6 ways to stand out when applying for competitive journalism jobs

It’s easy to see why journalism is regarded as a desirable career choice. Unpredictable and fast-paced, you never know what lies ahead when you head to the newsroom for a shift.

Journalism gives you the chance to talk for a living, ask questions, and tell stories to millions of people. Such jobs come with an incredible amount of responsibility and exposure – and in certain positions, you may have to work in dangerous places.

Unfortunately, today’s media landscape means it’s harder than ever to break into journalism. Local newspapers have been struggling to compete with social media, and their readership is dwindling. Some titles haven’t been forced to close, but they have had to make difficult decisions about staffing. Many companies are choosing to advertise online instead of in their local paper, and classified ads from readers looking to sell their cars or find love have been drying up.

Back in the glory days, there would have been several newspapers covering the same area – each staffed with a big team of photographers, specialist reporters, columnists, sub-editors and production staff. Now, a local paper may only have one or two journalists, and even they may be working across several titles.

None of this is to say that you should write off the prospect of a career in journalism. However, it’s worth remembering that there are fewer jobs to go around – and competition is going to be intense. It’s not uncommon for hundreds of people to apply for a single position, so your CV and cover letter needs to have a “wow” factor that intrigues employers and compels them to call you in for an interview.

Let’s take a look at some top tips now, all based on the experiences of people who have tried and succeeded when applying for local and national journalism jobs.

1. Specialise

There are several different specialisms that a journalist can choose – and many media organisations are heavily investing in teams that will be able to use their in-depth knowledge to uncover exclusive stories their rivals miss.

If you’re interested in sport or business journalism for example, start building contacts and beginning to produce your own stories. Not only can these be published on your own blog – allowing you to build a portfolio of work – but you may be able to sell them on to newspapers and magazines. The connections you’ll build with editors, the bylines you’ll gain, and the outlets you’ll be able to name drop on your CV will amount to dynamite when it comes to applying for roles.

2. Understand their coverage

Failing do to research about the media organisation you’re being interviewed by is one of the most fatal errors a journalist can make.

If you’re applying to join a newspaper, you should read their coverage exhaustively. This will help you understand their editorial tone and style, the types of stories they cover (and don’t cover), the names of their top reporters and columnists, issues they campaign about regularly, and any political leanings which underscore their articles.

This knowledge will help you stand out in an interview because you’ll be able to answer questions about their product with confidence, and give honest feedback if asked what you’d improve about the newspaper.

It also prevents awkward moments where you begin to talk about the newspaper’s showbiz coverage when they don’t have an entertainment column, or pitch an idea for a local story in an area outside of the title’s patch. Such faux pas can instantly scupper your chances of being called in for another interview. You’d be surprised at how many aspiring journalists fail to do their homework before being invited in for a chat.

3. Pitch ideas

Newspapers and broadcasters want their journalists to have imagination, and hire people with a proven ability to think outside the box. When a major news story breaks, reporters need to have ideas of ways to take the story forwards – either by writing analysis pieces which examine why something happened, or securing an interview with someone who is at the centre of the story.

During an interview, you shouldn’t be surprised if you are presented with scenarios where you are asked to pitch ideas on how to give readers and viewers a fuller understanding of a story. It’s also a good idea to come prepared with a few ideas of your own – perhaps based on the stories that are dominating that day’s news agenda, or new angles on recurring issues such as Brexit or the Trump presidency. This is a fantastic way of advertising your journalistic style and your editorial judgement – showing recruiters you’re experienced and able to spot a story from 100 paces.

4. Think beyond education

Many media organisations don’t regard A-levels and degrees in media studies positively – and likewise, if you’re looking to get into journalism, opting for an undergraduate degree in this subject may not be your smartest career move. Although the majority of journalists in the UK are university educated, there is no industry-wide requirement for these professionals to have a degree.

If you are planning on going to university, you should consider taking a subject such as politics, economics, history or English. This will help give you a solid foundation of knowledge which can then be built upon by a Masters degree in journalism.

That said, there are alternative (and less expensive) routes you can take to have a compelling CV which proves you’re qualified for a journalism job. For example, you can embark on courses which are accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) or the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC).

Some media outlets offer work experience, internships and apprenticeships which can help you get a foot on the career ladder – and these schemes can be far more effective in helping you build a distinctive CV. You should also keep an eye out for graduate trainee schemes which are offered by big broadcasters such as the BBC and ITV, as well as national newspapers.

Other skills such as shorthand and the ability to speak other languages will also pique the interest of HR departments in newsrooms. Many organisations are now international in outlook – and being fluent in another language also broadens your horizons because you’ll be able to apply to work with foreign media outlets in their UK-based bureaux, or at their headquarters around the world.

5. Consider different routes

If you want a successful career in journalism, you should keep an open mind and consider applying for jobs that will help you gain the skills that every reporter and editor is – even if it isn’t working for a news outlet to begin with.

For example, trade publications can be an excellent way of starting out in the media industry. This means you might be writing articles for a business-to-business publication focusing on niche sectors within agriculture, construction, finance or marketing. We talked before about how specialist knowledge can make you more likely to be recruited as a journalist – and the skills you develop in one of these entry-level jobs can go a long way to helping you fulfil your dream.

Another good idea is to spend time working with the media offices of charities, non-profit organisations, or companies. This can help you understand how to write news releases and reports, and you may even get the opportunity to perform interviews that are then released for journalists to use.

As you can see, working in these related fields can help you build the skills that will help you hold your own when applying for a competitive journalism job. Given how it’s so difficult to find local media work these days, it’s opportunities like this that are indispensable in helping to cut your teeth in the industry.

6. Write an excellent (and typo free) cover letter

Given the sheer volume of applications that recruiters are going to be sifting through for journalism vacancies, you’ll want to write a cover letter which is short but engaging.

You need to think about it like a newspaper article. Here, it’s crucial to capture the attention of the reader within the first few paragraphs, otherwise they’re going to switch off and move on to another story. By ensuring your most gripping and interesting attributes are included in the opening sentences of your letter, you have a greater chance of being placed on a shortlist for interview.

Cover letters are an opportunity to showcase your writing style and discuss the achievements in your journalism career to date. You should be writing a fresh letter for every job you apply for, rather than using a cookie cutter approach where you copy and paste the same letter for every opening.

Recruiters will spot generic cover letters from a mile away, and it also means that you’re missing out on the opportunity to reflect the particular skills they’re looking for (and how your skills match the responsibilities of the job) in what you write. Personalising your application and taking time to show how you you’re the perfect match for a job is vital if you’re going to distinguish yourself from the dozens of others vying for the same position.

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