How to be a journalist (at least according to me)

Every so often I get an email from someone asking me how to be a journalist. Over the years I’ve responded to these emails with varying degrees of depth. Often, I want to help but feel overwhelmed by the gravity of the question, so these emails sit in my inbox for too long. Other times, I spend time crafting a thoughtful response only to never hear from that person again. (Apparently, other writers experience this too. It’s unbelievable. Don’t be like this.)

However, I believe in being generous with my time and knowledge, just as plenty of people have been towards me over the years. With that in mind I have resolved once again to write down what I know about succeeding in this strange and fun profession. This way, I won’t waste time crafting personal responses to people who don’t reply.

So here it is, everything I’ve learned about being a journalist—from freelancing to full time—in the just-shy-of-a-decade that I’ve been doing it.

This is most common question that fills my inbox. And thus we are presented with our first journalistic challenge! There is loads of advice online from established journalists about how to do this and samples of what makes a good pitch, so I encourage you to dive down the rabbit hole and find them. (Here and here are some good ones to get you started).

Here’s the TLDR: Find out the name and email address of the editor who might commission what you’re writing (for that, you use some combination of Twitter, finding the publication’s email format, and good old fashioned internet stalking). Send them a short, let’s say 200–300 word, description of your story idea (do not send them a full draft—at least not when you’re starting out). Include a brief bio of who you are and who you’ve written for, and link to some relevant examples of your work, ideally on a streamlined website. (Here’s mine.)

Hit send. Wait a week. Follow up. Know that a lot of the time, they may not even respond. Don’t take it personally. If you do this repetitively and pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, eventually people will start saying yes.

A note: Pitching is an artform, not a science. It’s also hard work. It’s impossible for me to tell you what will work for you, because much of it is learned by trial and error. I can tell you that you will not be successful if you don’t thoroughly and regularly read the publication(s) you are pitching, as well as their competitors. It’s a great idea to ask for guidelines and what an editor is looking for, but a lot of it relies on you deducing what they want. Did I mention it’s hard?

Oh, and that thing about following up? You need to do it obsessively.

This part, I truly believe, can’t be taught. But the good news is this: There are SO many things to write about. As Terry Pratchett once said, “The sun coming up is a story.” The internet means there are no longer space restrictions on the stories that get to be told, which means there is literally no limit on the great stories you can get paid to tell (the trick is finding them).

You don’t need to know about something beforehand to pitch a story about it, but if you’re freelance, you may need to do some preliminary research and reporting before you can write a convincing pitch about it. (Especially if you’re pitching a meaty longread.) If you have some crazy deep academic expertise in an area, then use that to inform your ideas! If you speak a language that will allow you to find stories other English-language journalists can’t find, write those! If you have access to a group of people or place that is hard to access, tell that story! If you’ve written about a topic in the past and now want to dive in deep, use that knowledge!

Remember that a lot of times, you’re not just pitching your idea, but your unique ability to tell it. A lot of my early freelancing success came from not pitching ideas from New York and London etc that other writers had access to. (The first story I ever wrote for the Guardian was an idea I got while shopping at South Africa’s fast fashion outlet, Mr Price, when I was living in Cape Town for four months. There really are stories everywhere.)

I’ve noticed that many people tend to think being a journalist lies in the act of writing. In my experience nothing can be further from the truth. The bulk of the work is in the story generation, the following of your beat (even if it’s an imagined one you made up as a freelancer), the proverbial gathering of string. You have to be willing to spend a lot of time and energy gathering knowledge, context, and contacts that may or may not ever be used. But the story generation part is also the bit that contains the most kismet, creativity, and wonder.

I think it’s a lot of fun to have a reason to engage deeply with the world around me, whether I’m buying a sandwich or reading ads on the tube or eavesdropping someone’s conversation on the bus. I find the best way to do is is to not overthink it. Engage with the world, read a lot, and let the good stories find you. As Elizabeth Gilbert says, “be obedient to your curiosity.”

