2 months ago

A Step By Step Guide To Breaking Into Political Journalism, By Someone Who Did It

Natasha Clark

Digital Westminster Correspondent, The Sun

What’s going on with Brexit? Is there going to be another general election? Will Jeremy Corbyn or Theresa May ever quit? Who even is Michel Barnier?

These are the questions I’m asked day-in, day-out, by friends, family, colleagues and readers. My job as a political journalist is to give them the information to help them figure out what’s really going on in the ridiculous political world that we’re living in right now and how it’s actually going to affect their lives.

But it’s also my job to figure out what they think, how they feel, and crucially how they are going to vote. Being a journalist isn’t just telling people what’s going on in the Westminster bubble – it’s figuring out how the decisions being made at the very top of government affect the average person on the street. It’s a position of trust – and one which takes an effort to get too. So, just how do you get there?

Never Forget Who You’re Writing For

jeremy corbyn probably isn't your target audience for political journalism
As much as you might want to chat to him, Jezza probs isn’t your target audience (Picture: Garry Knight / Flickr)

Like all other types of journalism, the readers of politics stories are the most important asset – to be a good reporter means always putting them first. No matter what organisation you end up at, never forget who you are writing for. You’re not writing to satisfy your own interests, or because someone thinks that you should – you’re writing what the people on the street need to know.

Right now political journalism couldn’t be more interesting or important. The country voted to leave the EU two years ago and we’re still trying to figure out what that means. We have two political parties that are more divided than they might ever have been, and a climate where anything is possible.

Most journalists didn’t predict Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, or a minority government – but the signs were there. The next six months will be even more thrilling as Britain attempts to get a deal with the EU and gets ready for life outside a bloc it’s been a key part of for near 40 years.

Alongside that Brits face rising bills, squeezed local services and the challenges of immigration, inflation and an uphill struggle to buy their own home. And with Boris Johnson around I’m sure there will never be a dull moment. Which means there are more stories than ever just waiting to be uncovered. Doesn’t that sound fun? If not, you’re in the wrong place.

Get A Journalism Qualification – It Doesn’t Have To Be A Degree

woman graduating with glitter
It doesn’t have to be a degree – but you do need to stack up your credentials (Image Credit: Marleena Garris / Unsplash)

Whether that’s an undergraduate degree, a trainee position, a masters or an NCTJ – you’ll need something under your belt to show employers that you understand media law, how to write a story properly, and ideally shorthand. There’s plenty of debate in the industry on which is the best route but as long as you’re qualified, don’t worry too much about it. Work hard, learn the basics and get it done.

READ MORE: Looking for funding for journalism training? Check out our funding pages.

Outside of the classroom focus on absorbing as much as you can. The Universal Journalist, and Piers Morgan’s The Insider were two of the best books for getting a feel for the industry that I read while I was studying.

Similarly, Nick Robinson’s Live from Downing Street and Phil Webster’s The Inside Story are also fantastic reads – but focus a lot on the old heyday of printed political journalism. The transformation of the internet means things are a bit different today – so in short, read as much as you can, in whatever medium it comes.

Make As Many Contacts As You Can

contacts are key to political journalism
Contacts are key. (Image Credit: Annie Spratt / Unsplash)

You never know where they will end up or when you’re going to need them. Whether it’s for giving you stories or tips and steers in the right direction, political reporting is a lot about who you know.

You don’t have to be best friends with cabinet ministers – the researchers, advisers, councillors, backbenchers and political staff are just as useful for finding out what is really going on. Some of the best original stories come from something ridiculous happening at a local level, and making friends with your peers can go a long way.

Building up a good contact book does take time, but it is worth its weight in gold. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, go to think tank events and talks and speeches to get you in the right places (most are free, and include wine) – soon you will start meeting other people like you who are interested in politics and who could be useful contacts in the future.

Absorb And Read All The Political News You Can Find

reading the news is key to political journalism
Absorb the news, in all its forms (Image: Jay Clark / Unsplash)

This may sound obvious, but how do you expect to land a political scoop if you don’t know what everyone else is doing?

Knowing the landscape and what makes a good story isn’t an exact science – but reading heavily around your subject and making sure you know what type of stories all the papers, blogs and news organisations run is vital to getting your foot in the door.

The Times’ Red Box email is worth a digital subscription alone, while Politico’s morning briefing is a great free way to get started – but do make sure to read a variety of outlets, even if you don’t agree with their outlook or political stance. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.

Get As Many Work Placements Under Your Belt As Possible – It Doesn’t Need To Be Political

get as many contacts under your belt
Work experience! Under! Your! Belt! (Image Credit: Thao Le Hoang / Unsplash)

Any placement or work experience stint will be helpful for your development as a reporter. What’s more, the beauty of politics is that every story is political in some way.

Experience at a variety of organisations is vital when applying for your first job – and once you’ve got one on your CV you’ll find it easier to get more. Start off with your local papers and work your way up to the nationals. Not only does a regional newsdesk open doors at nationals, it equips you with vital skills to flourish at a national, giving you much more time to pick up the basics.

Write to them with a CV and cover letter that details your writing experience and what you can bring to the business. If you don’t have any writing experience and you’re at university, there’s no excuse for not working on your student publication, TV or radio station.

Looking for work experience? That doesn’t mean you have to work unpaid.

Work experience placements typically last one to two weeks and focus on giving you a feel for a job. If you’re looking for anything longer, which comes with set tasks, then take a look at our jobs page for paid internship opportunities.

Go to your work experience placement with a few ideas of good stories that you’ve seen elsewhere that you feel you could follow up on, or some ideas of things you would like to look into – a good trick is to suggest following up on a story they’ve previously done. It shows you’ve read the publication, and it’s almost certainly an area they’re interested in.

Shameless plug – News UK have an excellent range of summer schools and traineeships, so, well, check out their website.

Start Thinking and Get Digging

Maybe not this kind of digging (Image: Pixabay)

With the basics under your belt, the next task is to prove that you’re better than all of the other applicants who are going for the same jobs you are. That means putting in FOIs, coming up with good ideas for stories, and picking up tips to investigate.

Talk to people, interview them, look into the reams of documents released on gov.uk and parliament.uk to see what might be buried deep in a paper or a written answer. Be firm, tenacious and curious at all times.

Prove your hunger and thirst for holding Government to account, delivering important news and revealing great stories. And don’t give up.

Natasha is currently Digital Westminster Correspondent at The Sun. She has also previously worked at City AM, The Times Redbox, Twitter UK and Politics Home. She studied at Warwick University where she contributed to the paper The Boar. You can follow her on Twitter @NatashaC.

Featured Image: Number 10 / Flickr