The world of journalism has a long and chequered past. Whether that be the yellow-journalism tactics depicted by Orson Welles in 1941’s Citizen Kane or the journalist to screenwriter paths show in Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, Journalism has always existed and is easily one of the most popular jobs in the UK.
So how do you become a Journalist? Well, we’ve compiled a useful career guide for you, so let’s jump in, shall we?
What is the role of a journalist?
Suppose we take a look at the journalist job description. In that case, we’ll find it includes writing for local or national news organisations to keep readers up to date with current affairs and what is happening in the community around them.
A British journalist may cover court cases, council meetings and issues affecting residents on their patch. Journalism in the UK reports on politics, news, sports, science, business, the economy and arts and culture. It will include entertainment, local events, national news and human interest stories.
Newspaper journalism can differ from online news websites - even from the same organisation - as it can include videos, interactive photos and other technological advantages to enhance the story. Even though you may find the news can reach out to various audiences both online and in print, the journalism job description for both areas are essentially the same.
In most cases, newsrooms will have at least a trainee journalist, senior reporter, assistant or content editor and an editor. For newspapers they will have a department that produces the layout of the paper itself, and will have sub-editors and print editors - these are the people who put the story on the page that you’re holding.
What does a journalist do?
A newspaper reporter, practically, writes articles for their audience to keep them informed and entertained. A national paper will have a different reach and audience than a local one, meaning the type of stories they produce will vary to cater to their readership.
On a day-to-day level, a journalist will interview people, build contacts, speak with the emergency services’ press office, health trusts and the local authority to write stories. Having an eye for news and recognising what makes a story a ‘story’ is part of the role, as well as being approachable, personable and sensitive to the delicate issues you’re covering.
The journalism salary for the average reporter is around £27,000, but this typically comes with experience.
You’ll find yourself either out talking to people, interviewing, attending press conferences and court, or at the desk writing it up. Each given day - or hour - can be drastically different, one minute you might be interviewing a local councillor about a town park that is getting demolished and then be sitting in on a murder trial.
Some newsrooms may have correspondents who specialise in these areas, like a court reporter who only goes to court cases and inquests, another who attends council and cabinet meetings, or someone who writes human interest features. However, gaining experience in all of them is hugely beneficial to show you can handle it all, and you may find yourself dabbling in everything at a small paper.
A newspaper job is much more than just writing stories; there is a range of roles that ensure the work is checked before being uploaded online or put in print. You’ll need to be able to prioritise, manage time and work to fast deadlines, as well as, be able to report or head down to a breaking news scene to beat rivals. Reporters can also expect to report live on significant incidents, whether as a news blog or via video at the incident itself.
A broadcast journalist will have the skills needed to conduct TV and online news reports - like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 - and will train in how to speak and act on camera. They will write their script beforehand and in most cases, conduct their interviews and research for the broadcast.
How to become a journalist?
What qualifications do you need to be a journalist? Firstly, there is more than one avenue towards a newspaper journalist, with the most common route being to study an accredited qualification. However, there are apprenticeship and trainee roles available to learn on the job, or some may move into one area of the position that supports the team and later on transition over after completing specific courses.
Most reporter jobs in newspapers ask candidates to have the NCTJ (National Council of the Training of Journalists) qualification, which is an industry-standard course that proves you know the essentials for the job. The journalism skills included on the NCTJ include public affairs, breaking news, media law and video journalism.
The most popular option is to study the NCTJ at News Associates or the Press Association in London, which also offer fast track courses which will see you qualified in a matter of a few months. Although these courses are demanding, tough and require a lot of hard work, so you may want to consider the longer course if you are working while studying or need extra time to complete it.
However, there are some qualifications to be a journalist that is not NCTJ accredited. Some newsrooms may still take you on but might ask you to complete it while you work. There are lots of universities which offer degrees that allow you to take the NCTJ exams alongside your studies, making it easier to complete.
A newspaper reporter, practically, writes articles for their audience to keep them informed and entertained.
One of the standard journalist requirements that are still highly debated today is the skill of shorthand note-taking. A lot of newsrooms still ask trainees and applicants to have this, while others are more flexible. Shorthand is a note-taking skill which allows you to write words down fast in shorter characters and to the untrained eye, it may look like gibberish! Editors debate whether it is part of the desired skills needed to be a journalist, as some candidates may not have the ability but are excellent reporters.
One strong counter-argument is based on the legal system, which in the UK still does not permit recording equipment, which means the only way a reporter can get everything they need from a hearing is to have shorthand at high speed. Another advantage for having the skill is regarding the reliance on technology, so if you use your phone or a dictaphone to record an interview and if you lose the file or your phone battery dies, you won’t have anything to use.
