A question popped up recently on the NABJ Students Facebook group on what to do to jump-start your journalism career once you’ve graduated from college. The person graduated a year ago, and has had a hard time breaking into the business. Some of the questions I’d ask are:
- What college/university did you attend;
- What was your major and minor in college and what courses did you take;
- How active were you on your student newspaper/website, radio or television station;
- How many internships did you do while still in school;
- What professional journalism organizations have you joined;
- What kind of career support did your school offer you before and after graduation; and
- What have you been doing since 2014 to get into journalism.
These questions are important, because it tells me a lot about why you’re in the rut you’re in. First, the school and the major are important because some schools, like Syracuse, USC, Northwestern, Columbia University, American University (my alma mater), Boston University, Hampton University, Arizona State University, University of Missouri, Howard University, University of Georgia (AllDigitocracy.org founder Tracie Powell’s alma mater) and University of Maryland-College Park, have stellar programs that really help their graduates. And please — don’t flame me — I know there are a ton of other great journalism programs not listed here (like the University of Pennsylvania).
While you don’t have to major in journalism, you do need to take journalism classes in the skills that media outlets want. You need to know how to report, write and edit. But there’s so much more, like this list compiled on the Knight blog. If you don’t have at least half of these skills, then you have a problem.
Did you participate in campus media while in school? These media outlets are important resources that can help you perfect your craft and build that all-important portfolio. So get started — now — and sign up to write or edit on your campus newspaper/website. Volunteer to report or produce at the campus television and radio stations, both as a broadcaster or behind the scenes.
Now let’s talk about internships. I am surprised at the number of students I chat with who didn’t do any internships in college or who did only one. Journalism is a tough field to get into, and the competition is fierce for the jobs available.
One way you can stand out is by having strong internships that allow you to learn and build your portfolio. Read my interview with Gerrick Kennedy (on page 9), a music writer/blogger for the Los Angeles Times, and the National Association of Black Journalists’ (NABJ) Emerging Journalist of the Year in 2012. This is a person who used every internship he had (and he started freshman year, people) to leverage his next opportunities, which eventually led him to his LA Times job after graduating.
Professional organizations are also important, because they are what help you build your professional network (as do internships). I’m surprised at how many students don’t belong to any professional groups or only belong to one (like NABJ). You need to broaden your network to learn about and take advantage of a wide variety of opportunities, including scholarships, internships, fellowships, mentors or those all-important jobs. I belong to journalism and professional aviation organizations. Thanks to those networks, I haven’t applied for a job since 1992. Need ideas on which ones to join? Check out this list compiled by Arizona State University — and join at least two; three is even better.
How is your school helping you in your post-graduation efforts? My alma mater, American University, had resources in the School of Communication and the Career Center that offered services including Meyers-Briggs personality testing, resume/cover letter help, connecting with alumni in the field and great job leads. And it’s not just for students. I could walk in tomorrow and get help via networking receptions, job search skills training and job/internship fairs even though I graduated a long, long time ago!
And last — but not least — what have you been doing since you graduated? I’ve spoken to former students who took jobs outside of journalism because they had bills to pay and found it difficult to break into the field. Truth time — it’s only going to get harder unless you take control of the situation, and it will still be hard. You’re already behind the eight ball because folks from 2014 are already in jobs and the class of 2015 are preparing to get their post-graduation jobs.
If you’re interested in television, find a local cable-access channel in your community and volunteer to work. Take whatever they offer to get a foot in the door, then volunteer to do more. If you’re smart, you can leverage that into real work that you can put on your portfolio. Depending on the market, you can also try and volunteer — or even do an internship — at a local station.
If you want to get into radio, volunteer at local NPR or college stations. Here in Baltimore, Morgan State University has an NPR radio station that is run by a mix of students, paid professionals and volunteers. If you want to write, look for news outlets that pay for stringers. Volunteer if you must, if only to build up your portfolio. If that doesn’t work, start your own blog.
If none of those options are available, do your own thing and blast it via social media. Start a blog, create and produce content for your own YouTube channel or start a radio talk show using free tools like Radionomy, Talk Shoe, Blab and BlogTalkRadio. If you want to learn how to podcast, check out these great tips from the “It’s All Journalism” website.
There’s always the option of going to graduate school to get on the right track. But if you already have student debt from undergraduate school, you may want to weigh the cost/benefit of adding more debt if you can’t get a scholarship.
I hope that helped. Please send your career questions you’d like me to address to auntbenet AT gmail DOT com. You may be included in a future column!
Benét J. Wilson is the founder and owner of Aviation Queen LLC, a freelance writing, multimedia and consulting firm. She is a freelance aviation/travel journalist and blogger who has written for publications and blogs including USA Today, AirwaysNews.com, CrankyFlier.com, ACI-NA Centerlines magazine, Aviation International News, Airport World, the Airline Passenger Experience magazine and the Runway Girl Network. She currently serves on the board of the Online News Association, where she chairs the Diversity Committee. She is also vice president-digital of the National Association of Black Journalists and serves on the board of the Center for Collaborative Journalism.