How to Become a Journalist in 8 Clear Steps
“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Benjamin Franklin wrote this during his fight for democracy in 1722 as part of his scathing criticism of the British monarchy’s suppression of the free press. Nearly 300 years later, the message still holds true.
While its role remains the same, the way the media looks today changed considerably since the “First American” penned his article. Journalism has grown to include TV, videos, and news sites, and became a highly specialized profession.
How do you join this noble enterprise and make Ben Franklin proud? Follow us to find out.
The role of a journalist
The job of the journalist is to keep the public informed about news that are current, relevant, and important. It’s about telling human interest stories that offer unique perspectives, delivering scoops, and reporting on local events. As a journalist, you sometimes need to hunt down facts, interview famous, strange or interesting people, and even challenge widely-held beliefs.
Most importantly, a good journalist is able to remain impartial and unbiased. This means asking tough questions, understanding both sides of public debates, and making sure every issue is represented and argued fully.
This struggle for objectivity is why journalism plays such a crucial role within our society and remains vital to a functioning democracy. Whether they report on health, world news or politics, a journalist needs to provide content that the public can use to form opinions, become better citizens, and vote from a place of knowledge.
When done right, journalism acts as a voice that speaks truth to power. These tools offer the public the ability to keep their leaders in check and accountable. As English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
The key skills of a journalist
A good journalist must be a good storyteller. Whether it’s through written or broadcast journalism, you should be able to express complex issues simply and interestingly. You’ll need to carefully lay out background information so that any reader or viewer can understand your story.
Journalists are usually curious and analytical people who love to learn new things and explore new perspectives. Investigating is something that drives them. A proficient journalist should be committed to objectivity, morality, and honesty. These values will embolden them to ask the tough questions.
Is journalism a good field to enter?
A career in journalism is not for the faint of heart. Consider these challenges:
The average income for a journalist in the United States is around $40,000, according to Payscale.com. Salaries for a first year journalist start at an average of $33,000 and reach an average of $59,000 after 20 years. For those living in smaller towns, the salaries are lower.
Here are some examples of median salaries for different roles in journalism:
Content managers: $40,000
Sports writers: $24,000
Journalism is jam-packed with highly educated, extraordinarily talented workers. Because of the importance of the position, many qualified people enter the field, which makes for a saturated market. This allows news agencies to choose the cream of the crop and still offer low salaries.
Work hours for journalists are unpredictable and inconsistent. When covering a specific topic for a news agency, there is no telling when you’ll be expected to file a story or race to the scene of an event. You’ll likely be expected to understand your field better than everyone else and be ready for any notable news when it breaks.
A journalist may need to run to the scene of a protest, accident or arrest. Reporters in foreign countries can also be sent to cover war zones, pandemics, and natural disasters. While this depends on where and what you report on, consider these risks before beginning your journalism journey.
All that being said, the profession’s unpredictability is also what makes it exciting and different than just any other desk job. Journalists can get the chance to travel, meet fascinating people, and attend historic events. While the pay may not be high, perks like these ensure that the job retains its attractiveness.
If we haven’t scared you off, it means that you’re ready to get started. From what to study to the best strategies to break into the field, we mapped out how to become a journalist in eight clear steps:
01. Know yourself
Are you a natural writer? Do you want to make videos? To become the next Walter Cronkite? The first thing you need to decide is what form of journalism you’re interested in pursuing.
Journalism careers have traditionally been divided into two main paths: written journalism and broadcast journalism. In the last few years, however, there has been an increasingly large overlap between these two worlds with the popularity of news websites, apps, and social media. Many newspapers, for example, have created online presences that include videos and podcasts. In the current market, journalists can more easily navigate from one type of journalism to another and from one job to another.
Here’s a list of some of the more common roles within the field:
Social media manager
Think about what path seems right for you. Defining this can be helpful when it comes to choosing your education.
02. Get educated
Most jobs will require you to have a degree. Remember though, this is just one step along the way and not the be all and end all.
When it comes to picking your degree major, there are various routes you can take. Some universities offer the opportunity to major in journalism while others will provide the chance to minor in journalism, but major in communications.
A good journalism program should teach the following skills:
How to do reliable research.
How to analyze information and fact check.
How to interview subjects.
How to format news articles or segments.
Other specific industry skills relevant to your journalism focus.
