How to become a journalist (BETA)

Yesterday a 22-year old graduate impressed me more than anyone has in a while. Wondering into the Guardian offices (where I am drafted in semi-frequently as a freelance writer on the Travel section) a smartly-dressed Tom Gockelen-Kozlowski handed me a small business card printed on thin paper. He did the same to every person who passed through the revolving doors on York Way and into the Guardian.

The card introduced him as an “unemployed graduate” looking for “work experience and employment”, and included his email address, his blog address, and his phone number. I sought out Graham Snowden, who edits the Guardian’s Work and Graduate sections, and suggested that it could be a decent story for him. I wasn’t the first. Graham dashed downstairs and walked him into the building, and by the end of the day Tom had written his first blog for the Guardian. Good on him.

I get a lot of emails from people asking if I have any tips on getting into professional journalism, and Tom’s chutzpah has nudged me into writing this post. The following will by no means guarantee entry into a profession that is currently firing a lot more than it is hiring, but hopefully it helps someone.

1) Start a blog
One of the wonders of the Internet age is that anyone can be their own publisher. Start a blog and specialise. Don’t just write about whatever comes into your mind, as this will spread you too thin…pick an area and focus on it. Perhaps that will be travel. Perhaps football, or education, or political satire. Write topical posts in response to issues of the day…best of all, write ripostes to articles in the publications that you admire. Be controversial if necessary. Use pictures and embed YouTube videos… often a passerby will judge your blog in seconds, purely on how it looks.

2) Network and flog yourself
Once you have your blog, make a huge list of blogs that you admire, and that fall into the same genre as yours. Add them to your blogroll and email them informing them that you have done so. Perhaps they will replicate. Leave comments on their posts, making sure you leave your blog url as part of your commenter identity. Respond to their posts with posts of your own. Sign up to Twitter and tweet your posts at journalists and bloggers in your sphere. Eventually one of them might retweet it.

3) Collate contacts
Once you have something to show for yourself, start making a list of editors and deputy editors in the sphere you have chosen. You can usually find these people on Google or Twitter, but if you can’t just call. Find the switchboard number of the publication you are looking for and ring them up, asking “Who is the current editor/deputy editor of the XX section?”. Perhaps they will even give you their email address.

4) Work out the email addresses
If you can’t get the email addresses as suggested above, all is not lost. Every publishing house in the world has a formulaic email system. Somewhere on their website you will find at least one personal email address. For example, if you find an address that is FIRSTNAME.LASTNAME@PUBLICATION.COM, you can bet that the address of the person you are hunting for will be the same. Once you have a list of 20 editors and deputy editors (never forget the deputies – they often act as the first screening line for pitches before the editor even has a look) you are ready to send your first email.

5) Pitch
Make sure you know who you are pitching to. Read their content widely. Work out the kind of pieces they like. Perhaps even work this into your pitch… “I noticed that you ran a piece on XX recently, and I was wondering if you were interested in a piece on YY”. But start with a single sentence on who you are. If you are young, tell them how old you are. “I’m the 22-year old author of the XXX blog, and here’s a post I recently wrote in response to one of your pieces”. Keep this short. Don’t just send one pitch…send three. Make sure the pitches are covering new and current ground. Keep them short – around 80 words each (you should never make the editor scroll…they don’t have the time), and send links so the editor can read around the subject. Offer your first article for free, and mention this high up in the email***Various commenters disagree with this, see below. Make sure the subject of the email is pithy and eye-catching, just like a newspaper headline.

6) If at first you don’t succeed...
You will almost certainly get no response. Even if you get a “thanks, but no thanks”, do not despair. Go back to the drawing board, and come up with three more ideas for next week. Keep going, and keep updating your blog.

7) Cash in
If you eventually get a piece published, you’ve jumped the highest hurdle. Then you can start all your subsequent emails with “I’ve had articles published in XX publication” which will immediately get more attention.

All of the above is a very personal take. But I’m interested in any other tips from published writers, which I will add to this post. Do let me know if you think there are any glaring omissions. And if all else fails, pull a Tom.

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24 responses to “How to become a journalist (BETA)

  1. Agree with much of this, but totally disagree with offering the first article for free. It’s selling yourself short. And if your starting price is zero, there’s a high chance it’ll stay there.

    If the editor likes the idea and you’ve proved you can write (include a link to articles you have written to show this), then they’ll pay for it.

  2. I’m with the above. No money, no work. It’s a principal and I’m not budging.

  3. I hope Tom’s going to get paid for his work yesterday. Good pitching tips, but I agree with the above comments; it’s daft to offer to write for nothing – and editors would think you were nuts. Even Guardian rates are worth having!

  4. In principle, I agree. And any editor worth their salt will insist on paying even if it is offered for free – voluntary exploitation is still exploitation.

