In a recent blog, 3 Journalists on Advice for New Pros, we highlighted some valuable advice for new journalists entering the field. We wanted to take that lens a step back and see what some journalists did before they got their first-ever full-time journalist job. On our podcast Coffee with a Journalist, we speak with journalists from various top tier outlets. In addition to learning how they craft stories and their predictions for the future of journalism, we also ask about their personal experiences breaking into journalism and the steps they took to get to where they are today.
Here are how 4 journalists found their paths toward careers in journalism:
For many who knew early that they wanted to pursue journalism, internships were their first introduction to the journalism environment. For Macy Cate Williams, Senior Editor at PopSugar, her advice would be to “ do as many internships as you can.”
She states that when commonly asked by aspiring journalism students from her alma mater, San Francisco State University, “They’re like, “I’ve one year left. I need to find a job. What do I do?” And I would say, “Do the internships!”
She elaborates on how these internships provide opportunities if you are willing to ask for them. Macy explains, “I would also say don’t be afraid to ask to write. I think a lot of interns are terrified to ask if they can get in on the action, but your clips are going to be everything when you go out into the real world,” she continues, “all it takes is one awesome clip for us to give you more and more and more opportunities. And a lot of interns, including myself, I’m an example of an intern who became an employee.”
As an editorial intern turned senior editor, Macy has seen the changes to the experience requirements over time. When talking about her advice for journalism students today, she says, “One, internship, unfortunately, isn’t enough anymore because everyone’s doing them. You need to do a few.”
Sharing the same mentality behind gaining internship experience, Ad Age Social Media Editor and Reporter Ilyse Leffreing is a testament to that advice. From 2010 to 2015, Ilyse accrued an impressive 9 internships under her belt in roles including Audience Development Intern at NBC News and Editorial intern at NBCUniversal Inc. She attributes her many opportunities to the fruits of her labor saying, “Yeah. I’ve been lucky to get opportunities, I guess. I don’t think it’s because of people I’ve known or anything like that. I’d like to think it’s just because I work hard. I think anybody can do it if they put their mind to it.”
This sticktoitiveness was key in the pursuit of her career. Not everyone along your path will have as much faith in your abilities as you do. She remembers a specific conversation with an old educator of hers toward the end of her master’s program at New York University.
Ilyse recounts, ”I was told not to go into this field by a lot of people, including my professors at NYU, when I was in grad school,” continuing, “They were like, ‘If I was in your shoes, I don’t know if I would continue in this field,’ which is very disheartening to hear. Even at our graduation speech, one of the professors was like, ‘Congratulations everybody, on graduating! But, only a couple of you will actually become journalists.'” Aspiring journalists should be prepared to stick to their gut and push through the naysayers.
Still, not everyone can pursue internships.
Unfortunately today, it is important to acknowledge the disparity in those who are able to pursue internships, which are often unpaid and often leaving valuable applicants between the choice of gaining experience or providing for themselves financially. Additionally, not every journalist’s path started in journalism school. For Joshua Pinkay, Senior Editor at Obvious Magazine, a career in writing was something he did not pursue until later in his life.
Joshua explains, “my scenario is a little different because I didn’t even study journalism. I have a marketing degree.” Josh then goes into his early love for writing and how he fits it into his career saying, “I found writing in high school. I had excellent English teachers. And, I mean, they helped me discover what writing was. I fell in love with words, and it was a muscle that I didn’t know I could flex. And so I had instinctively always had that.”
He continues noting his education aside from journalism and fitting his passion into his work. He said, “through college, I was studying fashion and marketing and all of that. I fell in love with that aspect. But the writing never left, the words were always there. And so when the opportunities came for me to start writing and to be able to use my pen for editorial pieces, it was just like second nature. It was there. And so I still had my other trades, but the writing was just a part of me. And by all means, I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
In her feature in NiemanLab’s Predictions for Journalism 2020, Texas State University Professor Cindy Royal agrees to say communication skills are crucial, no matter the present role or field.
On the other end, Quartz Health and Science Reporter Katherine Foley talked about how writing was a battle as a journalist. Having a degree in science, technology, and international affairs, she says, “I think I really came at journalism just wanting to marry two things that I loved, which we’re figuring out how the world worked and writing,” continuing to say, “writing is actually one of the things I have the hardest time with as a journalist. And that’s what’s so great about this field, is that we all bring different strengths to our storytelling.”
Katherine finishes by saying that whether you enjoy writing quick news stories or long-form deep dives, “there’s room for all kinds of reporters like that in this space. Like it does take creativity with sourcing and with asking people the right questions, but it also takes the ability to write clearly and concisely or even in some cases truly beautifully.”
She concludes by telling aspiring journalists to value the style of writing they do, no matter the length, when saying, “Yes, sometimes they do need the beautifully written 10,000-word piece,” and, “other audiences are going to take the more short, concise, stories. Both have a lot of value and both kinds of reporters have a lot of value.”
Whether you are a senior in college with countless internships under your belt or a freshman embarking on your first semester of Zoom university, understand there is no one way to become a journalist. The key to becoming an original journalist is discovering your perspective, process, and style that develops with experience. Still, though no two paths are the same, there is always valuable wisdom to be gained by those who came before you.
Learn more about Katherine Foley’s career evolution in her spotlight on Twitter with a Journalist: Katherine Foley, Quartz where she dives into her coverage shift amid COVID-19, her role at Quartz, and how she found her beat. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast and follow us on Twitter to stay updated on the latest podcast episodes with top journalists and blog releases!