I’ve not always been sure of what I wanted to be. I knew I was a writer, but there are many ways to be a writer, and all of them interested me. I drifted, not feeling able to pick a speciality. While this caused me anxiety (and continues to), I think that my flexibility is one of my greater strengths as a journalist.
I have always loved reading and writing. I wrote plays, stories and poems as a child. I thought I was heading towards fiction, and chose an undergraduate degree in English and Cultural Studies at my university in Perth, Australia. I stopped writing stories and started writing essays. I wrote literary and film criticism for the university magazine, eventually taking over as editors in those roles. I freelanced very lightly, publishing one essay on a novel by Arundhati Roy, and one tiny reported review of a cafe. Meanwhile, I was reading great twentieth-century war and culture reporters, like Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller, and Renata Adler.
I wanted to write about the ways the world I saw around me had been shaped. I wanted to write about what was going on. So I started a PhD.
My PhD did ask questions about the future and the past and the electrical current which ran through them. However, within a year, I found myself frustrated, uncertain whether I was doing what I really wanted to do, faced with debilitating external pressures (money). I dropped out.
I said to my supervisor when I left university, I want to be a reporter. I was obsessed with Spotlight (both the film and the archives on the Boston Globe website). I wanted to write longform articles that looked hard at a character, or situation, and used it to tell a wider story about our lives. I had no idea how to do that, and the reporters whose lives I’d read about had come up in a different time. I am the sort of person who likes a map. I’ve had to make my own.
If you, like me, do not have a journalism degree, and often feel like you are do not have the tools to scale a mountain, I have compiled a list of resources and revelations that I hope will help you.
I am someone who likes to have done their reading. More to the point, I don’t see why you would want to be a journalist if you weren’t fascinated by stories. Keep up – know what the big stories are, not just in the USA and the UK, but all over the place. Read the news. Read Vanity Fair. Read the Jakarta Post. You don’t have the training, so give yourself an education. Pay attention to style, to the way different types of story are structured.
Extra-curricular: I have found the Longform podcast to be immensely rewarding to listen to. Reporters are interviewed by hosts Max Linsky, Aaron Lammar, and Evan Ratliffe, on the longitude of their careers; how they started, who helped them, what the journalism landscape looked like when they were starting out. Try this interview with reporter Kiera Feldman, where she discusses how she finances her investigative journalism.
Also, if you want to get into podcasting, there are really amazing free resources available. This American Life has a great section on their website which details some of the best places to read, listen, and learn about radio. Also, listen to this Transom interview with my favourite radio journalist, Stephanie Foo.
Consider your assets
I mean three things by this. Firstly, can you afford to do internships and work experience? It’s immensely helpful to get experience in different types of newsroom. I have worked at magazines, TV documentary firms, in local news, for friends, as a freelancer, and in (one) international investigative journalism institution. The most significant thing that I got from these experiences is a narrower idea of the type of journalism in which I prefer to specialise. However, almost all of these experiences were unpaid. I supported myself through bookshop, restaurant, bar, and library work, but I wasn’t in London for much of it, which meant living was less expensive.
A lot of outlets (wrongly) expect you to work for free. An internship which requires full-time attendance for an extended period of time is impossible for many people. It is entirely possible for wealthy, culturally powerful young people. This often means that the people who are allowed through the gates are all of similar, limited perspective. This is a serious problem in journalism, and arts industries generally.
If you can’t afford to do such an internship, see if your local newsrooms/radio will let you do one or two days a week over a longer period of time. They usually have caps on how long they can hire you for work experience, but many will let you stretch it out over time if you ask.
Next asset. Do you know anyone in journalism? Like every industry ever, journalism is plagued by casual nepotism. I got my internship at that international media organisation, yes, because I am talented and clever, but also because I had a friend who had done it before me and was able to introduce me to the producers of the show I worked on. I can’t know if I would have received the position without his help, but I think it’s very possible I would have been one email of many. If you don’t know anyone, try as hard as you can to make connections. I started afresh when I moved to London, and did some of those extended work experience contracts I was talking about before. It helped.
Thirdly, if you have previous experience in a different industry, think hard about the ways those skills can be useful to you. I may not have a super sophisticated understanding of my portable Zoom microphone, but I learnt how to be a brilliant close reader while studying literature at university. I have great attention to detail, and can tell when a story is missing structure or connective tissue of some kind. I have acting experience, so I can speak well on camera or into a microphone. I have been a professional researcher. What are your portable skills?
Just do it
My last piece of advice is to practice. I am not very good at just doing something, I feel like I need permission, or I need to be completely prepared. I think, why should this stranger tell me their story, when I don’t know if I can get it published somewhere and I don’t know if they’ll ever see their name printed. The first people I interviewed where family members, I followed them around with my microphone (which I saved for three months to buy, because tech is expensive). I wrote loads of terrible reviews for my university paper before I began to write good ones. Working on the university paper is great, you can do whatever you want, and the university is a great little micro-society to study. There is tons of shady stuff going on at your university, trust me. It’s also quite interesting to be so close to the audience of your writing; you get to see the impact of your work up close.
I’m not advocating that you drop yourself into a war zone (like Gareth Browne, the young British dude who flew to Iraq in 2016 to learn how to cover crisis… only a white guy would). Use what you have around you and build your confidence. People like to talk, so show up to listen.