    In practice, I still think offering a freebie might help swing an editors ear…especially in today’s climate. But no more than the first piece…

  5. Some great tips there – always helpful to read as a journalist-wannabe.
    But do you think Tom’s ‘chutzpah’ will pay off?
    Sure, he got published on the Guardian site yesterday, but below the post it appeared that they won’t be offering him a job.
    I’m interested because I’ve been following most or all of your tips, and while I am all for innovaative ways to put myself out there on the web and generally, I can’t see Tom’s stunt for anything more than that.

    It seems to me he wanted to ‘stunt’ his way into his dream job, and maybe I’m a realist, but I don’t think that has ever been possible even before new media challenged the old model.

    And Annie and david – I’d love to say I’d only write for money, but the problem is there are thousands of others willing to do the same as me for free.

  6. ahh, typo in innovative!

  7. Nah, I quite like “innovaative”. Sounds posher.

  8. Also disagree strongly with the idea of offering any work for free. Look at the big picture… do you want to be working in a field where your work is constantly being undercut by freebies? And what does it do for the overall going rate for paid articles? Inevitably lowers it.

    Also, if I was an editor I’d look down my nose at something offered for free… would assume it was being sent in by an unprofessional try-hard, and wouldn’t bother to look at it.

  9. Nice one, Benji. Maybe better to suggest providing first article on spec rather than for free? There comes to a point where journos refuse to write on spec (and quite rightly) but I think it’s fair enough when you are starting out and have v limited cuttings to prove yourself. Editors shouldn’t take advantage of this though (ie not saying “Sure, send it in on spec”, if they don’t really have faith in the idea) and recognise that part of the deal is to offer a little guidance.

    And I definitely second the idea of having a blog. In fact, sometimes its more helpful to an ed than a “I’ve written for XX newspaper and XX magazine” because it is unedited, so really shows what you can do. After all, it’s possible that a piece for XX newspaper was a disaster in its original form and was totally rewritten by the subs. You don’t have to be diehard, committed blogger, but make sure you get something up there. Internet presence is *vital*.

  10. That last comment was from me. Seems I was logged in under an old account that I didn’t even know I had.

  11. Thanks for this Benji. Like Jen, I’m a journalist in the making, and this is one of few posts that has sprung up out of Tom’s pursuit that doesn’t patronise the wannabe hack. Good advice, and stuff we can actually do to get ourselves out there.
    As for working for free — as Jen says, when we’re surrounded by talented people who will work for nothing, there aren’t a lot of choices.

  12. Very good tips. Every wannabe writer should read this post.

    A few more. Proof and re-proof your pitch. In your 3rd or 4th email to an editor you can get away with a grammatical gaffe or two. Maybe. But not in the first one. In the same way that web designers get judged on the layout of their personal homepage, new writers get judged on the stylistic correctness of their proposals.

    Don’t be Tiggerish. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a little girl to see my byline in the pages of the Basingstoke Gazette” and stuff like that, will get you nowhere. But don’t be Eeyorish either – “I know the chances of your commissioning me are very slim,” etc.

    Don’t ask for “feedback” on your pitches. Some editors are really nice people who will help new writers out by telling them how to improve their queries. But most of them are normal people, and some of them are bastards.

    LinkedIn is a good tool for finding editors – and also for finding out something about them.

    The principal of only working for money is an extremely sound one in every respect except one: it’s bollocks. Unwavering principles are for saints and revolutionaries, not writers. Judge everything on a case-by-case basis, according to what is in your best interests, professionally and economically. If you judge it to be in your best interests to write a piece for free, do it. If you don’t, don’t.

    Don’t write long blog responses like this one, because it makes you sound like a pedantic windbag.

  13. Careful Benji… Tom will probably have your job in a couple of weeks

  14. and if he doesn’t want it, I’ll text it…

  15. ahem. That was meant to be ‘take’ it. Not that anyone will be giving me a job after my chain of comment typos.

    If only I had a sub editor. . .

  16. My tip for Tom, or anyone in his situation, would be continue to aim high (you won’t get anywhere if you don’t), but don’t dismiss any journalism opportunities that would give you a steady income and experience at the same time . So trade press and local newspapers are worth considering. And websites too.

    I’d also suggest trying to get media places at conferences and seminars that you want to write about. You will make contacts and meet journalists who specialise in that area. Maybe even an editor.

    There are also a range of free events you can attend that might generate news. How about sitting in a parliamentry select committee? There are fewer lobby correspondents attending them, so someone has to report on them. Why not you?

    I attended one yesterday and there were loads of potential stories there. You could even spend a day going from one committee to another and pitch stories or blogs on the back of them,

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  18. like this post!

  19. I hold out for being paid for articles, and do get paid for them. I do things for free for registered charities e.g. a monthly ‘Plant of the month’ for the Dorset Wildlife Trust, and letting the Shark Conservation Trust use some of my photographs for free. Technically I don’t get paid for blogging but it is a good exercise in writing, it has led to a few commissions and it is about things I am doing for fun anyway.

  20. My question is, how did you get your big break, Benji? It’s so impressive that you’re only 27 and you write for both the Guardian and the NYT… and about travel too! That would be my dream come true.

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