*Takes deep breath.*

First I will acknowledge the sizeable amount of privilege that I have, and my gratitude for the many opportunities (both structural and ones that came by luck) that helped me get to where I am. I know there are a great many reasons why other people may not be able to enter journalism the way I did. However, some will. So I’m writing this post to demystify how I got to where I am in the hope it might seem more achievable to others. I can’t do much more than that.

The answer to this question really depends on what stage of life you’re at and what your expectations are. If you’re hoping to make a decent full time living from freelance writing next month — one that will allow you to live in an expensive city without taking a hit on your quality of life — I’d encourage you to think again, at least when you’re starting out. In general, I think our culture glamorizes freelancing a bit too much. The reality is that freelance writing is a very difficult way to pay your bills.

For reference, an article that can take weeks of work can pay less than half your rent. The Guardian was paying around 35 pence a word last time I wrote for them. Even when you earn that money, it may not arrive in your bank account at the agreed time, so you you need some kind of fallback—savings, credit cards, a partner with a stable income etc—so you have to have a way to fill in the gaps. For the most part, responsible use of credit cards (using them to fill in the gaps when I knew a payment was on its way) is what got me through my freelancing years.

To put things into further perspective: I freelanced for six or seven years during the first three quarters of my twenties, but during that time I had numerous jobs (everything from waitressing jobs and temping in the beginning, to personal assistant work and writing content for random companies down the line) to help pay my bills. The reason I could pull that off is because I had a lot of energy, a low cost of living, and I really wanted to write.

So where does that leave you? If you’re young and hungry and willing to live in the kinds of flat-shares I did throughout my twenties then I’d say: go for it! If you have zero clips or writing samples, then you may need to write for free for a bit to get some, but don’t do that for too long. Once you start getting paid for your writing, give it some time before you expect your writing to comfortably pay your rent. Otherwise, the pressure and expectation (and late payments) will make you quit. More on that below.

If I were giving advice to a journalist starting out a bit later in life or switching careers, I would say keep your job and start doing your journalism on the side. Or find some kind of well-paid side gig (consulting, writing reports, whatever your former expertise was etc) that leaves time free for journalism. Even at the peak of my freelancing career, I was not making 100% of my money from journalism, though I was making it all from writing words. I suspect many freelance journalists are in a similar situation—they just don’t talk about it.

In essence what I’m saying is this: If you want to, there isn’t a lot stopping you from finding stories and telling them. And you should do that! It’s really fun! But the economics of it suck. Even when I was more established as a freelancer, I found it helpful to think of it as an art-form, rather than a profession.

In the venn diagram of your income, there will be things that earn you money; things that you really, really want to write; and a rare few things that do both. Your goal, over time, should be to increase that overlap. Thinking of journalism in this way has helped me get my head around how to survive doing this when it seems totally insane to go on. (For more on this, consult the ideas of Elizabeth Gilbert, once again, who is the patron saint of the idea that your creative work doesn’t owe you anything.)

I, too, wish I could get paid $4 a word as a freelancer. But I didn’t, and I probably never will. I realize this is an unfashionable thing to say in a time when people are rightly pointing out the unfairness and privilege that is rife in this industry. Older journalists might balk at the idea of journalism as a kind of rarified artform rather than an everyman’s trade. That’s all problematic, and it needs to be addressed. But I can only speak for my experience, acknowledge my sizeable amount of privilege, and try to encourage and help as many people as I can to give it a shot.

No matter what stage you’re at, if you’re going to make any money from this, you need to, at the very least, be extremely easy to find. Put your email everywhere online. Have a consistent social media presence so that editors can find you by searching your byline. Use Twitter a lot; you don’t need a ton of followers for it to be effective. Assume that everything you post will be seen by someone who might one day hire you. Google yourself often. Delete your old blogs from 2013 that are clogging up and confusing your search results. Say yes to random podcast interviews and media spots and panel opportunities if they come from people who aren’t trying to take advantage of you.

Oh, and while you’re doing that: say thank you to everyone who gives you opportunities or helps you; return favors; deliver clean copy on time; do what you say you’re going to do; follow up with people you meet who seem interesting and useful. Do all of this all of the time and you’ll get somewhere.

