Five things they don’t tell you about journalism school

Journalism school is the one thing working journalists will tell you to avoid.

I’m serious when I say this. On a few different occasions at Ryerson University, we had journalists come into our classrooms and tell us something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, I got a job, but I never finished my degree.”

Well you can imagine how great that is to hear for someone four years deep into their commitment to the Ontario Student Assistance Program. It’s often that a journalist will get a break with a job opening giving them a reason to quit school, so it’s not as if all journalists avoid journalism school.

However, most of us aren’t that lucky and will ultimately be on the job hunt for months on end. So what do you need to know before going into journalism school?

Four years is a long time

University will go by faster than you can even imagine, but it’s a long time to build yourself up as a writer. Start now. Get a blog like this and start to write, but don’t let it end there. On average, this website gets about 10 hits a week. As you can imagine that’s not a lot of coverage, so how do you do it better?

Go out to events, meet people, do interviews on your own, be enterprising, and don’t be lazy. For example, if I had a journalist to corroborate what I’m saying I could get that person to Tweet out this story increasing this article’s visibility ten fold. As it stands and me being a lazy son-of-a-bun I don’t and won’t.

Over your four years in journalism school, you’ll have a chance to really get out there and work with larger organizations. Don’t be afraid to pitch your stories and get your voice out there in the world. So start by making some friendly contacts by being in the right place at the right time. Make your luck damn it.

Masters of Journalism Students

If you go to a school like Ryerson, there’s a good chance the school will offer another program that will take about half of the time. These students will often be in their mid-twenties or thirties with either a degree in something else or a lot of work experience behind them.

We’re all equal in this big world of ours, but as an undergraduate student you’ll have to work three times as hard because the Masters students have a lot more on the line than you do, and they also have a stronger work ethic than most students.

For example, Calvin To was a Masters of Journalism student at Ryerson and now he’s a reporter with CTV Toronto, a local news station here in the city. As a journalist, his CV is similar to my own in that he’s worked at a few places as an intern and as a chase producer, but he capitalized on a few opportunities. In other words what you really need to do is:

Start on your clippings and demo reel

The importance of this is paramount. There are few places that you will be able to find like-minded students who are willing to help you make a news clip. Try to think ahead to any pieces that you’re about to write and think about whether this would make a good television piece or even just a YouTube clip.

It’s as easy as finding someone with a DSLR and the ability to edit some video, but it takes a lot of time and effort to learn how to write. Sit down and watch some television. Notice the vocabulary used in script writing and learn that you’ll have to condense a whole story into 30 seconds and a few video clips.

The importance of a demo reel is echoed in the importance of having a good number of clippings you can show off to potential employers. For example, I worked for a few magazines and had some clippings on a few video game websites. With those in hand, I was able to become an intern with the Post Arcade in Toronto and now work as a freelance contributor on the side of my other job.

Don’t lean on professors

Professors in journalism school are great. They are invaluable resources in learning how to perfect your abilities in the craft and how to work your way up to being a true journalist. That’s where their influence ends and where you need to start looking for references elsewhere.

I’ll admit, I’ve had one job where my references from school have really helped me out, but that was one time and every other time my references outside of school have helped me land the job. The professors are there to help you out by educating you in the ways of journalism, not to get you work.

It’s like working at the school newspaper and sending off your clippings from there in a job application. It looks good and it’s professional, but clippings from another news organization is way more impressive. This part comes hand in hand with more job experience, which brings me too:

Internship Programs

Internships. Depending on what sector you’re working in or what news organization you’re going to, these work experience programs can be great or they can be a light form of forced labour. Most journalism schools will give you the chance to work basically anywhere, but what I will tell you is this:

Work where you want to.

There’s nothing worse than having access to infinite possibilities and learning that ten other students from your school are going to the same place. What’s worse is that oftentimes these places act as a kind of holding pen for students with some getting lucky with jobs and others being left in free-labour limbo.

Pick somewhere that you really have your heart set on and do more work than the full-time employees there. It’ll be long hours and in most cases there won’t be a payoff in terms of a job, but you’ll leave a good impression on everyone there and that’s half the battle. It’s also advisable to look into the work place’s job board to see if they’re actually hiring when you’re doing your internship.

***

Anyway, that’s just five thoughts on journalism school. If you need any advice on what to do or what you should be looking for if you’re thinking about school don’t be afraid to shoot me a line in the comments or at my email, which should be somewhere on the website.

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