How I landed my first journalism job (and how you can too)

Step one: Realise that you’re a year away from graduating, you have no real world skills and you’re totally unemployable.

In the third year of my four-year Journalism/Arts degree, I had three horrible (and probably quite late) realisations:

  1. Journalism jobs don’t just land in people’s laps.
  2. The real world doesn’t care what your GPA is.
  3. A university degree doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a job in your chosen field. In fact, it doesn’t entitle you to much at all.

As clever, talented friends in their final year of study received a steady stream of job rejection emails, it also became clear that who they knew was more important than what they knew. Few people landed jobs without a lot of experience or knowing people at the organisation where they had applied.

Until that point, my career plan had been to graduate, swan into an editor’s office, dazzle him or her with by my brilliance and immediately be offered a writing job. This was not going to happen. I’d barely spoken to a journalist or editor, let alone worked with one. Oh, naive 19-year-old me.

My arts majors were creative writing and literature studies, which I loved, but I knew that employers weren’t exactly interested in hiring a graduate who had spent four years reading books, talking about books and trying to write books. It was time to take my future career more seriously.

I couldn’t afford to be that journalism student who travelled by bus from Canberra to Sydney twice a week to intern at various women’s magazines (the student who did that is now a senior writer for Sunday Style, so I’d recommend it to those who have the time and money). But I knew I could do more to develop my writing skills, get experience in the industry and put my work out into the world.

I quit my pharmacy assistant job and started found casual work in the communications office of a think tank on my university campus. I spent 80 per cent of my time walking to the post office and banking cheques and didn’t get to write anything beyond membership renewal emails, but I was fielding phone calls from journalists and producers and sending out press releases, which gave me a decent idea of what was considered newsworthy. I asked really stupid questions, listened to the answers and when journalists dropped by the office to interview the think tank’s director, I analysed their interview techniques.

Around the same time, I started a blog. It was a compulsory project for one of my classes, but I used it as an opportunity to practice my writing, develop my voice and get my thoughts out into the world.

I also wrote for any publication that would publish my work. It didn’t matter who I was writing for or on what subject. All I cared about was building a portfolio. I reviewed music gigs for FasterLouder and festivals for Express Media; I blogged on youth issues for ReachOut and wrote about fashion and mental health for HerCanberra. Even though I now write for one of HerCanberra’s rivals, I’m enormously grateful to founder Amanda Whitely for her early encouragement. I didn’t get paid for any of it, and I didn’t care. Now I don’t write for free, but at the beginning of my career, with no experience, I couldn’t afford to be fussy.

After I’d built up my confidence a little, I started taking risks with my journalism projects at university. Safe, predictable stories never scored anyone a job, right? For an investigative journalism assignment, I wrote a piece about what it was like being hospitalised with an eating disorder at 13, and the archaic mental health policies that harm rather than help patients. I didn’t have to write something difficult and provocative, but I wanted to see if I could do it. I could do it. It was a good feeling.

I wrote, I worked hard, I turned up to class and I took risks. After a few months, I received an email from the woman who would become my next boss. She was looking for a journalism student for a casual feature writing position at a local publishing house. It turned out that my investigative journalism lecturer was put my name forward for the role.

Based on his recommendation and the amount of good quality work I’d published online, I was offered an interview, and then a casual job. The casual job became a permanent job once I proved I was willing to learn.

It sounds like the kind of thing that happens to lucky people, as though all I had to do was write a few articles for free and then suddenly I was offered my dream job. I don’t believe in luck, but I do believe in doing everything you can to make sure you’re in the right place, with the right skills, at the right time.

Journalism has changed since I began working in the industry in 2011. I thought jobs didn’t land in people’s laps back then, but it’s even truer in 2015. There are fewer traditional journalism positions, and those who don’t work in traditional positions need to be extremely entrepreneurial to find and keep work. Journalism graduate programs don’t really exist anymore.

In the years following my graduation, I’ve always found work, but it hasn’t been easy — and it hasn’t always been in journalism. If you’re a journalism student, my advice is to focus less on landing your dream job and more on creating your dream job. Start a blog, build a community and figure out how to get paid for doing exactly what you love. Write articles and send them to media outlets that you think might care. Once you’ve been writing for a publication for a while, email them and convince them to hire you (this worked for me).

Don’t hang around and wait for the ABC to call. Be proactive, do good work and the rest (eventually) follows.

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