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How to get a journalism job you don’t technically qualify for

Posted on 28 October 2013

This past weekend, I was asked to speak at a Canadian University Press conference about my own experience going from unemployed university graduate to getting a job at the CBC. One thing I’ve learned is that there are as many different paths to this work as there are people doing it, so I decided to focus on my own experience and retroactively figure out three steps I accidentally took to help me succeed. The talk is below so you can stream or  download it. I’ve also summarized my points if you are a text-based person.

(On a personal note, this is the first time I’ve given any sort of a speech using just a few notes, rather than having the whole thing written out, so that was a pretty big win.)

How to get a job you don’t technically qualify for ▶ custom player

How to get a journalism job you don’t technically qualify for

Step one: Don’t wait for permission (or a paycheque)

I didn’t go to journalism school, and at the time I applied to work at CBC I hadn’t ever been trained to be on the radio, edit audio, or be a journalist. However, I had volunteered at both my campus newspaper and campus radio and had a few years of self-taught experience in those realms. It wasn’t much, but alongside my degree (political science and international studies- lots of reading, writing, and criticial thinking) it was enough to get me a job interview.

And this doesn’t have to be limited to the campus. There are free publications, you can blog, you can podcast. Learn and teach yourself and do as many types of journalism as you can so you can demonstrate not that you could do this work- but that you already are.

Step two: Be interested in something no one else is interested in

I did not get a job the first time I applied. But I did get a callback to do something called “backfill”, which is filling in when a regular employee was away. Smaller communities don’t have a lot of freelance reporters kicking around, so the fact that I was interested in staying in Prince George gave me a competitive edge. I was and am genuinely interested in the community and the stories happening here (and in the rest of the north). That gave me an advantage over the people who wanted to stay in Vancouver or Toronto.

It doesn’t have to be communities, either (though that helps). One of the other speakers said he thinks there’s a big future for journalists who report on specific issues around industry. If you are obsessed with energy projects, for example, that could help you get work.

My overall point was that if you have a portfolio full of stories about conflict in Syria and senate scandals, all it tells me is you are able to report on stories other people are already reporting on. What sets you apart is stories that no one but you would find and put together. Use your interests, your location, your nextwork to uncover something original, and stand out.

Step three: Copy people who are better than you

The first two steps were enough to get me in the door. From there, I had to improve, and rapidly. I spent time paying attention to the people I was working with and seeing how they worked to pick tips up from them. I also spent a time seeking out the best pieces of radio and journalism I could and figuring out how I could sound more like them. The first good edited pieces I put together came after I discovered This American Life and basically emulated that style. As a host, I spend time listening to the cadence of people like Jian Ghomeshi and Ira Glass and Mark Forsythe and just repeating the words they say the way they say them.

And this doesn’t stop. I regularly listen to talks posted from radio and journalism conferences and listen to award-winning pieces to pick up tips. The example I like to think of is the Beatles starting out emulating Chuck Berry and Motown and Little Richard and becoming the Beatles. You take all your influences and try to become them, and you’ll become a better version of yourself.

* * *

These steps alone are not enough. You need hustle, you need fairly strong communication and critical thinking skills,  and you need a certain amount of good timing. But I think they were key in helping me have the good luck to be where I am, and hopefully by sharing them I help someone else create their own luck.

Filed under: Best Of, how to, journalism

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