May 19, 2021 (Updated )
If any journalist tries to tell you their life is just like Carrie Bradshaw’s, or any of the women on The Bold Type, don’t believe the hype. Working in this industry is far from terrible, but it’s definitely harder than the glamorous long-lunching and endless party-attendance you see on film and television. And no, you won’t have weeks to spend on just one story either. So, what can you expect if you’re just starting out in your career? We spoke to three trailblazing journalists to find out.
“I’m specifically not going to tell you the name of it,” Christine Kenneally tells me when asked about the first story she ever wrote as a journalist. “Because it was a horrible piece of writing that I’m so embarrassed of now.” Christine, now an award-winning science journalist, has certainly published many things to be proud of since though. In particular, her 2018 investigation into deaths in the US orphanage system ran to 25,000 words in BuzzFeed and took years to compile.
‘Maybe It’s Not As Horrifically Embarrassing As I Think It Is’
It’s a feeling also shared by Abby Lee Hood, the brains behind newsletter Bitchin’ Pitchin’ and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Teen Vogue. They weren’t even sure if some of it was technically legal. “I’d already been writing kids’ essays for money because I was broke all the time,” Abby explains to Journo Resources.
“So, I found a job on Craigslist, and I applied – but I’m sure it was a front for another company because the blog posts were terrible but they paid me decent money. Then it just disappeared, which, thank God, because I was 17 and not a great writer!” However, even if you do end up finding some of your early bylines hard to look back at, it’s worth remembering they’re what got you to where you are now.
“I should go back and look at it myself one day,” reflects Christine. “Maybe it’s not as horribly embarrassing as I think it is. But it got me published, so it did its job!”
“It’s really helpful if you’re trying to establish yourself as a writer to have certain subjects that you’re really fascinated in.”
But, when it comes to that first piece, how do you even decide what your expertise should be, if at all? Finding a niche is a hard thing to do unless you want to be a sports writer (yep, I said what I said). For the rest of us who can only just stomach a football game at the pub, finding a specific interest can be the hardest thing about our careers. All the journalists I interviewed felt that picking a niche was the right thing to do – but very few actually managed it.
Christine says: “It’s really helpful if you’re trying to establish yourself as a writer to have certain subjects that you’re really fascinated in to return to again and again, because people will think of you when they’re looking for a story to assign. I think your career will probably be a lot cleaner, and maybe more efficient and successful if you focus on a couple of subjects.”
“One of the best bits of advice I’ve had as a reporter starting out is to specialise and then generalise.”
Similarly, Marianna Spring, the BBC’s specialist disinformation and social media reporter, said a niche can be useful, but that it’s important not to feel tied to it. Speaking to Journo Resources, she continues: “I became a little obsessed with investigating online conspiracies and disinformation – where they spread, by who and what’s their real-world impact?
“[However], one of the best bits of advice I’ve had as a reporter starting out is to specialise and then generalise when it comes to your beat. But having a broad set of skills – around online, social media, TV and radio – is very useful, so don’t specialise there!” And yes, it’s fair to say Marianna’s job has kept her pretty busy during the pandemic.
Crash Landing In Journalism – How To Get Started
But before you can think about a niche as a long term career move, you have to make your move in the first place – and sometimes it’s not as easy as just applying for your dream job. Abby is now big on freelancing but they crash landed into the industry. After freelancing as a side hustle for years, they decided to quit the 9 to 5 for full-time freelancing in November. However, the journalism calendar basically dries up in December – but nobody thought to tell Abby this and it nearly ruined them.
“I was miserable, I was depressed and sad and I hated my job,” they tell Journo Resources. “Naively I thought, ‘I’ve landed a few bylines in MTV, surely I can use that to my advantage and when I quit, things will be fine’. Turns out it’s a little bit more complicated than that!”
“The follow up is not the place to sell the story. If you didn’t sell it in the pitch, you shouldn’t have sent it to begin with.”
Abby Lee Hood
Despite their success now, Abby had some low moments. “I went into the local grocery store to buy some ramen and a bottle of ginger ale and my total was less than $3 and my card was declined. The cashier took mercy on me and paid for my food and I just went to the parking lot, sat in my car, and cried for a really long time.”
