Is breaking news the only passport to a job?

Today I received a letter from the editor of a B2B magazine where I had applied for a reporter’s job. The letter starts with “Thank you for attending an interview for the above position.” and ends with the all too familiar “however I have decided not to pursue your application.”

It would all have been normal procedure, had it not been for the fact that four days ago I had already received an email from their HR department informing me I had not been shortlisted for interview.

Unless my alter ego got frisky and decided to barge into an interview uninvited, it was clearly an HR cock-up. But what was interesting was that the editor explains in the letter what I need to do in order to have a chance of being employed by the magazine in future:

“I would suggest that the more experience you gain of landing news exclusives, the better your future prospects on a magazine like [publication name].”

It was a question I was intending to ask them by way of feedback, so I am glad I now know.

So an NCTJ, a smattering of internships and a potfolio bulging with published cuttings do not make me employable material until I have “exclusives” to show for it.

I am no defeatist, even though, at my ninth month of unemployment  – almost a full gestation – I sometimes lose my rag and fantasise about slitting my wrists in front of the local JobCentre….were it not for the fact that the recession turned our high street into such a ghost town no one would even notice.

A ‘lemony’ view of life
Louise L. Hay, one of the pioneers of self-help movement, famously said:

“If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If the lemons are rotten, take out the seeds and plant them in order to grow new lemons.”

I mentally run through my options on what I could realistically do to get to those “exclusive lemonades”:

  1. Job hunting vs story hunting: In order to make time for story hunting that  might be worthy of a front page, I would have to stop applying for jobs for a while, as job applications can often take days to complete. Unless you are a lazy scum who just cuts and pastes cover letters word for word every time.
  2. Jobseeker’s Allowance is not Storyseeker’s Allowance: If you are on the dole, as I am, you must “sign on” at the JobCentre every fortnight, with your “dole book” completed with SIX steps you took to find a job. Even if you didn’t find six vacancies to apply for in between visits, you must convincingly prove you have been actively looking for and available for work.
  3. Become a “career intern”: I could apply for more internships in the hope that an “exclusive” will fall onto my lap in its natural course. Internships are invaluable for hands-on experience but as a rule they are unpaid. Can you realistically afford it? Should you not be using the time to look for paid work instead?

The price of experience 
It is a chicken and egg situation. Without a job you cannot get experience. Without experience you cannot get a job. But how much work experience counts as job experience?

In a blog in Journalism.co.uk (Without traineeships going to trainees, how can we get experience?), feelance journalist Ross Davies asks:

“How many more internships do I have to complete before I have the sufficient experience that editors are looking for? How long will I have to go unpaid for the articles I provide?”

Unleashing Aspirations…how excatly?
Only last July a government-led report on (the lack of) social mobility and equal opportunities in the UK highlighted the fact that only aspiring journalists from middle-class families could afford to go on long-term unpaid internships to acquire the type of experience newsrooms required. A summary of the report’s findings was published in The Guardian.

Although Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford responded with “Ten Tips for a school-leaver” to buck the elitist trend and gain entry into the world of journalism, tips such as  “Get into Oxford or Cambridge” and “Learn Chinese or Arabic” can hardly be considered practical. Does he realise the majority of Oxbridge graduates come from private school education and foreign languages are not exactly a forte for the average British national?

Get real
Journalism for me was a mid-life and mid-career choice, which meant I did not have a) time for years of study and b) money to keep me afloat through a long post-grad.

I did what Roy Greenslade suggests in his Guardian blog (23 July 2009). Instead of spending £8,000 on an MA at City University, I took a fast-track course which still came with an NCTJ certification at the Brighton Journalist Works for £3,600. A comprehensive list of NCTJ-accredited courses is avaliable on their site along with a list of  other short-term courses (average 20 weeks).

My course covered all the basics for a peliminary NCTJ at an ultra-intensive pace – subediting, newswriting, media law and central and local governments – and was taught by excellent teachers, producing higher-than-average NCTJ pass rates at the end of every 10-week term.

Shorthand, short money
What was not included in the fee was a shorthand module, so Ponsford’s advice of  “make sure you get your 100-words-a-minute shorthand” would have costed me another £900 at Twenty First Centruy Shorthand to achieve the NCTJ-standard of 100 wpm.

In reality shorthand is only required if you want to work for a newspaper as a reporter but it is an invaluable tool, which I dearly wish I had every time I do an interview on the phone or cover a public meeting.

If you are as skint as I am, you can also try to teach it yourself at home. I bought Teeline for Journalists but I must confess I threw in the towel at unit 4. Unless you have the discipline to practise daily, it is one stop forward, three steps back.

But shorthand and exclusives are not the be all and end all of all journo jobs out there…

Toughen up
Let’s face it: profile building has never been harder for aspiring journalists:

  • Jobs are far and few between and most require a track record which you may lack.
  • Competition consists not only of other graduates but also laid-off hacks with a few good years ‘ experience on their backs.

With every internship I complete, however, my determination to persevere as a journalist becomes stronger as I realise this is what I am cut out to do. Having said that, I did an internship at the B2B magazine where I was applying for a job and that didn’t help me get an interview.

When well-meaning editors say, “Good luck in your career” at the end of the internship, read it as meaning ” Apply anywhere else but here; tough luck.”

Diversify
Whatever the cynics might say, my suspicion is that exclusives is not the only type of lemonade you can make out of being an out-of-work journalist.  

Whereas NCTJ rams into you extremely old-school journalistic skills, which are still valid and useful, I suspect the way forward for modern journos, lies in skill diversification. Writing for multiple platforms. Exploring new media, social media, however you want to call it. I will expand on this in a future blog.

For now, you may be interested in reading what former FT.com editor Liisa Rohumaa says in Journalism.co.uk about “journalists needing to reinvent themselves” to surivive.

A blog on Alltop (25 things journalists can do to future-proof their careers) says in its tip no.15 that “Exclusives are passe”.

Are you smiling now?

“All journalists love a good scoop, but an exclusive story doesn’t stay exclusive for very long these days.[…] ‘scoops of interpretation’ are perhaps just as important.”

Kick arse
Today I got rejected. Next week I will probably get more. What I won’t do, and you cannot either, is to reject yourself, your dreams.

Getting angry at rejections is okay. But once you’ve slammed your fist on the table, screamed, sworn, cried or slit your wrists like me, let go and move on. Write a blog. Comment on a blog and network. Participate in career discussion forums. That’s also experience. If you are letting off steam, you might as well do it creatively and showcase your talent.

Above all, write, write and write some more – that is what you were born to do.

In my next few posts I will be talking about how unemployment can teach you invaluable tools  journalism schools never did.

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