Former student seeks advice for her sister who is considering journalism career but attending a college without a journalism degree program

I recently received an e-mail from a former student of mine — an advertising grad who is trying to provide some career counseling for her younger sister. I thought my former student’s questions were good ones that others interested in journalism careers might have. So let me share those questions and some advice.

“I actually wanted to ask you for some advice regarding my sister. She is in her junior year, and she recently began considering journalism as a career choice. She said her college doesn’t offer a journalism major, per se, and she is wondering if there are some general classes she could take in the meantime. Do journalism students who earn their bachelor’s degree typically go on to grad school, or start working immediately? Do jobs require you to have taken certain classes, like reporting, in college, or can she get experience from elsewhere?

Some of the answers to these questions have changed in the last 5 to 10 years — and potentially to your sister’s advantage.

But for starters, anyone who is interested in getting a journalism job needs to realize that there aren’t as many typical journalism jobs as there were three to five years ago. Many media organizations have a hiring freeze and are laying off veteran reporters. In the last several years, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. These job losses are due to more than the current economic recession. An improved housing market and a boost in the Stock Market will not be bringing back those journalism jobs.

So even having a journalism degree won’t assure having job options in the media.

But not having a journalism degree doesn’t mean that someone interested in a job in journalism, like your sister, won’t be able to get a journalism job.

Here’s my advice to your sister:

1. She needs to have journalism experience and have that experience to share with potential employers. That journalism experience could be on the campus newspaper or with a community news outlet. Many weekly publications — such as those distributed free that include entertainment and community activities — are run by a very small staff and are eager to have writers and photographers submit stories and photos. Typically this will be non-paid work. But what she will be gaining will be experience and “clips.” Clips are those examples that become part of a paper or online portfolio. And her work can be at a radio station or local cable outlet. With convergence in the media, journalists are being expected to not only write for print (or online) but to be able to record and edit audio and shoot and edit video. What she also will be getting is experience in developing a story idea, finding sources, conducting interviews, writing stories, meeting deadlines and working with editors. Some of those experiences are practiced in journalism classrooms, but we encourage even journalism majors to have at least one internship (more is better) and to have a portfolio with published (not classroom) examples.

2. She needs to be alert to and open to non-traditional journalism opportunities. Fewer people will be getting jobs at traditional news outlets, such as newspapers and TV stations. But there will be more and more niche outlets — many of which will be online. Those outlets are targeting specific demographics — vegans, surfers, dog lovers, etc. Those outlets are effective in generating ad revenue by having advertising for that target audience. But then what they need are the wrtiers who can write for that niche audience.

3. She should strive to develop an area or areas of expertise. Many journalism majors are reporting generalists. They have trained to be reporters who could cover a wide range of beats (or areas of coverage). Most do not have a strong background in an area of specialization. Such content expertise could help advance your sister ahead of others in applying for a job that has a content-specific area. She could be writing about seabirds for a conservation blog or writing about local gardening for a magazine for those starting their own gardens. College courses, a college major or minor, volunteer work, community education courses all can help her develop that specialized knowledge.

4. She should take advantage of the journaism learning available outside of the classroom. She can do a Google search to find college journalism classes and then see what books are required. She can read those books. A number of websites and blogs are targeted to helping people be more effective media writers. Poynter’s NewsU (http://newsu.org) provides more than 70 online courses, most of which are free.

5. She should be an avid media consumer and reader. By reading the media — whether blogs or online news — she can both be analyzing the style and also determining what kind of professional writing is the best fit for her. In interviews with media organizations, students are often asked what they are regularly reading. Quite a few admit that they are only reading their textbook assignments and the campus newspaper. Someone who wants a job as a professional writer needs to convey an enthusiasm for reading others’ work.

6. She should be able to consider how social media could be a factor in her journalism work. More media organizations are realizing the potential of social media — using Twitter to promote a story or a Facebook fan page to find potential sources. So if your sister can incorporate social media into her work and explain how that can be done in her potential new job, that can be an asset. Speaking of the use of social media…

7. Her online presence should demonstrate that she is responsible and trustworthy. When college students go on the job market, they often realize for the first time that telling all on Facebook or ranting on a personal blog isn’t a good promotion for themselves as a potential employee. If your sister wants to be a journalist, she will be expected to be fair, rational and dependable on the job. She doesn’t want an online representation to be presenting her as someone unable to fulfill journalistic standards. Employers check out potential employees online — their Facebook pages, photos of them posted online, their blogs, etc. So she should evaluate her online presence and, if needed, set more privacy settings, delete blog posts or photo postings.

In terms of whether or not your sister would need a graduate degree to get a journalism job … it depends.

Journalism is a profession that can be practiced without a specific degree, credential or certification — unlike medicine, law or public school teaching. Back only about 50 or 60 years ago, many reporters worked their way up from being copy boys (usually male who transported typed stories from one location in the newspaper office to another) with only a high school diploma. Many other successful reporters got into the business without a college degree. Only in the last half of the last century was there a trend toward hiring those with college degrees in journalism.

Most in the industry would say that a graduate degree isn’t necessary — unless that graduate degree is in a needed specialization area. Reporters are hired who have law degrees or a graduate degree in public health to take on reporting for specialized reporting. Only once have I heard from those hiring for media jobs that those with graduate degrees are given preference. In this one case, the applications were divied into two piles — those with graduate degrees and those without graduate degrees. The files of those with graduate degrees were reviewed first.

Your sister is a junior. So that means she has two years until graduation. She needs to be making progress every month — selecting helpful college classes, writing for local media, taking online courses (free or paid) to provide journalism training. She will be building her experiences and her portfolio. And one last tip…

8. Cultivate a professional mentor. In her journalism volunteer work, she should identify at least one person who can take a personal interest in her, providing advice and serving as a reference.

2 comments

  1. Good post, Dr. Dodd. I agree completely. Keeping her eyes open for alternatives to traditional news will be so important. A journalism degree may be helpful, but it’s not necessary for everyone considering the news business. One of the best journalists I know majored in English!

    Like

    1. Jen, thanks for the feedback. You’ve now taught more than 200 media majors and also have worked at newspapers with staff with a range of backgrounds. Do you have another suggestion you’d add to the list?

      Like

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