Still, if you have a shorthand, you just need a pen and some paper. It’s also much quicker to transcribe from shorthand than it is from a recording as you need to pause the audio to type up what was said and can take three times as long.
Other journalism skills which are usually taught through journalism qualifications involve law training; if you are writing up a council meeting or a complicated court case, you need to ensure your article is legally safe. You’d be surprised at how much law comes into the job, from copyright issues of using a photograph on social media, to publishing a quote that could defame someone else.
You don’t need to have a degree to become a journalist; you can choose to take the NCTJ qualification or become an apprentice/trainee if the newsroom offers training on the job. Although, it’s common for students to take an undergraduate or postgraduate degree that offers NCTJ exams, as you can apply for student loans for the course and just pay for the individual exams at the end.
After graduation, you’re an accredited journalist (possibly with shorthand), and you can start applying for jobs. Most will start trainee or junior journalism roles at first and after time or completing another course, become a senior journalist.
What skills are useful for a journalist?
Shorthand, as mentioned above, is one of the critical skills for journalists. Also, media law, listening and interviewing skills are essential for the role. A journalist should be an excellent communicator, have exceptional writing ability and be able to ask the difficult questions.
They should be non-judgemental, without bias, and always work to give a balanced report as much as they can. It’s common for journalists to be curious, inquisitive and aiming to learn about everything and anything they’re writing about. They should be caring, empathetic and sympathetic to the people they’re reporting on, and be able to present facts or data in clear and coherent ways.
Can you work as a journalist remotely?
The role can be done from home if you have access to a computer, laptop, the internet and a notepad and pen. Some positions may allow remote working where you can call interviewees for stories, but it’s common for journalists to go out on patch - the main area they report on - or to scheduled interviews.
Speaking on the phone and meeting face-to-face are daily tasks. There may be instances where you have to attend court or public meetings or to a scene of a crime, so travel is essential. However, you can speak to your employer about the possibility of working some of the time from home.
How much do news reporters make in the UK?
Now, how much do journalists make? Don’t let it be a deterrent that a news journalist salary is the lowest average salary in the sector. A trainee reporter may see a starting salary from as little as £12,000, but this is dependent on the organisation, as it can be as high as £20,000. The journalism salary for the average reporter is around £27,000, but this typically comes with experience. Journalist pay can also differ from a regional or local paper to a national.
How much does a journalist earn from experience? Usually, after a few years of training, you can see the journalist wage increase, with those in the profession for longer than a decade seeing £35,000 to £40,000 - but this will come from hard work, a healthy contact book and experience.
Some newsrooms may still take you on but might ask you to complete it while you work.
Specialisms can also help, with a sports journalist salary being different from a news reporter salary who only covers court and inquests. It’s also worth noting that sports journalism salary can be competitive and a challenging area to get into, due to the limited vacancies linked to it. It’s not impossible to work as a sports journalist, but not every newsroom will have one, or another reporter or sub-editor may do it as part of their role, so you may find competition fierce.
How much do journalists earn in national newspapers? This varies, and most organisations have a UK wide pay scale that they stick to, although after a few years you can ask for a raise if you believe it’s well deserved, or see the average journalist salary rise in terms of the minimum living wage. The journalist salary in London is typically a little bit higher due to the London living wage.
How to find journalism work experience?
Newspaper work experience is not essential, but most newsrooms want to see applicants undergo experience to get insight into what’s like on the job. Work experience in journalism will allow you to see how a real newsroom works, the stories they cover and gain writing practice.
In most cases, at the beginning of your week or two-week stint, you’ll be writing articles at the office to get you into the flow of the work before opportunities to shadow a journalist out on a job later on. In some cases they may ask you to attend an event, take photos and report back. It’s a great chance to get your byline in print or online before finishing your studies - and seeing your name for the first time in the news is a fantastic feeling.
Try your local and regional newspapers for work experience, whether that is online or in print, by emailing or calling in. You can also apply to more significant schemes with national papers, like The Guardian, BBC, The Times and the Daily Mail - most offer experience opportunities. Although it’s much harder to get a place as hundreds of student journalists apply for these temporary roles, so you need to stand out to get the part.
What are journalism prospects?
Newspaper jobs include much more than just a journalist position; you can move up the ladder by becoming a senior journalist, an assistant editor and then an editor of the entire newsroom. Journalist jobs come in all shapes and sizes, from video reporter, court reporter or a sports journalist.
You may also decide to move onto production and be a sub-editor who transforms the story and makes it come alive on the page. Not only that, but a job at a newspaper can also include working within sales and marketing to sell adverts and story features with local businesses and restaurants. After gaining experience, you may find you want to step over into another career, most reporters move into the marketing and PR sector and become press officers. Others choose to work freelance and write on their terms by selling the work individually to newspapers.