I thought I’d post this just as a guide for those who are interested in this kind of career, give my two cents’ worth so to speak…
Just so you know where I’m coming from, I’m a trainee newspaper journalist on an NCTJ course at Highbury College in Portsmouth. I previously graduated with a 2:1 in History. The course has very high rates of success (most graduates have a conditional contract with a newspaper before the course is over, and the remainder get something shortly thereafter) due to the college’s connections.
The first thing I would say, in case you haven’t heard it a thousand times already, is that personal contacts are everything. Unlike many other industries, the media is something of a ‘closed shop’ when it comes to recruitment (how many times do you see “reporters wanted” in the jobs page?) and newspapers tend to take people on who either (a) they know very well, or (b) have what is known as a pre-entry qualification.
Either way, the first step is always to get work experience. It’s bloody hard to find the time to do it, especially if you’re working a shitty full-time job just to tide you over and pay off a bit of your student debt, but whether you’re hoping to be recruited directly or to get on a training course, this is an absolute must.
Call up a whole bunch of local papers in the area, find out who to write to about work experience, and send a brief letter to the relevant contact requesting work experience (generally granted in blocks of one week). Don’t be afraid to follow this up a few days later with a polite phone call.
When you get work experience, be prepared to help out in whatever way possible, no matter how tedious you might think the story is. Newspaper editors don’t care how insightful your opinion on the Middle East conflict may be - they want to see that you’re keen, willing and able to interview that granny about her jam-making competition.
However, persistence can definitely pay off. I carried out work experience at a number of regional titles in the South West, all owned by the same company, and ended up getting invited to come in and do the odd bit of work as a freelancer for a little extra cash. This also allowed me to go from covering vicar stories to bigger things, and building up a reasonable portfolio of cuttings (which you should definitely do if you’re serious about being a journalist).
In the end, however, editors will want you to be trained. If you’re lucky and please them enough, they may offer to pay for this on the newspaper’s budget and line up a job for you once you finish. This is known as ‘direct entry’, the first of two routes into the trade.
If, as in my case, they aren’t feeling kind enough to offer this, you’re best off applying directly to a training course and paying for it yourself after building up a reasonable portfolio through work experience. This is known as the ‘pre-entry’ route.
Training is important because there are so many practical skills you need as a journalist that even many undergrad degrees in journalism don’t teach. The most obvious of these is Teeline shorthand, a bastard of a task to learn if ever there were, but something which will allow you to transcribe notes at the speed of human speech once mastered. There are also legal matters and the structure of government to learn - the first of these will help prevent you and your paper getting sued, and the second will give you an invaluable understanding of how to source stories.
Just about every journalist I met on various local papers had undergone training on an NCTJ-accredited course. The National Council for Training of Journalists is the nationally recognised body for training in the field and sets the standard for what journalists need to know. NCTJ courses are considered to be of a higher standard and mean more on your CV to a prospective employer compared to a non-NCTJ accredited journalism course.
You will need to have a minimum level of work experience on a local newspaper before applying to one of these courses, but if you check the NCTJ’s website you will be able to view all the centres around the UK which offer the courses. Distance learning is also an option, but every editor I’ve spoken to says they would prefer a candidate who had attended a course at a training centre as the distance learning courses involve less practical experience in journalism.
Once you have an NCTJ pre-entry certificate and a decent level of practical experience, you will finally be in a position to start applying for jobs as a reporter. They reckon it takes at least three years of work on local news before getting even a sniff at working on a national newspaper, so don’t start writing to the Guardian (or the Mail, if that’s your bag) just yet.
So to recap all that in summary:
Get work experience - this is a priority, and you won’t get anywhere in news without it unless your dad is Piers Morgan.
Work hard at your work experience, keep coming back for more and cross your fingers that the paper are feeling generous enough to offer you a job and send you off on a training course.
If that offer isn’t forthcoming, get as much work experience as possible, build up a portfolio and then apply to get on a training course, ideally an NCTJ accredited one. This will give you the minimum qualification you need to start applying for jobs as a reporter.