Don’t be too choosy: getting a start in journalism, according to the experts

Young journalists have the best chance of finding a job if they spend time developing their skills and getting experience while still at university. PIC: HANNAH HILL

By HANNAH HILL

Lecture theatres across Australia are full of journalism students dreaming of being foreign correspondents and winning Walkley Awards.

But most of all, they dream of landing a job when they graduate.

Australia’s media landscape is diverse, with several overseas news outlets such as The Guardian and The New York Times launching local operations over the last few years, while many traditional media organisations have been shedding jobs.

Where should a young journalist start out?

South China Morning Post training manager Phil Smith says it’s harder to get a job than when he first started at Reuters, when you could “fall into it”.

Today his advice is: “Don’t be too choosy … get into the business in any way, shape or form that you can.”

Once you’re in the business, he says, you can move up. “If it’s not the job you want, doesn’t matter.”

Google News Lab’s Irene Liu says her advice is to start somewhere small, since young journalists often make mistakes like asking soft questions and under-preparing for interviews.

“You want to be able to have those experiences and make mistakes in a smaller setting, when the stakes are not as high.”

In a small newsroom, she says, a keen young reporter will have more opportunities to try a range of different things. “And if you’re good and you do a good job, you get good bylines and scoops, then you move up.”

CNN’s Hong Kong bureau chief Roger Clark also got his start in local news, volunteering for a local radio station when he was a teenager.

“I really passionately believe that that’s where you learn your trade, you make your mistakes and you don’t get fired or cause a war for making those mistakes,” he says.

“You learn from other people who have the time to be able to talk to you about what good journalism is all about, and be able to course-correct you when you go wrong.”

Clark says it’s worth investing time to build strong journalism skills.

Core skills matter: A busy newsroom in Hong King.

“You can build a fantastic palace, but if it’s built on sand it’ll still collapse, so you need to build that palace on granite. The more time you spend building strong foundations in your career, the better you’ll be the higher you get up.”

The New York Times Asia editor Philip Pan says he looks for solid skills in young journalists. 

“The main thing I really look for is an ability to write, to write clearly. And I find that a lot of the candidates I get don’t necessarily have that skill, even if they’ve worked in the media already.”

He asks job applicants what they think is their best work, and many show him material he doesn’t think is their best. “As a result it makes me wonder whether they have the kind of judgment that we’re after.”

Pan says that despite the changes in the industry, the basics are still important. 

“The core thing we look for is news judgment and news writing ability. So the core things we’re looking for haven’t changed, it’s the bells and whistles on top of it that change from year to year,” he says. 

AFP Asia Pacific editor-in-ghief Giles Hewitt says multimedia skills are essential. At AFP, all journalists must be able to shoot and edit both photographs and videos.

CNN vice-president and Hong Kong bureau chief Roger Clark says a degree in journalism isn’t enough.

“You can have degrees and MAs and doctorates coming out the wazoo, and I don’t care that much,” he says.

“It’s all about what you’ve done to demonstrate to me that you’re passionate about it, that you’ve written articles for newspapers and blogs and you do stuff for local radio.

“I get really impressed by people who’ve shown a really good aptitude and have really got stuck in off their own bat.”