For as long as I can remember, I wanted to write for a living. I was obsessed with stories, reading Judy Blume in primary school, and even wrote my first book aged 12, sending it to a handful of publishers (sadly, Penguin never got back to me).
So when I went to college and started exploring career options, going into journalism was a natural choice. All my favourite subjects – English, history and media studies – had a leaning towards storytelling, fact-finding and creativity.
And while I didn’t know this at the time, every small step I took back then led towards my fledgling career.
I joined the editorial team at my college newspaper, and quite quickly I went from editorial assistant to editor itself. On the paper we showcased independent shops (I took my wilful colleague for a makeover at a snowboarding store), interviewed students on campus and generally did amateur reporting which gave a great grounding for what was to come. I learnt to sharpen my writing, edit ruthlessly, and understand the importance of a good headline.
Also (and this is the bit I didn’t realise) this experience helped populate my CV when I didn’t have any ‘real world’ journalism experience to speak of.
And that’s my biggest piece of advice. When it comes to journalism, work experience wins.
I chose a relatively ‘safe’ degree option of English and Marketing, after which I decided to take the plunge and commit to a Postgraduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism. The course gave me a great insight into the bustling world of radio and TV news. We had mock newsrooms every week doing live broadcasts. I was taught how to operate a camera, get the perfect shot, and how to piece together a news story for maximum impact.
It was during my course I applied for a scholarship with the BBC. It was aimed at budding journalists and, as part of the selection process, I was tasked with unpicking a Radio 4 segment. Luckily, my investigative skills paid off, and I was awarded the scholarship, being only one of four people in the UK to receive the honour that year.
As part of the scholarship, I had a one-month placement with BBC Radio 4. I was working on Woman’s Hour and You and Yours. This was a far cry from anything I’d done before. The focus on Woman’s Hour was to get the story watertight before broadcasting. Unlike newsrooms, where there’s a race for the scoop and the story needs to be told with what information is available, Radio 4 introduced me to the world of in-depth research and production.
Crucially, this placement gave me another valuable – and very different – piece of work experience under my belt.
After my course, I clocked up placements with BBC Radio Leeds, BBC Radio Shropshire and ITV. The interesting thing was that during these placements, I met many a journalist who didn’t have a journalism qualification, nor had they been to university. Many had worked their way up within a newsroom after college.
What I learned was that studying journalism alone wasn’t enough, and that classroom theory was no match for on-the-job experience. While my course helped formalise my credentials and get a foot in the door, editors wanted to know what I’d done beyond this.
And this means saying yes to the less glamorous jobs. I quickly learned that journalism was much more than sitting behind a news desk.
Most journalists have earned their stripes pdoing the jobs many would rather not.
I found myself doing vox pops – interviewing members of the public for opinion pieces – in a not-very-busy retail park in the middle of a scorching heatwave. I stood in the rain perfecting a piece to camera in the Lake District. Most people have a perception that journalism is all boozy lunches and exclusive events, but it was hard graft. But all these jobs, which weren’t fun at all, helped showcase my credentials. And the more news outlets I had on my CV, the easier it was to get my next gig.
Another thing that really aided me in my career was having a nose for a story. In a world where every story was common knowledge in the newsroom, finding a scoop was like gold dust.
After finding out that a Bollywood movie was being made in my local hospital, I pitched the story to ITV and scored my first paid TV report. This stepping-stone got me into TV reporting. And the rest, as they say, is news history.
Are you still interested in a career in journalism? If so, here’s my key advice:
- Start now: If you have a university newspaper, join the team. It’s the best start you can get.
- Be curious: Read local and national newspapers, and watch TV news. See if you can define who their different audiences are. What kind of stories do they cover?
- Offer your services: Ask your local radio station or newspaper if you can do some work experience with them. And when you’re in a newsroom, absorb everything like a sponge. Understand how they operate, learn about their news values.
- Build a roster of experience: This is the biggest thing. Work experience shows willing. The more you do, the greater the chance of being successful in the ever-competitive world of journalism.
Halima Khatun is former broadcast journalist and writer, turned PR consultant and media trainer. Her journalism experience includes ITV Wales and BBC Radio Manchester. After a career in journalism, Halima now works with businesses large and small, helping them gain invaluable media publicity. She also trains start-ups to do their own PR. You can read her blog at halimabobs.com