If you know that you want to report on a specific topic or cover a specific beat, it may be useful to take on a double major or to minor in the subject that interests you. You can focus on matters as diverse as politics, business, diplomacy, law, technology, health, art, and sports. This will provide you with important information and look great on your resume.
Outside university, there are also many ways to prepare for a role in journalism on your own. Specifically, you need to learn how to become a fluid and expressive writer - the foundational skill of any journalism role. Consider these tips to refining your writing skills:
Read. A lot.
Keep a personal journal. Write in it often.
Practice building article outlines.
Find a writing partner to keep you motivated to write.
Get feedback and be receptive to it.
Edit yourself. Learn to cut down your text.
Give yourself deadlines to practice working under pressure.
In parallel, take the initiative to learn anything else that will be necessary for the type of journalism you’re pursuing. Use any occasion you have to gain marketable skills that will help you stand out.
03. Gain experience
There is no better way to learn about something than by actually doing it. This, of course, applies to journalism too. Most employers will care more about your work experience than your education and will check if you can add value to their news team by seeing how you worked in previous positions.
Here’s how to improve your track record:
Join your school’s newspaper or radio station. Practice producing content, writing news stories, interviewing subjects, gathering scoops, researching, fact-checking data, and getting to understand the world of journalism from the inside.
Find an internship. Journalism is a money-strapped enterprise that loves a free laborer! While that means there may be plenty of places to find an internship, there is also a lot of competition for the good options. Just make sure you find a place that will allow you to participate in the actual workload and won’t leave you outside making coffee.
For that reason, it can be worth it to find a smaller, less competitive publication that will allow you to gain a diverse experience rather than a prestigious media company that won’t offer you the same opportunities.
Start freelancing. Create pitches and send them to editors. As a freelancer, you’ll have to become somewhat comfortable with a rejection or two… or a lot more. But it's a great way to get yourself published, learn about the field, and work on your journalism chops. You’ll find some actionable information in our complete guide on how to become a freelance writer.
Write a blog. Create your free blog, write a lot, and share it on social media. Report on nonsense or on the most important topics. Just create content and put it out there. Get feedback and learn from it.
04. Stay updated
If you want to work in the fast-paced media, you’ll need to remain up-to-date on the field. The world of journalism moves quickly. News cycles can change at the blink of an eye. Make sure you don’t miss anything. To stay on top of your game, use these tips:
Read the news. Subscribe to online news apps and breaking news feeds. Read everything, not just the articles with the catchy headlines. Become acquainted with different media outlets and open your mind to hearing opinions you never considered.
Gain context. To understand the news fully, you’ll need a good background education. Read books and watch documentaries. If the news references an event that happened before you were born, look it up. The more general knowledge you have, the easier it’ll be to add context to your own articles or segments. With broad knowledge you can tell richer, denser stories with more interesting and important messages.
Follow trustworthy people on social media. Join Twitter and follow reporters or activists from across the world and from across the political spectrum. Interact with politicians. Social media provides you with the rare opportunity to be instantly in contact with those you would otherwise not meet - even if they’re from countries and cultures far away (just use the very convenient translation tools embedded in most platforms). Remember to take content from social media with a grain of salt. Learning to use these newer platforms can be very helpful with maintaining an ear to the pavement. But at the same time, they can spread disinformation and must be used in a responsible manner.
Use the latest technology. Keep track of the technology and software being used in the field of journalism you are pursuing. If you plan to make clips, for example, learn the video editing software media companies are using. Use them to practice creating content on your own.
05. Create an online presence
Cultivating an online presence is a great way to share your content with a wide audience and to become an authoritative voice on a specific topic.
Gather your work onto your own journalist portfolio website. Keep the portfolio updated with information about yourself, your resume, published articles, and blog. Don’t forget to integrate your social media.
Because of modern journalism’s blending of media, creating a site is a great way to advertise other skills and achievements. It’s especially useful if you’re a freelancer. If you’re a broadcast journalist, you can feature the snippets and clips that you have accrued from interning, university or freelance. If you dabble in photography, show off your skills here!
Use social media to share your thoughts and articles. Having a strong presence on Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram can be a great way for publications to take notice of you. Sharing your articles can also ensure that they reach more people. As a rule of thumb, it’s recommended to do it from dedicated professional profiles, which you’ll keep hermetically separated from your personal accounts.
