What is a Journalist?
A journalist is someone who writes about the news, whether it’s good or bad. While “If it bleeds, it leads” is still true, sometimes your beat may require you to report on city council, school board, or county commission meetings.
Your professors and eventual editors will expect you to maintain an impartial view of the stories you are covering. If your beat is crime and courts, you’ll be exposed to hearings, trials, verdicts, and sentences. If you are assigned to the city council or school board beat, your reporting will cover votes on new schools or new gross receipts taxes to be imposed.
Steps to Becoming a Journalist
Once you know you want to become a journalist in any specialization, you have a few steps to complete. First request admission to universities with journalism programs. Before you are fully admitted into a school’s journalism program, you may have to take a skill test in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. This exam gives the Journalism department an idea of your writing ability.
Once you have been admitted, you need to complete general education, core courses and any specialization (news print, broadcast, or internet) that interests you. An internship will also be required, so choose a placement that will help you meet your goals.
Steps to Take:
Step 1: Prepare for Your Major
Step 2: Earn Your Degree
Step 3: Complete an Internship
Step 1: Prepare for Your Major
Explore which colleges and universities offer a journalism major. You may also find this program embedded in a Mass Communications program, along with Advertising and Communications.
Send your official transcripts and entrance test scores to the schools you’re most interested in. Ask each school’s journalism program about the GSP exam. This is a grammar, spelling, and punctuation exam often given to incoming students.
Once you’re accepted into a program, or more than one program, choose the school that will best allow you to meet your professional goals and complete the enrollment process. Begin by signing up for your first classes.
Step 2: Earn Your Degree
Begin your first year by signing up for your general education classes, such as math, English, sociology, history, and one of the required sciences. While this may feel like high school, these classes are necessary for you to build a solid foundation of knowledge.
Pay attention to every class. But give particular attention to your English, literature, and composition classes. You should also consider taking business writing and technical writing, if these are offered. They will expose you to different forms of writing; in addition, you’ll become skilled at a wide range of writing disciplines.
Begin taking your core courses for your major. These include classes such as Principles of Communication, Media Writing, Communication Inquiry, and Mass Media and Society. (Your core classes will differ from university to university, depending on how they have structured their Journalism or Communications majors.)
Next, you’ll encounter your Journalism Sequence classes, which add up to roughly 20 hours. These include Reporting, Advanced Reporting, Editing and Graphics, Specialized Writing, and Laboratory Newspaper (may have more than one lab).
You may choose to focus on a specific specialization, such as Public Relations. Within this specialization, you’ll have a sequence of classes to take as well.
Step 3: Complete an Internship
Given the importance of news and good news gathering and reporting, it’s no surprise that you need to complete an internship. Begin looking for the internship you want before the semester in which you will take it. Ask your professors for internship ideas—local newspaper publishers, a nearby television station, a public relations firm, or even your university’s communications office.
Show up for work at your internship for every day you are scheduled. You are receiving class credit, so you need to get as much value as you can from your experience.
What Does a Journalist Do?
No matter where you work, you will have specific job duties. In broadcast media, you will go to where news is happening (accident, rally, school lockdown) and interview the people who are involved. Then, you’ll return to the station to edit your tape and record your interview.
In news writing, you’ll also interview people or businesses. Because of tight deadlines, you’ll have to write concisely and quickly. Here, you have article inches to keep in mind. (Editors devote so many inches per article, or they chop from the bottom. This is where the inverted pyramid proves its worth—the most important news is found at the top.)
In Public Relations, your writing focus changes. Here, your goal is to write positive stories about the agency or company for which you work. You will write positive stories about your employer, then send them to your contacts at television stations and newspapers.
Skills to Acquire
Journalism is becoming a harder and harder field in which to work or even feel safe. It takes dedicated journalists who aren’t afraid of angering the subject of a news report to get the answers that readers are looking for. Following are several skills you should have, no matter what journalism specialty you choose:
- Persistence—keep asking for the interview
- Dedication—do the scout work
- Desire—want to make a difference
- Creativity—make your reports stand out
- News consumption—keep reading news and writing
- Master of grammar, spelling, and punctuation—so your work is respected
- Research—details are often buried
- Mastery of new news tools—software and graphics bring news home to people
- Remember the story—evoke a response
- Strong reporting and writing skills—avoid irritated callers because of errors
- Time management—you will not have much time per story
- Work well with people—your job puts you in front of people
- Multitask—it’s common to have five things to do NOW
- Know the issues you write about
- Develop sources you can return to
- News sense—what makes a story?
- Be comfortable with technology
- Editing—write, rewrite, and correct errors
- Toughen yourself to attacks—they are becoming common
- Avoid plagiarism
Journalists are expected to write well. For people who read physical newspapers or articles online, errors may irritate them. They may contact the writer, or your editor, and castigate them. English is a language that has more exceptions to rules than it has rules. (i before e, except after c, and whenever else that doesn’t hold true.)
While you can shadow a respected journalist, you really need to learn about journalism and everything a good journalist does by going to school and majoring in this profession. In addition, a good, accredited journalism program will teach you about ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has written and regularly publishes its Code of Ethics. Unless a mentor routinely instructs you on journalistic ethics, you won’t get the hang of them in a shadowing experience. Even though you can use your innate skills to support you, a good internship and good instruction can’t be substituted.
