How do you become a journalist? Many people dream of carving out a career in journalism – whether it be for the thrill of being the first to break a news story, interviewing fascinating people around the globe or holding power to account with investigative reporting.
But when it comes to actually breaking into the industry, pathways into a journalist role can often seem elusive and inaccessible.
It’s no wonder that so many new and aspiring journalists are left speculating on what kind of qualifications or training they need to ‘make it’ as a journalist, or whether these things are necessary to be a journalist at all. In fact, it’s an issue that continues to spark some lively debate within the industry.
The good news, though, is that there’s no single route into journalism. It’s a profession that you can enter at any age in a variety of different ways. Yes, it’s competitive and takes motivation and commitment by the bucketload. But it can also be a highly rewarding career path for those who have a unique perspective to offer and want to tell stories that matter to them and their community.
How have routes into the journalism industry changed?
The perception many people have of breaking into journalism is often very different to the reality. This has a lot to do with the fact that the journalism industry has changed dramatically in recent years.
The traditional route into journalism used to start at a local or regional newspaper. Up-and-coming writers would usually join right after finishing school or college. Through apprenticeship-style schemes, they would be paid to work, train and study for qualifications at the same time. But since the rise of the Internet and digital media, coupled with an ever-more London-centric industry, those local pathways into journalism have become few and far between.
In the place of these disappearing opportunities is the so-called ‘graduatisation’ of journalism. Indeed, journalism has now become something of a graduate profession by default. Even for those graduates with a degree unrelated to journalism, a certificate can be enough to get their foot in the door. What’s more, there are now a wide range of formal and post-graduate qualifications on offer that promise aspiring journalists the skills and training they need to land themselves a journo job – sometimes for a hefty price tag. These include an undergraduate degree in Journalism, a Masters in Journalism, the Level 3 Diploma in Journalism by The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) and other NCTJ-accredited courses, as well as various professional accreditations.
So, do I need a qualification to become a journalist?
A prior qualification is by no means necessary to become a journalist.
It’s true that some media organisations look more positively on, or even set a requirement for, applicants who have had NCTJ training, particularly for news reporting.
Formal training can be essential for specialist journalism, like court reporting or political reporting, which heavily rely upon knowledge of media law and ethics. You will also likely benefit from formal tuition when learning about shorthand and investigative reporting tools like Freedom of Information requests.
Formal qualifications from a recognised accreditation body can also give you an edge in an ever-more competitive field. They can also instil confidence in both yourself and your employer that you understand the essentials of journalism and can be trusted to do a job well.
But increasingly, employers are realising that formal qualifications shouldn’t be a prerequisite for aspiring journalists to enter the industry. This is especially true given the prohibitive cost of higher education and the impracticality of full-time study for many.
According to Dr Lily Canter, journalist and co-host of the Freelancing for Journalists podcast, accreditation is not officially part of many employers’ selection criteria nowadays. Speaking on her podcast, she said that her interviews with 14 different editors across the industry revealed employers were looking for a “demonstration of skills, not a certificate, not a degree.” And those skills that employers want to see? “Digital skills, media law and good news sense.”
On top of this, it’s worth noting that those who come to journalism after a career change or later on in life will often have a wealth of transferable skills that are essential for journalism. From well-honed people skills to staying calm under pressure, having diverse life experience can make you a better journalist.
And for those who do wish to pursue formal qualifications but are worried about the costs, it’s worth noting that there are funding opportunities out there. Look into the Journalism Diversity Fund, the Scott Trust Bursary or this list of grants via Journo Resources. There are also more affordable NCTJ-accredited fast track courses and distance learning options available to fit around your lifestyle.
And what about formal training?
There will always be huge advantages to undergoing formal training as a new journalist. After all, journalism is a profession that takes great skill, talent and practice. But it’s important to remember that there are many different ways to get formal training, much of which can be carried out on-the-job.
Organisations like the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 offer popular apprenticeship schemes that’ll allow you to ‘earn while you learn’, and are usually open to adults of all ages.
What’s more, publications and media organisations from all corners of the industry are now beginning to realise that people with huge potential are often held back by a range of barriers. In their aim to open up the journalism industry, there are now more traineeships on offer for those from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds than ever before. Check out Creative Access or Journo Resources for traineeship openings.
In conclusion? It’s down to you
Although it might be frustrating to hear, the truth is that there’s no simple answer to what kind of qualifications or training you will need to be a journalist: It really depends!
If you want to specialise in a certain type of journalism, like court reporting, NCTJ training may be essential. If you want to gain confidence and feel that studying journalism and gaining industry experience alongside like-minded people would benefit you, then an MA course could be a good choice.
But if these options don’t sound like something you’d want to pursue, or they don’t fit into your lifestyle, or perhaps you’ve exhausted funding options and find that costs are still prohibitive, then remember: It doesn’t matter. A degree or qualification alone doesn’t make for a surefire career in journalism.
What matters is demonstrating your commitment to journalism and willingness to invest in learning new skills. From starting your own news blog or podcast, to taking a course in video editing, to doing (paid) internships and freelance work; all of this will demonstrate to employers just how brilliant you are, certificate or no certificate.
Suggestions for further reading/listening:
Freelancing for Journalists podcast episode exploring two sides of the coin of journalist training and qualifications: https://freelancing-for-journalists.captivate.fm/episode/training-and-qualifications
Research by Dr Lily Canter on the value of accreditation: https://journalism-education.org/2015/08/chasing-the-accreditation-dream/