Why work experience isn’t enough to stand out in journalism…

Once upon a time, the best way into journalism was to do work experience. It worked for me, and for many others before me. At around the time I became a journalist, the work experience route was rapidly being replaced with the higher education one.

I know many great journalists who completed post-graduate or one-year higher education courses before entering journalism. I know great ones who did three years of a journalism degree before arriving in newsrooms. Some regret spending three years studying journalism when they realise it doesn’t really give them much of a head start.

I wince when I see universities, particularly some of those who’ve only been offering journalism courses in recent years, suggesting that spending up to £9,000 a year is the best way to get a grounding for a job in journalism. In his column, reported by Holdthefrontpage, Derby Telegraph editor Neil White revealed he tells students he’d go with a journalist with a lower-standard degree but a great CV over one with first-class degree but little on the CV.

I agree – to a point.

And while some will accuse editors of an inverted snobbery towards journalism degrees, there’s no doubt that getting yourself known in newsrooms can be the thing which makes you stand out from a crowd. But there are many more ways to get noticed than through work experience. Do newsrooms limit their options by focusing on those who seek out work experience? I think so.

If a student really wants to crack a career in a newsroom, the best way to get attention – to any newsroom which is serious about building a digital future for itself anyway – is to have the skills which enhance the newsroom, not just add to the existing skills in it.

Work experience often answered the editor’s question: “Can they find a story?” The inverted snobbery, if that is what it ever was (and I don’t think it was – it was expedience) was that a journalism degree could teach you the law, shorthand and a brief history of journalism, but it couldn’t teach you to write a story. Or indeed find one. And I guess if you believe, as I do, that luck will always play a part in journalism, then unless a university can teach luck, maybe it can only ever go so far in teaching how to find a story.  So work experience helped editors root out the potential stars from those who had a qualification, but little else.

Over the past 18 months, as we’ve rolled out Newsroom 3.1 across Trinity Mirror, we’ve employed new members of staff who have come from many different backgrounds. Some came from social media marketing jobs, others from digital pure-play organisations. Some did come from other newsrooms and some came straight from university. The one thing they all had in common was that they had digital skills which enhanced our newsrooms, and they had been smart enough to spot the best way to get on in journalism was to develop skills which newsrooms need.

It’s for this reason that any journalist who bemoans the lack of training they have received – and thankfully it’s about two years since I heard the phrase ‘But nobody has taught me how to use Twitter’ – as a reason for not developing new skills is essentially reducing their chances of a successful future. In a hyper-competitive post-grad world, smart journalism students have developed skills which make them stand out to the smart newsrooms which know the skills they need in the future. Those people will rise to the top quickly, bypassing anyone who is waiting to be told the digital skills they need.

Work experience is a way to show off those skills – but the days of work experience being the only way to get published are also long gone. Students who can show off well-managed, well-written, long-established blogs stand out. Showing how to use social media properly are also more rare than you might think.

Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard for journalism students is not to attempt to be a Jack of all trades, but to be brilliant at one thing a newsroom might need while having an understanding many other things too.

It’s a painful but true fact that knowing where to find a great story alone isn’t enough any more. Knowing what to do with that story in a digital age is also as essential. To be successful, people need to be reading you.

So for me a great CV isn’t one which comes accompanied with work experience. It’s one which proves to me that someone has the skills which make a newsroom better, and demonstrates that the person knows how to use those skills and others will learn from them.

But there’s a challenge for regional newsrooms here too. The days of being the only journalism show in town are long gone. Regional newsrooms are no longer the main gateway to national newsrooms. But the impact of this is almost irrelevant when you look at the long list of new rivals for top talent: digital pureplay organisations, marketing firms, companies pushing into branded content, the BBC (much more a like-for-like competitor now) and so on. And, of course, for the entrepreneurial journalist, there’s the freelance or self-employed route too.

One journalism academic I know tells me she struggles to convince her students to do work experience in regional newsrooms. Her passion for the regional press is clear – so why don’t her students want to spend time with us? Probably because of the image we still sometimes project, an image which those who’ve departed the industry in recent years are often keen to share. It’s not like the good old days, they say. No, it’s a different world, but not one that should be written off.

There is a match made in heaven here, and if that’s going over the top, at least a mutually-beneficial trade. The newsroom which recognises the skills it lacks but promotes itself as a great place to work, share and learn should attract the cream of next generation: The students canny enough to know that work experience and a journalism degree are no longer enough to stand out from the crowd.  The clever student brings in new skills, while the experienced newsroom helps the student hone the traditional ones which are every bit as important now as they were 50 years ago: Accuracy, story getting and understanding what readers want.

I hate it when I hear people tell student journalists that there has never been a more exciting time to be a journalist. It’s a phrase which hides a multitude of problems. But for the student journalist who makes the effort to stand out, and the newsroom prepared to think differently about who it recruits, the future is quite probably a great one. It’s just that work experience isn’t enough to stand out any more. And we can’t expect a queue at the door for that work experience either.

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