But here I feel the need to warn you: Be careful with what you post. Share relevant takes, newsworthy updates, and interesting articles. But keep it professional and keep it appropriate. Don’t overshare on Facebook, don’t vent your rage on Twitter, and don’t post nudes on Instagram. Things can be screen-grabbed and shared without you knowing. Also, employers often google their job applicants. Make sure your online presence will let them like what they see.
In the highly competitive world of journalism, who you know is often more important than what you know. So get to meet the right crowd. People love to have fans - and journalists are no exception. If there are journalists who you greatly admire, reach out!
Today, there are many ways to contact reporters, be it through email or social media. If you ask them, they may just be willing to sit with you for a quick coffee to spill the beans (no pun intended) on the ins and outs of the world of journalism. If you can pull it off, you can gain crucial knowledge and make a valuable connection, which will be extremely useful in this industry. Explain who you are and what you’re interested in learning. If they don’t respond, don’t be discouraged. Many of these journalists were exactly like you a few years ago. Just remember to be respectful and professional.
While reaching out cold to someone is not ideal, it’s not the end of the world either. If you’re contacting them through social media, they’ll have the chance to see your profile and your posts, and determine if you seem sane enough to meet. Feel free to send them a link to your online portfolio, so that they can see you’re the real deal.
You can also meet people within the field by attending public events, protests, and celebrations. Use Facebook Events, Eventbrite or Meetup to find media-related events that seem interesting. Get to know the other reporters on the spot and make friends.
Networking is especially helpful for freelancers. Build relationships with editors so that your pitches don’t come in from a faceless source. Try to figure out a way to interact with them offline as well. Factor time into your day to network. Take it seriously. It is a huge and vital part of the journalism industry.
07. Don’t immediately relocate
Once you’re ready to apply for your first position, there is one more thing to take into account: your location. When it comes to journalism, certain places offer more opportunities than others. If you are living in rural Alabama, you will have far fewer job opportunities than in Washington, DC. The pay will also be lower.
But don’t get ahead of yourself. While it may be tempting to head straight to where the action is or where they pay more, don’t jump in too early. There may be more to gain in your hometown. Journalism jobs in the bigger cities will attract a far wider and larger pool of competition vying for the same positions. For this reason, start off your career near home. Smaller publications will usually allow you to take on a bigger role quicker, and gain broader experience.
Once you feel that you have outgrown your position in your local media, you then could apply to news outlets in larger cities. A resume that boasts some years of experience working in local news is far more attractive to large publications than one from someone just out of school.
08. Start applying
You’re ready! It’s time to apply. Follow these steps to find your first job in journalism:
Make sure your resume is in great shape. Consider these tips when creating it:
Add your relevant information, including your work experience, education, skills, and contact details.
Place your most important information on the top. List your work experience in reverse chronological order.
Describe your work experience in few, active words. Sell yourself honestly but alluringly. Use whatever numbers you can to quantify your accomplishments.
Keep it short. It shouldn’t be longer than one page. Employers hate sifting through long resumes to find the essential pointers.
Keep the sections easy to read. It should be scannable.
Make it memorable. Consider creating your resume online with Wix to add an element of design that will make it stick out.
Include a link to your website as well as any relevant social media platforms so that the company can look into you further. If you have an author page on an online publication, add that to the resume as well.
Sign up to platforms like LinkedIn and Glassdoor to get notifications about relevant job openings and to research companies to see if they will be a good fit. Upload your resume and create an attractive profile.
Use Google, social media, and job posting boards to find out about available opportunities.
Network. Reach out to all the friends you made along the way. If you’ve been in touch with an editor who liked and published your work, ask if there’s a position available at their company. Speak to fellow students from your university to see if they know of available openings. Tell people at meetups that you’re looking for a job. Tell your friends, your family, your dentist, your mailman, or whoever else you see, too.
Once you apply, let your work speak for itself. Show them what you already accomplished and how much of a hard worker you are. Finally, be humble, prepared to learn, and ready to put in the effort. The road to journalism is a challenging but worthwhile one.
Looking to create a blog? Wix has got your covered with thousands of design features, built-in SEO and marketing tools, that will allow you to scale your content, your brand and your business.
Mendy Shlomo, eCommerce Blogger at Wix
Pittsburgh native and journalism survivor.
I’ll pet your dog.