Zesha Saleem is a freelance journalist whose works have been in the Financial Times, The Guardian, VICE, The Telegraph, and more. She currently writes for the Metro UK on a regular basis.
April 5, 2023 (Updated )
If you’re reading this article, then it’s likely you are a student journalist looking for a way to get your first byline in a national newspaper.
Many students assume they need a degree in journalism to get into the industry, but whether you want to see your words in a national newspaper or coveted digital website, I can assure you that is not the case.
Freelancing certainly isn’t easy, especially if you’re a student just starting out in the industry without any contacts, but it can be a great first step into newsrooms of all kinds. Getting those bylines is possible — here is what worked for me.
Start Writing — Anywhere
If you like the idea of having an article published, the best time to start is now. There’s no need to wait for a commission or a degree. Just open up your laptop, create a blog, and start writing.
It doesn’t matter if you get barely any views or if it isn’t the slickest website out there — my biggest advice is to just get started.
I realised I liked writing back in Year 9, and my mum helped me set up a website on WordPress so I could write articles on whatever I wanted. I published on that blog for nearly three years before I felt confident enough to take the next step.
Yes, it was only my mum and a teacher who used to read my work, but it gave me a space on the internet to write about different topics to see what I enjoyed.
You shouldn’t have to pay for a blog — the free version of WordPress or any other blogging host is all you need. This will give you a good platform to get started on writing opinion pieces, news articles, or whatever else you like, as well as an understanding of how websites work behind the scenes.
Student-run publications, like Empoword Journalism, are also a great way to start out and get some experience, especially if you’re not in university. It’s never too late to start — and it’s a great way to figure out what aspects of writing you do and don’t like.
Consider Regional Newspapers
Some of the most student-friendly newspapers in the industry are regional papers. Many offer work experience — and sometimes paid opportunities to write articles — even if you’re still new to the game.
Lauren McGaun, an assistant news editor at ITV, also started her freelance journalism career as a student. Similarly to me, her first taste of the newsroom was through her regional paper.
She tells Journo Resources: “I first started getting into journalism at age 14 by writing for my local paper, the Yorkshire Evening Post, on their Young Reporters Scheme.
“This led to me becoming more interested in journalism throughout high school, and then eventually expanding my bylines while studying at university.”
If you’re not sure where to start, following regional editors on Twitter is a good idea. You can often find the right people to follow by looking at the ‘About’ or ‘Contact’ sections of local websites.
Many will have their contact information in their Twitter bio — it’s always worth dropping them an email explaining who you are and why you want to spend some time with the newspaper. If you can, try to bring an idea you want to write.
Some might offer work experience, while others could potentially let you write for the paper. You never know until you reach out
Build Your Network On And Offline
Like most industries, building contacts is crucial for getting your first journalism commission. But it doesn’t need to be done in person. There are so many ways you can reach people, such as joining freelance journalism groups on Facebook, following freelance journalists on Twitter and engaging with them, following commissioning editors on Twitter, or emailing senior journalists for advice.
Remember — not every email you send an editor has to be a pitch. When I was still very new, many of my emails were simply introducing myself and asking for journalism advice. Most journalists were very receptive towards this, especially if you have specific questions in mind. Some were even happy to read the work I had written in the past.
Lauren McGaun (L) and Adam Millington (R)
After two years of building these professional relationships, these same editors still remember me from my days of liking their tweets and emailing for advice. Instead, they now approach me with commissions.
If you are approaching someone for a commission, the most crucial piece I’ve received from an editor — that I still follow to this day — is to “give the commissioning editor a reason why they should let you write this piece and not one of the many journalists on file”.
The best way to put your mark on pitches is to find a unique angle on major issues that you can write about — for example, if you are currently in university, this could be the impact of the cost of living crisis on students, as opposed to a more general piece.
For Adam Millington, a freelance sports journalist who started when he was just 14, his first national commission was a “bit of a weird one” but it did come through building contacts.
“I’d followed the usual advice in terms of building contacts and managed to land an interview with Australian football legend Harry Kewell,” he says. “I was 16 and had never even left Europe, but I tracked down the sports editor’s email and the Sydney Morning Herald commissioned it.”
Millington advises students thinking of following in his footsteps to just talk to people, even if they don’t live in London. “Journalists who’ve been in the game for a long time will live in London and recommend coffees, but I’ve done it during Covid from the North,” he says. “It’s just being persistent with emailing editors and trying to build up a good working relationship, which is so important in landing work.’
Just remember, the worst someone will do is say no or ignore your email. It definitely won’t be the end of the world.
Manage Your Time
Being clever with your time is essential, especially if you’re still in university. You don’t want to take on too many commissions at the cost of an important university assignment. Once you get into the rhythm of freelancing, you should be able to figure out how much work you can take on each month, without letting it eat into the rest of your life.
“When I was a student, this was a challenge — prioritisation is very important,” says McGaun. “If there were important deadlines for university, journalism had to take somewhat of a back seat.”
Make use of calendar systems such as Google Calendars, or an old-school journal, to remind yourself of important deadlines. More fundamentally, try not to take on too much work in the first place — the temptation is real, but the last thing you want is to be overloaded and then end up missing deadlines everywhere!
Ease yourself in, and when you get confident and used to the work, sort out a work–life pattern that suits you.
Be Proud Of Your Success
Once you start writing for national media as a student, feeling like you don’t belong is very real. Sometimes, you might even encounter people who make you feel bad about having national commissions at a relatively young age.
For Millington, this was one of the biggest challenges he faced while covering games early on in his career. “I think imposter syndrome is a big thing with young journalists. When you’re in the press room before a Premier League game and sat next to some of the country’s top writers, it’s hard not to feel like you’re going to be judged based on your age,” he says.
McGaun also agrees, saying: “Imposter syndrome has always been a huge challenge and a lack of self-confidence. I am a big over-thinker which has often been an obstacle when trying to complete tasks.
“One of the best ways for me to overcome this has been to remind myself of my ultimate goals, therefore making any tasks I need to complete seem more worthwhile and less intimidating.”
As a student, it can become hard to write at such a high level. Sometimes, editors may pass you over for commissions because you’re too young while at the same time, your peers might not be too accepting of what you’re achieving.
My advice is to just zone out the noise and focus on your work. You’ve worked hard, so you deserve to have a coveted commission from the newspapers you read as a child. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.