October 6, 2020 (Updated )
Journalism is one of the toughest industries to break into. Work experience, placements or internships in a newsroom are the best way to get both a foot in the door and face time with editors. Here are 10 tips on how not to blow it, from award-winning journalist Sian Elvin…
I’ve been in local news for quite a while and, over the years, I’ve seen a huge number of work experience students walk through the doors of offices where I’ve been based.
You never know what to expect. Over Christmas and summer in particular, you always get a mixed bag. Some people are so outstandingly brilliant I feel a little humbled. Others… leave a lot to be desired.
It’s important to remember that work experience is what you make of it. Editors are extremely pushed for time and have lower staffing numbers than ever. In the current climate, you might even end up doing your placement remotely.
Thinking about other things you can be doing? You can see our full guide to freelancing as a student here, as well as a guide to all the things you can do during lockdown to make yourself stand out.
In short, they may not have as much time to sit down with you and explain things like they used to. That said, you can still really make yourself useful in the newsroom. And it’s down to you to pitch good stories, make an impression and ensure you stand out (in a good way!).
1. Be On Time
This should go without saying – but it’s incredible how many people manage to get it wrong. Work out where the office is in advance and how long it will take you to get there, then allow a little extra time on your first day, just in case.
Just don’t be late: it leaves a bad impression. If everything goes wrong, then call ahead of time to lessen the damage. And, if it’s a news story, make sure you take a picture. The same goes for Zoom meetings – they might be online, but to be honest, there’s even less excuse to be late. Especially if you don’t know half of your team, you don’t want to be the person turning up halfway through.
This said, don’t turn up too early, either. If you call an editor 20 minutes before you’re due to arrive and they’re in a meeting or not ready for you, they may find that frustrating. If you’re early, spend that extra time grabbing a coffee and reading the publication.
2. Dress For Success
Most offices have a more relaxed dress code than they used to, so you don’t need to appear super formal. I would aim for smart casual: perhaps trousers or skirt with a smart top or shirt. This also applies to Zoom, seeing as you’ll probably need to dial in at least a couple of times during your placement.
If you’re opting for jeans, black is probably better than blue. Comfortable shoes can be very useful if you’re out reporting, but trainers can be too informal.
On your first day, just look at what everyone else is wearing and adjust to suit but, if you’re wearing something like the above, you can’t go too far wrong.
Ask yourself, “Would I look professional enough if I had to knock on the door of a member of the public today?” I’ve taken this approach throughout my career.
3. Do Your Research
Again, it’s shocking how many people don’t bother to do this. Make sure you’ve actually had an in-depth read of the publication where you’re doing work experience before you start.
It’s painfully obvious when someone comes in and has barely looked at the website. They ask questions about what areas and topics your site covers, or pitch stories we’ve already written (in one embarrassing case, someone genuinely pitched our current splash to me).
It doesn’t take a lot – just have a look over the weekend before your placement and make a few notes to give you an idea of what the publication is about. We don’t expect you to know it inside out, but you should know what kind of things we’re looking for.
A top tip you’ll often hear knocking around is to pitch follow-ups to stories – and it’s a good idea. Not only does it show you’ve read the publication, it also means you’re likely to be pitching something they’re genuinely interested in.
4. Be Prepared
Yep, just like out of the Lion King, but less life and death. Honestly. I usually ask people on work experience to send me some story ideas. Sadly, though, I often watch the colour slowly drain out of their face as they clearly haven’t come up with anything in advance. Fortunately, it’s easy to make sure this isn’t you!
“It’s important to remember that work experience is what you make of it.”
Come prepared with story ideas, wherever you’re headed! Even if you end up not being asked for them, it’s still a great exercise to prepare for your placement, and there’s nothing to stop you putting your ideas forward yourself.
I’d suggest you come with three to five ideas. If you’re at a news publication, avoid pitching breaking news as it’s likely those stories will already be on a reporter’s list for the day. You can always pick up breaking news as it comes in.
Find some creative or investigative stories, but, crucially, have a search on the website to check they haven’t already been written.
5. Work Out Who Everyone Is
If you’re not introduced to everyone in the office when you first start, ask to be. You don’t need to remember everyone’s names, but at least make a general note of who the reporters are and who the editors are.
This will help you know who to pitch to, and who you can ask for advice. Reporters can be especially helpful in giving you guidance on how to write a story and this will also save you bothering a busy editor all the time.
Even if you’re based remotely, it’s worth seeing if you can schedule in some quick ten-minute chats with various people across the newsroom. Ask people about their careers, how they got there, and for any general advice – work experience is just as much about the people you meet as it is the bylines you actually produce.
6. Listen To The Office, Not Your Headphones
Obviously, you’ll want to work hard and engross yourself in stories but, while you’re sat in a busy newsroom, it can be really beneficial to just listen to what’s going on around you.
This can give you a better idea of how newsrooms work, including workflow. Hearing reporters discussing stories can also help you develop your news sense.
“It’s painfully obvious when someone comes in and has barely looked at the website.”
They may mention that they need someone to go to the scene of the story, or to gather vox pops and so on. Then you can volunteer yourself or suggest follow-ups for a story.
This also goes for any meetings you’re invited along to – sure, you might not actually have anything to add, but you’ll still gain a lot from hearing people talk through their stories and processes.
7. Familiarise Yourself With The Systems
If you’re only at the publication for a week or so, it’s unlikely you’ll be trained on the CMS – this stands for content management system and is just the software used to upload stories to the site. But if you ask a reporter or editor politely, they should at least let you watch them upload a story or edit a video.
Even if they’re not properly training you, it should give you an idea of how the systems work and you can compare them to other website backends you use in the future. This can also occasionally be a fun glimpse into some seriously outdated software.
8. Be A Shadow
When you’re on work experience, you want to write as many stories as possible for your portfolio. That said, it can also be valuable to shadow reporters doing jobs you’re not yet qualified to do.
During my own work experience, I sat with reporters in council meetings, in court, and went to schools for GCSE results days. I found all of these things beneficial in learning about the career of a local news reporter.
So ask to shadow where you can, even if it is not always possible. I once sent someone on work experience out with a reporter who was knocking on doors, and they really enjoyed it.
9. Make The Tea
Before you call me outdated, hear me out. For starters, it is absolutely not expected for people on work experience to make the tea. And, if you’re working remotely, you’re probably just doing the round for yourself anyway.
However, if you notice that people do make rounds of tea in the office, it can be a nice way for you to break the ice, learn people’s names and start a conversation.
Although we love having people on work experience who work hard, it’s also important to make connections as you never know who you’ll end up working with in the future.
Good journalism is about personality, too, and we always remember the people who had a great attitude, were inquisitive and asked questions, as well as writing great stories. We probably won’t remember you if you sat there quietly all week.
10. Finally, Stay In Touch
Stay in touch with the editors and reporters you’ve formed connections with – you never know if a job vacancy might come up there, and that could really work in your favour.
And at the very least send them an email thanking them for their time. They will appreciate it – and remember you.