September 29, 2020 (Updated )
I received the email commissioning this article just as my work experience with my dream job was cancelled for the third time in six months. It’s been a tough summer, full of the occasional highs, but generally many lows. Pitches ghosted left, right and centre, zero part-time work opportunities, and don’t even think about winning a week’s work experience in a news office – they won’t be happening at least until January. For the Class of 2020, securing that first break in journalism had not been all it was promised.
It was while frantically searching for work experience and navigating an inbox full of rejections that I first attended a webinar on solutions journalism. Solutions journalism, according to one of its biggest fans – the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) – covers what’s missing in today’s news: how people are responding to problems. In the words of Jules Hotz, Communities Manager at SJN: “Solutions journalism invites journalists to rigorously report on what’s working, it’s investigating how places are responding to today’s biggest problems, and with what degree of success.”
How does this up-and-coming form of journalism relate to securing your first break in journalism, I hear you ask? Well, rather than me simply telling you that there aren’t enough jobs out there, that running after both coffee and stories during office placements may be a thing of the pre-Covid past, and that freelance budgets might not be able to accommodate your pitches, let’s look at what we can learn from other graduates who have navigated their way to success.
Looking For Tangible Solutions To 2020’s Problems
Many of you might have spent the most part of summer checking empty inboxes for postponed graduate scheme updates and job newsletters, and this may continue to be the case for a while. But this period of waiting and uncertainty doesn’t have to be time wasted if you use it to learn more about the world.
“I can’t overstate the value of reading enough,” Sunday Times reporter Shingi Mararike tells Journo Resources. “Read all the papers, magazines and niche publications that you can to sharpen that beat [specialism] that sets you apart from others.
“If you read you will not only build your specialist knowledge but you’ll come to know the industry even better, and knowing who does what will give you an idea of who you should be pitching to. My best ideas come during weeks where I’ve read lots of publications.”
Shingi graduated in 2017 and established himself at the Sunday Times as their first ever apprentice in that same year. Within three weeks of his role in Scotland, he had earned himself a front-page story on county lines drug dealing. He found that using the time while he waited for the role to start consuming as much local news on the issue as possible meant that he was able to sell a unique angle to editors when the right opportunity arose.
Alongside Shingi’s advice to read recent dispatches on your desired subject, we recommend considering books and free online courses from the likes of Coursera or Future Learn, or Google Digital Garage for more vocational learning. This will help you stand out on applications with proof that you have a wealth of knowledge when pitching on niche topics.
Widen Your Horizons By Narrowing Your Focus
While the media might have gone to considerable lengths to emphasise that our current situation is “unprecedented”, for journalists like Katie McQue, it really isn’t. Graduating from an MA in International Journalism from Cardiff University in 2008, when the global financial crisis threw many countries into a recession and millions of people lost their jobs, Katie described watching the financial sector go into meltdown just as she was starting her career as “very galling”.
“[My first] pharma reporting job definitely wasn’t the dream,’ she tells Journo Resources. ‘It was quite a crash down to reality after studying such an interesting and immersive degree — I was hoping to be writing about development and international politics.”
“It was quite a crash down to reality after studying such an interesting and immersive degree — I was hoping to be writing about development and international politics.”
However, having first made her way into the industry in specialist areas such as healthcare and energy reporting, her advice to graduates is to apply for trade publications covering niche beats in addition to the more “fun” positions, “as there are always B2B (business-to-business) roles being advertised and they usually pay pretty well”.
“A lot of publications don’t require you to have specialist knowledge in certain areas as they expect to have to train you on the job. So don’t hold back from applying just because you might not have experience in the area of specialism,” she adds.
But, if you have a niche beat, Katie emphasises the importance of learning it well. “Develop sources – meet them in person or get on your phone regularly – so you can get into the habit of breaking news.”
Fellow 2008 graduate Becky Paskin has even more good news. That part-time role as a waitress at Nando’s that you’ve been using to fund your NCTJ might just help you secure your first niche reporting role.
“While studying for my NCTJ and looking for my first journalism role (which took a year after I qualified), I also worked at Pizza Express as a waitress and Brown’s as a bartender,” she said. “The training and experience of working within the hospitality sector made me stand out from the other applicants when I applied for the role of junior reporter for trade publication BigHospitality. I understood how stressful and rewarding a career in hospitality could be, and I knew how the businesses worked.
Want to know more about solutions journalism? Play our interactive choose your own adventure game to give you a flavour of what it’s about. It’s also set in the 90s for added fun.
Her advice to graduates of 2020? “Life doesn’t always pan out the way you imagined. Keep working hard, give it all you’ve got and write about something you love.”
Technical Skills Will Get You Paid
Freelancer Lara Whyte found herself graduating with a Masters in Broadcast Journalism from City University in 2008, taking on any job she could to pay off her student loan — whether professionally editing videos of Wimbledon or consulting at ITN. Having battled with financial instability and job insecurity, Lara’s biggest piece of advice is to use this time to hone your technical skills.
“I really do worry for my students right now, and you get some people who say things like you don’t want to be a “mistress of all, master of none”. But I think the best advice I can give is to make sure you can do a little bit of everything — print, radio, TV, production, the lot. Technical skills will get you paid. Be confident, have ideas, and be creative.”
We’ve already put together a pretty comprehensive list of skills you might want to start honing, but you might also want to consider some other areas. How could you demonstrate your knowledge of social media and algorithms by working on your own social media presence, for example?
Similarly, don’t underestimate the access speaking to case studies or reading foreign news outlets in their mother tongue can bring you. As much as the empty time might be stressful right now, you may not get the time to study something that may help your career down the line again for a while — if at all.
Traditional opportunities aren’t looking great for the Class of 2020, but there are still many things you can do to equip yourself for when opportunities do arise.
“Technical skills will get you paid. Be confident, have ideas, and be creative.”
Shingi’s veracious reading scored him further success at the Sunday Times when the paper launched their “Acid Attack Britain” campaign following his reporting; Katie has written for the Guardian, the Observer, Rappler, the New York Times and several others in 2020 alone. Becky utilising her hospitality knowledge to gain niche writing experience has secured her editorship of three successful global publications, and Lara’s stepping-stone roles in video production now mean she can afford to take on gigs reporting on far right and ISIS terrorism.
All in all, we reckon their advice passes the solutions test – it’s constructive and it works. Use this time of low activity to work on your niches, immerse yourself in areas of interest and develop a new skill to stand you above the rest.