*Takes another deep breath*

Journalism has to be one of a few industries where having a job in said industry is considered some kind of accomplishment. It sounds ridiculous but it’s true: Full time journalism jobs are hard to find and can be harder to keep longer than the next VC funding cycle.

Truth be told, I don’t have a ton of advice about how to go about getting full time positions journalism. I was never was the type of person who got awards, or grants, or paid fellowships, or scholarships—and trust me, I applied. Nor have I ever once gotten anything other than a rejection (or silence) from a journalism job I applied for cold online. I had internships—three to be exact: two in university and one afterwards, during which I was a restaurant hostess to pay my rent—and though they led to bylines and great connections, they did not lead to a career in and of itself.

While I’ve had two staff jobs, both of them have come from existing relationships, and from what I can tell, a lot of my peers seem to get their jobs the same way. An outsider might fairly develop the impression that “existing relationships” can only take the form of well-connected editors who you’ve formerly worked with. But the upside of journalism is that all of your output is public and has your name on it, no matter where you work or how connected/privileged you are. This means that relationships can also be formed more organically: by someone seeing your work online, reaching out, and starting an ongoing discussion. Or, by you reaching out and doing the same. Weeks or months or years later—who knows!—they might have a job for you.

In my opinion, the best way to get a full time job is to do good work that gets seen, cultivate good contacts, and let everyone know that you’re looking for a job. It’s no guarantee, and it may take a while, but that’s how it has worked for me.

In university, my journalism adviser used to say the following three words so often they became a kind of mantra: “Get it right.” Those words ring in my ears most days, and the grave seriousness with which she used to utter them still fills me with fear and dread.

And to be honest, fear and dread is kind of how journalism feels to me a lot of the time! That’s because the process of getting it right will cause you great pain, and strife, and stress, and anxiety and frankly sometimes outright misery. (Thus the Horace Greeley quote: “Journalism will kill you—but it will keep you alive while you’re at it.”) But I’ve come to believe that if you want to do good work, the pain and strife are required.

There is no assuming “it will be fine” if you don’t double check that thing that seems accurate, or if you guess that a source meant 18.5 when they sounded like they said 85, or you assume the meaning of a quote won’t change if you switch an “and” to an “or.” You have to check. You always have to check. Your job is to get it right. If you’re not willing to go to great lengths do that — including calling and emailing people way more times than what would be deemed socially acceptable — you probably shouldn’t bother.

And on that note, here’s my #1 get-it-right tip: Please don’t listen to baby boomer-aged reporters who brag about not needing to record their interviews. We live in the era of fake news: Record your goddamn interviews. It makes the work of getting it right a lot easier.

Whether you’re freelance or on staff, you have to remember that first and foremost, you work for yourself. Your goals and your employer/client’s goals may be aligned some of the time, but chances are over the long term they are looking out for the interests of their company, not yours (and why wouldn’t they, right?)

So that means you need to always look out for yourself. Don’t work for dishonest people. Continue to grow your profile and personal brand even when you’re gainfully employed. Don’t expect you’ll have any job this time next year, let alone forever. And never forget that having integrity may sometimes seem harder in the short term, but it’s much easier over the long haul.

As you can probably tell from the above, a lot about the state of media is pretty disappointing and depressing! That’s 100% true. But I think the reason so many people want to do this work despite that is because it is, at the end of the day, quite a lot of fun. There is no denying it’s a huge privilege to have a platform to write from, to ask people questions and have them actually give you answers, to want to know things and get paid to find them out. For me, that never gets old.

When you’re starting out, don’t forget that you will never arrive. There will never be a moment when you are officially deemed a journalist or a writer. That part is on you; you just have to start. As Austin Kleon puts it:

“Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work. Let go of the thing you’re trying to be [a writer] and focus on the actual work you need to be doing [writing]. Doing the work will take you someplace further and far more interesting.”

Thanks for reading! For more on writing and creativity and all kinds of other stuff, you can subscribe to my newsletter: https://rojospinks.substack.com/ or follow me on Twitter at @rojospinks.

Writing about how to create a meaningful life in a chaotic world. Formerly a lifestyle and business reporter. Find me: rojospinks.com @rojospinks.

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