Your professors and cooperating editor in your internship can help you to understand the difference between “fake news” (propaganda) and the real thing. Some outlets are producing carefully edited “reports” that seem to tell viewers one thing when the opposite is true. It is only with study and practice that you will learn the difference between the two.
Journalist Careers and Salary
Where Might You Work?
When you graduate, expect to find work in newspaper publishing, where you will accept assignments and turn them in without much control over what you’re assigned. You will spend long hours on the job, work weekends, and face constant deadlines.
As a broadcast journalist, you will begin at a small station, usually known as an affiliate to a large, national station (CBS, ABC, or NBC). A closely related position is with cable operations, such as CNN, Fox, or MSNBC. Entry-level journalists are hired by cable outlets.
You may also begin your journalism career working for a consumer, professional, or trade magazine. Here, deadlines are farther apart and you’ll be more likely to find a position in something that you’re already interested in.
Multimedia journalism is any position that can be disseminated to broadcast, print or online. Bloggers, copy editors, political analysts, communications directors, social media specialists, speechwriters, newspaper publishers, public affairs directors, publications editors, public relations specialists, news anchors, talk show hosts, and sports announcers are all multimedia journalism positions.
If your journalism classes were focused on photojournalism, you may be able to capture a photo that says everything. Wire services include the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI). Here you will write articles that are sent out to subscribers.
Potential Career Paths
Before you graduate, you’ll need to choose a career path. A journalism degree allows you to choose from a wide range of careers and jobs, such as writer, announcer, public relations manager, reporter, broadcast news analyst, editor, or journalist.
You may decide that public relations is more your speed. Here, you can work as an event planner, publicist, advertising sales agent, writer, author, public relations and fundraising manager, market research analyst, or publicist. You may work in magazine publishing, newspaper publishing, television, or radio broadcasting.
Possible employers include healthcare and social assistance, professional scientific and technical services, state/local government, or magazine publishers.
You will pitch ideas, work with the photo and art teams to develop eye-catching layouts. You will also assign, write, and edit stories for the magazine. You’ll often be expected to be a self-starter with a good work ethic.
Employers need creative and motivated page designers who will be able to lend a new depth to local newspapers and magazines. They often prefer someone with experience in creating imaginative newspaper design, proofing, and editing skills.
Designers are more than just “visual” professionals. As such, you will also edit content as well as design newspaper pages. You should be familiar with a fast-paced newsroom environment, be an experienced newspaper designer, and have the ability to juggle several tasks at the same time. Knowledge of InDesign and Photoshop will make you stand out. Expect to work night and weekend hours on a schedule that changes often.
You will be responsible for gathering information on events making today’s news. Then you will write, produce, and present fair, balanced and accurate news and feature stories. You’ll keep your finger on the pulse of local and national news, dig into information as you determine truth and facts, deliver copy that is ready to be put onto a Teleprompter or straight on the news desk, be ready to provide on-air news reports in the field and in the studio; and create, report, and produce, with assistance, news specials and packages (will be based on breaking news or pre-planned stories).
This can be a full-time on-site or remote position within a Communications team. Your role is to work with the team, promoting content and marketing projects. You will also be responsible for customer analytics, email, and social media marketing. The Communication Associate also works with the editorial news team and you should be available to travel at least twice a year for team meetings.
You will work with Editorial, creating engaging email marketing, then track the success of the email marketing products, using the open and click-through rates, as well as the number of subscribers.
Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism:
You will be responsible for teaching two or more courses annually, in addition to putting on journalism seminars in nearby areas. You may mentor students who are specializing in Digital Journalism and work to promote Journalism as a viable career.
At this level, you’ll be expected to have a record of high-level, national and international, sustained and published journalism, as well as acclaimed work in journalism or outstanding awards.
Multimedia Editor, II:
You will be required to have a bachelor’s degree in Communication, English, Journalism, or another related field. You must also be experienced in MS Office.
You should have two years of editing and writing experience and experience producing multimedia (video and photo) content in either a university, non-profit public affairs office, corporate office, or with a newspaper or magazine.
**Salary info provided by PayScale
Journalism (correspondents, broadcast news analysts, and reporters) is expected to dip about 9% from 2016 and 2026. Reporter and correspondent employment may fall by 10%; broadcast news analysts may show very little change from 2016 to 2026.
The decline in advertising revenue in television, radio, and newspapers will have a poor effect on the employment rate for each of these occupations. Readership of newspapers has been on the decline for at least two decades; this is expected to continue through the next ten years. Also contributing to the decline of journalism jobs in radio and television broadcasting, is the increasing trend of publishing news online, for consumption with tablets, phones, and computers. News organizations now find it more difficult to sell traditional advertising, which is usually their main revenue source. While they have the option of creating paywalls to view content, this may not help them to replace revenue from print ads that they have now lost.
Consolidations (mergers) of news organizations may help to stem the loss of jobs. But this means that journalism positions are not going to be as plentiful. Still, this may allow media outlets to keep their staffs.
Find Journalist Jobs Near You
Advancing from Here
After you have worked in journalism for several years, you may be close to, or at the top of your profession. Where do you go from here?
Consider returning to school to earn your M.A. in Journalism. You will be able to choose an area of specialization that, once you graduate, can be a new professional focus. Become a journalism professor. You will be teaching what you know to new classes of students who want to become journalists. After writing news articles for so many years, you can change your focus and become a copy editor, brand specialist, business developer, technical writer, or author.