subbing, work experience in the ‘real’ world and a portfolio. Then 18 months into your first job you can take the NCTJ NCE (National Certificate Examination) to become fully qualified. A subbing NCE will be available soon.
Some magazines, especially those who use ‘true life’ stories, advertise for journalists with newspaper experience but traditionally it hasn’t been so easy to swap in the opposite direction. But times are changing, now many local and national newspaper companies publish supplements and even stand-alone magazines, so the two products are becoming ever more interchangeable.
There are many different types of magazines and while there is sure to be one that is exactly right for you they will all usually expect you to have a degree and some formal training before you apply for a job.
The magazine industry body is the PPA (Periodical Publishers’ Association) and their training arm is the PTC (Periodical Training Council) that accredits post-graduate and post A-level courses of varying lengths nationwide, the NCTJ also accredits magazine courses. These should give you the basic skills you’ll need: Media law, PA (national government), news and feature writing, subbing, design and layout (a working knowledge of publishing software like In-Design) and shorthand to 80 wpm – the latter isn’t an essential for magazine employment but it’s invaluable for interviews – you’ll never regret learning it. Most courses include mandatory work placements and portfolios.
A degree in a specific subject (like one of the sciences) will always give you a useful specialism that you can exploit by working for a magazine about that subject (New Scientist for instance). Follow that with a fast-track journalism course culminating in a professionally recognised certificate (courses are usually PTC and/or NCTJ accredited) then, once employed, it’s also possible to gain a further PTC qualification on the job.
Consumer magazines; both general interest (Company) and specialist (Crafty Carper), are the ones everyone wants to work on so they are always oversubscribed and could have up to a six-month waiting list for work placements. To improve your chances, show you understand and love the publication and have an in-depth knowledge of its readership when applying and be persistent.
Customer magazines; (like M & S Magazine) are an ever-growing sector of the publishing industry. They pay better but you’ll be working for two masters, in this example, the editor who works for the publishing company and the client who represents Marks & Spencer.
B2B (Business to Business) magazines; or ‘trade’ magazines as they used to be called (i.e. The Grocer) don’t have the cachet of the glossies but pay best and usually have good training schemes for employees and excellent career progression. They are well worth considering, especially for a first job.
There are of course also journalism degrees but no qualification is a guarantee of a job at the end of the course. Those posts advertised in The Guardian’s media section have hundreds of applicants and are often filled before publication. The very best way of securing employment is through work experience that gives you the opportunity to show what you can do and become indispensable. You may have to take several unpaid work placements before securing that all-important first step on the employment ladder. Once you’ve done that, switching between magazines becomes much easier.
Most magazines and newspapers have their own websites, some only exist in cyberspace. Online journalism broadly requires the same qualifications as described above, you’ll need a firm grasp of current affairs and a real talent in the news writing department because reports and features that are going to be read on screen need to be short, pithy and to the point. The NCTJ are offering a new online Preliminary Certificate.
Get full details of journalism courses currently available from the NCTJ and PTC websites: www.NCTJ.co.uk and www.PPA.co.uk
Or contact them at the following addresses:
NCTJ, The New Granary, Station Road, Newport, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 3PL, Tel: 01799 544014
PTC, Queens House, 55/56 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3LJ, Tel: 020 7404 4168
Developments in radio and TV have brought many more opportunities for journalists in recent years. Among those at the top of the tree are the reporters following world events on a satellite link, interviewing politicians and celebrities, or presenting the news in a studio. But to reach this pinnacle they have invariably had years – sometimes decades – of hard training and experience.
While some colleges offer a one-year Pre-Entry training course in broadcast journalism, after which entrants find their own jobs, there are several Direct Entry schemes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest single training organisation for broadcast journalism is the BBC itself. Its training is much sought-after, very thorough, and above all highly competitive.
BBC vacancies open to external applicants are widely advertised in regional and national newspapers – for example, in the media section of The Guardian every Monday. The Corporation is always keen to attract new recruits. As the BBC’s website says: “It’s our goal to become the most creative organisation in the world. But in order to make it a reality, we need to keep on attracting the brightest, most creative and talented people. People just like you.”
The BBC recruits some of its journalists directly from other sectors of the media, especially when it needs to find reporters with a particular specialisation – so there is always the possibility for an experienced journalist to make the move from the printed media to broadcasting, especially as the Corporation has such a plethora of local, regional, national and even international TV and radio stations. The BBC has various Direct Entry training schemes, with fierce competition for places.
Training schemes include a two-year course in London for radio and TV news reporting, a one-year course in Bristol for regional work, and a two-year local radio reporting course which includes experience on local stations. The BBC offers some bursaries to promising students, and is keen to broaden the base of its recruitment to include, for example, more reporters from ethnic minorities.
Would-be entrants to broadcasting should not, however, fix their sights solely on the BBC. Commercial radio and TV stations should also be approached for vacancies in their newsrooms.
Post-graduate courses in radio journalism are offered by:
Cornwall College, Falmouth, Cornwall.
Highbury College, Portsmouth.
University of Central Lancashire, Preston.
London College of Communication.
University College, Cardiff.
City University, London.
The two-year journalism course offered by Napier University, Edinburgh, includes specific training in broadcasting.
If you want to freelance (and as staffers are few, many journalists do) you’ll need to be highly self-motivated and organised – willing and able to get ahead with your work before you go on holiday and tackle the mountain that has accumulated while you’re away the moment you get home. For freelances, commissions come in only two ways: ‘feast’ or ‘famine’ and you’re only as good as the last piece you got published.
You’ll also need to be well connected. Editors tend to use people they know they can rely on and bring their favourites with them when coming to a new title. It’s extremely difficult to get an ‘in’ without contacts and so you should consider working as a staffer for a few years first to get your portfolio of work into shape and those vital names and addresses into your contacts book.
There’s an increasing requirement for reporters to provide pictures to accompany their stories and of course the technology now exists to send those pictures instantly to the picture editor, news desk, etc. Some journalism courses include an element of photojournalism; there are also courses dedicated to the subject, specifically at Sheffield and Darlington Colleges. You’ll need to check websites to find out what’s available.
Again there are dedicated courses and some sports agencies like www.sportsbeat.co.uk offer their own but the same rules apply, you’ll need all of the afore-mentioned qualities plus an in-depth knowledge of sport to succeed in this highly competitive field.