However, as a successful freelancer now Abby wants to make sure people aren’t discouraged from starting out. They had been writing small bylines, but a turning point came in the 2016 presidential election after landing a cold pitch to a fairly large publication. It proved to them that they could make it. However, since nobody teaches pitching etiquette, Abby had to learn a few lessons the hard way.
They say: “I emailed the editor and I followed up with her every day for three consecutive days, because I didn’t know better, and she was like: ‘I’m gonna run your story. But if you ever follow up with me this much again I will wipe you from the planet’.”
Nowadays, Abby spreads their time more evenly, instead putting out a variety of pitches, sometimes as many as 50 a month, and keeping track of what works in a tracking spreadsheet. “I follow up two to three days later if it’s timely,” they explain. “If it’s more evergreen, I may wait a week or two sometimes to follow up.”
“I’ll show up in your inbox every couple of days, but it’s a one line follow up because I either sold it in the pitch or didn’t.”
Abby Lee Hood
“I am pretty aggressive but not annoying. I’ll show up in your inbox every couple of days, but it’s a one line follow up because I either sold in the pitch or didn’t, the follow up is not the place to sell the story, if you didn’t sell it in the pitch, you shouldn’t have sent it to begin with.”
“If an editor hasn’t responded to me in six months, I’m not going to waste my time, that’s unpaid labour. Most of the unpaid labour in freelancing is pitching and following up so I try to cut my time and my tracking sheet helps me to know if I’m hitting my goals.”
‘It’s Always So Satisfying To Get Out A Piece You’re Proud Of’
Even once you’re regularly publishing though, as Christine and Marianna explain, the high of commissions and publications never leaves, although it does evolve. “I was completely over the moon with my first byline,” says Christine. “Each time I got a byline in a new publication that I really wanted to get into it was an absolute thrill. Now it’s not quite the same, but it’s always so satisfying to get out a piece that I’m proud of.”
Marianna adds that the excitement hasn’t worn off for her mum either. “I’m still always very excited – as is my mum. You do get more used to it, but publishing a report you’re proud of and having the opportunity to write and broadcast are the best feelings. It’s brilliant to be able to do a job you love – and tell important stories.”
“Publishing a report you’re proud of and having the opportunity to write and broadcast are the best feelings. It’s brilliant to be able to do a job you love – and tell important stories.”
So, just how do you make sure you’re able to get the best out of your work? Whether it’s working at 9am with a coffee or 3am with Netflix reruns, every journalist has their own way of writing – but there are a few similarities. First off, make sure you spend the time you need to with your sources, advises Christine.
“Sitting down with the people that I’ve targeted as being important to the piece, and usually not just sitting down with them once but again, and again, [is vital] to really get a sense of who they are and what the issues are,” she explains. “A really important part is fact-checking, first checking it against your recordings, checking it against your notes, and then going back to people and making sure you’ve got the facts right.”
“I think you find the most interesting stories when you just follow your nose and look into the stuff that interests you anyway and you’ll inevitably find something that’s interesting to other people as well.”
Marianna echoes a similar sentiment, adding: “Firstly, have an original idea. Investigate what’s being shared on social media, message the people affected, interview them – and figure out who the bad guys are, investigate them too. Find real people to focus your story around, humanising the tale you tell – that’s crucial, and everything flows from there.”
“Sitting down with the people that I’ve targeted as being important to the piece, and usually not just sitting down with them once, but again and again [is vital].”
Abby agrees, but also mentions the unforeseen emotional attachments many writers have to their work and the importance of taking a step back where you can. “You have to be emotionally unattached to your stories because they’re so effervescent. As soon as it’s published, it’s over. There’s this huge build-up, you publish it, you move onto the next thing and it’s like it never happened.”
Ultimately though, all of our interviewees agreed that despite its downfalls, journalism was worth the effort. “I want to expose the real-world consequences of viral disinformation, conspiracy theories and abuse,” explains Marianna. “I want to tell the stories of those affected – and do those stories justice.”
Similarly, Abby says that going full-time freelance has put them back in charge of their own life. “I’m so grateful for this work because it helps me process the world around me and it helps me not feel useless.
“When I look at systemic racism, when I look at violence, and all the bad things that are happening in the world, whenever I write about it, I know that I’m at least contributing something positive to that conversation. It may not be perfect, but I’m doing something and so I don’t feel like I’m sitting on the sidelines. I can’t imagine what people who don’t get to write about this must feel, because at least I get to process it.”