What should I tell aspiring journalists?


Image via GeekWithLaptop.com

I’m speaking to a UIC (my alma mater :-)) journalism/media writing class on November 30. I of course majored in political science and only took up media two years ago. In any event… I’ve got some ideas for what to tell them, but I’d like to collect yours as well. 

If it matters, this is an undergrad class.

What should they know about the media industry as it looks today, job prospects, how to market oneself, etc? Please leave ideas in the comments, share your own stories of professional successes or failures, etc. Thanks everyone!


  1. Anonymous November 23, 2010

    I know I sent you a snarky reply to this on Twitter, but I do have some real advice.

    First of all, a thick skin is key. As a reporter, you’re going to be called names you never thought you would ever be called. You’re going to be accused of terrible things and ruining lives. Don’t take it personally. Reporters are easy scapegoats and make easy targets for grieving families and corrupt public officials.

    Second, and perhaps more importantly, while a thick skin is important, don’t get jaded. The moment you can listen to a story of a child being sexually abused or someone being brutally murdered without cringing is the moment you know you’ve been in the business too long. Reporters are human. Don’t forget that.

  2. Anonymous November 23, 2010

    Also, marry rich/have rich parents, enjoy cheap bourbon and get used to surviving on very little sleep. (=

  3. Anonymous November 23, 2010

    Tell them to be prepared to work until they’re bloody or find something else to do. Fact is there are fewer good journalism jobs than at any time in the recent past. Today’s grads will be competing in a cutthroat environment where the only two things that matter are your clips and your connections.

    Our local daily has cut its newsroom staff from 200 to 100 in the course of a couple of years — and that’s in a town with a fairly celebrated j-school named after the family that runs the paper. And while online-only news outlets are starting to fill some of the gaps, the pay still isn’t there. Today’s grads will have to scratch and claw their way to a comfortable place.

    That’s not as bleak as it sounds. Hopefully it means the cream will rise to the top. Those unwilling or unable to do the job will find work elsewhere and perhaps we’ll see a new era of solid journalism. And, frankly, that’s the only thing that can save the profession today — journalism with fire, passion and heart. Stories that mean something to people. We need to stop focusing on stories about process and start focusing on people, and on what a reader can do to make a difference.

    We need to drop the idea that journalists are objective observers and, like the commenter above notes, recognize that they’re also people.

    I spent a dozen years in the trenches, as a crime reporter, a news editor, a managing editor and more. The most frustrating this for me as manager of young writers was the failure of j-school to prepare students for the harsh reality of the business. You’re only as good as your last story. And if nobody’s talking about your last story, they probably aren’t reading the next one. Make it matter or work somewhere else.

  4. Anonymous November 23, 2010

    I’d encourage them to apply to nontraditional employers, particularly in the tech industry. I’m talking Google, Yahoo, Facebook.

    If you go to facebook.com/news, there is a page there. Facebook is the most visited site on the planet — what they decide to do with news matters, and it would be great if they had actual journalists around when they made those decisions.

    I love talking to students, and I posted a short (13 minute) version of a presentation I gave to students called Startups for Journalists online — slideshow with audio: http://www.slideshare.net/lisawilliams/startups-for-journalists

  5. Stephen L. Harlow November 24, 2010

    Please tell them to do great journalism, uncover useful truths and tell it in compelling narratives. Tell them to build their own community of supporters and work for them.

  6. Anonymous November 29, 2010

    I’m a glass 90 percent full on this score. I think the future is glorious. Some background: I was a foreign correspondent with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and other papers for 20 years. In 2008, as things turned sour, the S-S began walking some of its higher paid reporters out the door like shoplifters at Wal-Mart. Since then, I’ve had several jobs and a freelance career. Yes, the pay on individual jobs is small, and yes, there’s a lot of turmoil. But there are more outlets than ever before in media, and hence, more opportunities. Without getting into too much detail, I’m making a better living than I did in newspapers.
    As far as the digital terrain, here’s what I have to offer. Writing is writing, speaking is speaking, photography is still photography. Yes, there are other incredible skills to be had, like the ability to do data visualization, but I would focus on what you do best and sell yourself. Social media is just a tool — it still requires words and good pictures to work.
    Essentially, what has happened is something akin to returning to the 19th century, when rail lines and new printing technologies and the telegraph opened up all kinds of opportunities. Reporters used to be gypsies, wandering from town to town writing stories and then moving on. That’s all that’s happening now. It’s just that the Wild West is virtual, and you can roam across it faster.
    I love this world.

  7. Anna Tarkov November 29, 2010

    Wow, Tim, thank you. That’s a great way of putting it. I will shamelessly rip some of this off for my talk :)

  8. Anonymous November 29, 2010

    “Like shoplifters at Wal-Mart” — love it. Great phrase. Lisa WilliamsCEO and Founder, PlacebloggerTwitter: lisawilliams617 319 0557

Comments are Disabled