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Media, journalism and publishing
Getting work experience in journalism

Getting graduate work experience in journalism

Competition is tough for fledgling hacks looking to break into the industry. Here's hoping you like to write, because you’re going to be bashing out a lot of speculative applications and covering letters.
Don’t wait for schemes or internship adverts to appear online because they won’t – write a letter, make a phone call and go.

See the list of links below to jump to a subject that interests you. It’s a smart idea to sample a little of each section though to give yourself a good overview of what you can do to get graduate work experience in journalism.

Where to get experience and what to expect | local newspapers | local radio | magazines/publishers | major grad schemes | applying for work experience | pre-work experience information | making the most of your work experience | what doesn’t count as work experience?

Where to get experience

The Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian and the BBC all run graduate or work experience schemes in journalism or editorial with a slightly different focus. Applications normally close towards the end of the year, with interviews in the spring. Adverts are widely circulated on journalism websites when the hiring process is going on, so make sure you’ve got RSS feeds set up or follow the organisations on Twitter for news. Some of the large regional groups such as Trinity Mirror also run placements which can see you working in different locations over the course of a year. News International run a variety of different projects for different ages as part of their news academy and news graduate programmes.

Of course everyone wants to go to the BBC or The Guardian, which makes these schemes insanely competitive. If you’re looking for alternatives to the major brand names, then it’s best that you read the sections below.

Local newspapers

This is probably the easiest option. There are still independently run local newspapers in the UK and speculative applications are the standard approach. Don’t wait for schemes or internship adverts to appear online because they won’t – write a letter, make a phone call and go.

Once you’re in the office you will most likely be assigned to shadow a full-time member of staff as they work on stories. The pace will vary according to how regularly a newspaper publishes. You may find yourself ignored somewhat on a daily as everyone scrambles to meet the deadline at the end of the day, but the work will be more challenging. A weekly will mean you get more in-depth advice from staff, but you won’t get the same news experience. As a general rule you’ll move onto researching (with sources) and double-checking quotes with people before they unleash you on stories.

It’s common for vox pops to be handed down to interns and work experience students in the office. A vox pop requires you to ask as many people as possible the same questions on a single topic. This is the job that no one wants to do, but it is great for the readers, measures general public sentiment on current affairs and is a great way to hone interviewing skills. Suck it up, don’t be timid and go back with as much as you can get to make an impression.

From there you may move on to writing your own stories. Chances are many will be press releases which you will reshuffle and combine with information gleaned from telephone interviews and phone calls. This shouldn’t devalue the experience and you’ll get a few bylines at the end of the day to show future employers.

Local radio stations

Local radio stations now predominantly (but not entirely) mean BBC local radio. Competition is exceptionally stiff to get on one of the BBC schemes, with thousands of journalism grads vying for a position at one of them. Applications can be found and made almost exclusively through the BBC’s centralised application system online. Even on the first application form, expect to find detailed questions on your knowledge of local radio shows, presenters, audiences and the catchment area in general.

Work experience tasks will be very nearly the same as for local newspapers, although the ratio of shadowing to practical work will vary greatly from location to location. In addition to the research and vox pops (staples of journalism work experience), expect to learn how to write cues and use software such as cool edit or adobe audition.

Magazines/publishers

Work experience placements at magazines can be a softer way into the industry. While many will edge more towards office-based tasks (picture research, blogs, social media, comment and features) than news reporting, you will still get the opportunity to shadow the staff. If you're lucky they’ll have a lot more time to teach you the basic rights and wrongs of reporting and writing.

Major grad schemes

Most national newspapers, regional groups and broadcasters do offer some kind of grad placement scheme, the details of which will change from year to year. There is certainly no harm in applying for these as long as you understand the sheer scale of the competition and are prepared to go into a somewhat cut-throat environment.

Again, tasks will be similar in nature to those in local newspapers, but the work will need to be to a much higher standard – it’s unlikely that you’ll have the chance to get sizeable independent stories published.

Be warned: it is entirely possible to put your heart and soul into an application to a major work experience scheme at a national paper and then spend your time sitting at a desk staring blankly at the internet for research and comments. The onus is on you to make yourself stand out and get involved in the work. It will show both in your manner and on your CV if you’ve been a desk jockey for the entirety of your placement.

Applying for work experience

As they always say, it’s about who you know – smaller organisations and newspapers don’t always have a formalised work experience scheme, so if you know someone who can get you in the office for a week, use that to your advantage. Likewise, when you leave, make sure everyone knows who you are and that channels of contact are kept open.

  • Don’t be afraid to put out feelers – call up offices and keep asking for work experience until you get a definite yes or no.
  • Letters or emails – that is the question. Some journalists won’t pick up an email unless it’s about a story, a tip or a threat of major defamation proceedings. Call up and check how best to apply, on paper or online.
  • Follow up – don’t forget about deferrals or delays. A positive trait in a young reporter is the ability to pursue enquiries. If you haven’t heard back for a week or two, it might be time to pick up the phone for a polite chat.

Pre-work experience information

The sad fact is that small newspapers and local organisations don’t have much of a budget or a need for work experience students, which can lead to a dearth of paid positions. To understand the situation fully, make sure you check out: TARGETjobs work experience and internships advice.

The upside of a lack of established experience programmes is that you may have more freedom to pick and choose how much work you do. Staff are normally too busy trying to get the daily publication/show out, so it will be your responsibility to ask for work while you’re there. Major placement schemes, national and local, will normally offer you anything between travel expenses to an average first job wage.

On a local newspaper you may be able to negotiate which days you go in and how often. This means you could minimise your work experience to a single day a week, for example, and could combine it with paid work.

Making the most of your work experience

  • Turn up on the first day with story ideas – even if the editors shoot them down, they will tell you why and you’ll learn. Don’t stop looking for stories while you’re there.
  • Ask for work. Editors will be busy, but newsrooms always need content and back up content. Find out if there are any press releases you’re allowed to chase after and get working.
  • Move around. See if you can get some time shadowing the sub-editors and photographers so that you get to see different roles.
  • Get the research paperwork done quickly – a real journalist would – then you can move on to the more interesting jobs.
  • Steer clear of office politics – national newspapers in particular can be quite tense and competitive. Just make sure you make good contacts for the future.

What doesn’t count as work experience?

Blogs. Having a blog can show a commitment to current affairs or other topics of special interest. If you become exceptionally successful it may be a good way of promoting your skills. However, don’t expect a blog to count as work experience. You WILL make spelling or grammatical mistakes – you have no editor, no sub-editor and no one to tell you about inappropriate headlines or defamatory comments. Do mention you keep one on applications as it shows willing, but don’t try to pass it off as work samples.

Social media. It now goes without saying that you will be well versed in social media when applying to any journalism job and employers will check. Make sure what you have is appropriate. It’s perfectly fine to keep your Facebook private, but platforms such as Twitter should be exposed to the world and free of offensive comments or references to your own state of inebriation at the time. If you don’t use social media or lock down your Twitter privacy settings make sure you have a good excuse. Anything short of ‘the Syrian government hitman still monitors my Twitter feed’ is not going to cut it.

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