• Michelle Johnson

Journalism is changing – where should young journalists start?

Updated: Nov 19, 2018

Michelle Johnson delivering a guest talk to journalism students at Harlow College, October 2018

Last Thursday I was invited back to my journalism school, Harlow College, to speak to this year's students about my career. It was such an honour to join Harlow's list of guest speakers – as well as fun to be in the company of other alumni such as Piers Morgan, who is also giving a talk this month – and I was really inspired by their questions and thoughts on the future of journalism.

Journalism as an industry has changed so much in the 10 years I've been working for magazines, and so I thought I'd share my speech as a quick blog post. I'd also love to find out other journalists' tips – what do you wish you'd known when you first started?

Pave your way

I completed my NCTJ course in 2010 while struggling to break into national titles, and since then have been fortunate to work in a variety of print and digital roles, including six years at HELLO! – first as international features writer then creating and heading up an in-house video department – and then joining 2018 BSME-nominated luxury lifestyle title Tempus, to launch its digital branding and website. I also regularly present at conference events including London Film and Comic Con, helping fans connect with their heroes during live panel talks.

While that might sound fairly diverse, my career so far has allowed me to understand the business models of the publications I've worked for, whether that's building exclusivity within international print or creating specialist strategies for niche sectors.

Like many journalism schools, Harlow has a rich list of guest speakers and editors ready to share their top tips, but I'd bet good money that each one of us has a wildly different opinion on what that one important priority should be. The truth is, there's no one set-in-stone entry route, which is equally daunting and exciting for up-and-coming reporters.

There are so many ways to make your CV and portfolio stand out, and start building the career that's right for you. The key is to be proactive about it. Are you super organised? Maybe look at editorial assistant roles and build from there. Interested in traditional news reporting? Go for your NQJ. Have a niche interest? Build your status as an expert through a side blog. Are you a former Vine addict, adept at turning around quick mobile edits? Look at video journalism as an option. One thing that's true of many routes, however, is that you should be prepared to intern.

TIP: Your social media presence is your most powerful business card. Update your blog. Make sure your LinkedIn is grammatically perfect. Curate that Instagram grid to show off your passion and expertise.

Adaptability and accuracy

So you've found your hustle and have bagged an internship or junior role. How do you then stand out? For me, it's all about being adaptable – and being a bloody brilliant writer.

I can't stress enough how valuable accurate, consistent grammar and spelling are to any journalist. This doesn't mean you can't make the odd mistake or that you have to be perfect 24/7, but having looked after interns and juniors through much of my career I can promise you it's far easier to teach someone house style than it is to reteach them the foundations of grammar.

So work hard on your writing, whether you're aiming for print or digital, broadcast or social media. A good writer is a good communicator, and communication is really the crux of great journalism. Use online resources like the Guardian's style guide and embrace your sub-editors' notes. At first, that red pen can feel soul destroying, but I promise it will make you a better journalist.

TIP: Embrace the red pen. Not just because you'll correct your mistakes and learn about house style, but because the very process of editing makes you more collaborative. And collaborative journalists are a class above the rest.

As for adaptability, why is that so important? The industry is changing at a rapid pace. We've seen a flurry of magazines close and new ones launch over the last few months as we re-evaluate not just how our readers consume media. We've created entirely new job roles that were unheard of five years ago. So how does this make money? How do we raise readership? Yeah, we can get online hits, but how do we translate that into ROI for our advertisers?

Editors and publishers are racking their brains for new ways to stay market-ready, to disrupt the status quo and connect with our readerships, so we're looking for journalists who are passionate and knowledgeable, who are inventive and ready to try out new schemes. New Media is old hat – we're looking beyond that now. So if you're prepared to say yes, to open your options and your mind, then the potential rewards are massive.

Tip: Be willing to try – and learn – new things. And don't turn your nose up at the basics – just because an offer isn't exactly in your niche right now, doesn't mean it won't be the lily pad you need to get there. Everyone starts with forward planning!

Finally, the basics:

• Be prepared to intern. From the interns and junior writers I've worked with most recently, it seems that the old 12-18 month rule still holds pretty true. Luckily, you can get paid for these roles now, which takes some of the financial pressure off.

• Use your network. Journalism and her sister industries make up a very small world. Your classroom could well be your first network, and it pays to nurture that. Always look after your people – and deliver on your promises.

• Start a blog and keep it updated. You might not make a business of it, but if you link to your blog or website on your CV, editors will check it out. A well-written, regularly updated blog says a lot about you as a writer – that you can write to a deadline, even if it's your own, and that you pay attention to detail. Use good imagery, and pop in your videos if that's an area of interest. Don't fancy blogging? Make sure your preferred social media is doing its job as your calling card instead. If you show your passions and expertise your skill will shine through.

• Get yourself on Gorkana. It's free, it's useful, it's a no brainer.