I’ve been meaning for awhile to write a long post culling the advice I regularly give students and recent college grads when they ask me how to jump start a career in magazine journalism. While there are some great websites out there for early career newspaper journalists — my favorite is Joe Grimm’s JobsPage — there’s a general hush-hush quality around magazine journalism career paths that, IMHO, does a grave disservice to the profession, maintaining its essentially homogeneous, insular quality. A lot of that, of course, also has to do with the crappy pay (or no pay) in this field. But that’s a topic I’ve covered before.
Today we’ll talk nuts and bolts career planning for the folks who are absolutely certain they don’t want to go to law school. For those who have accepted that this is a highly competitive and contracting field rife with nepotism, yet who fall asleep at night dreaming of seeing their byline in the New Yorker. Who actually subscribe to the magazines they love and want to write for. This post goes out to you, my dear, fellow crazies.
Before we start, a few disclosures:
1. I have been out of college only two years. What you’ll read here does not come from the perspective of someone who has risen high in the profession, but it is an on-the-ground, up-to-the-minute, realistic look at what building a magazine career looks like in the age of blogs and RSS feeds and web-only publications. If the folks you’re asking for job advice are derisive of those trends, look for advice elsewhere. There’s no such thing anymore as a print-only journalism career, or a feature-writing-only career. As a young journo, the web is your friend. Short form is also your friend.
2. My experience is in news and politics writing, reporting, and editing. If you’re into food or fashion mags, you might find some of this helpful, but probably not all of it.
3. I should say where I’ve interned and worked, because everyone is biased toward the path they themselves took. In college, I had one non-journalism internship, at a small crisis management PR firm in Manhattan. I got my first paycheck for writing — the most thrilling $40 I’ve ever earned — from the North County News, a weekly community newspaper in the Hudson Valley, where I grew up. Later, I interned for the Journal News, the large Gannett paper covering New York City’s northern suburbs. While I studied abroad in Paris, I worked for the World Association of Newspapers, where I wrote for their blog on trends in international journalism. And before my senior year of college, I worked for BusinessWeek in New York, which was definitely my most satisfying internship, even though I knew very little about business or economics going into it.
After college, I worked at the Center for American Progress for a year, where I was associate editor of CampusProgress.org, a youth-oriented political webzine. I left that job to become a writing fellow at The American Prospect, where I’m now a staff writer.
Okay, here we go. I’ve arranged this as a list of FAQs.
I’m a high school kid who wants to be a journo. Where should I go to college? Should I major in journalism? What extracurriculars should I do?
Go to the college that will make you happy. But if you’re having trouble deciding and want to be a journalist, consider the quality of the publications on campus. If you want to be a newspaper reporter, you’ll be disadvantaged by not working for a college daily. Some schools have truly vibrant journalism scenes, with a daily paper, a weekly cultural magazine, a few political journals, and a couple of literary reviews. I was lucky to have gone to a university like that, and I tried my hand at different types of journalism.
I didn’t go to j-school, but some of my best friends in journalism did. They’ve told me it can be worth it as an undergrad if 1)The program includes lots of externship/internship opportunities working for professional publications and 2)You have the opportunity to really delve into liberal arts courses, or political science, or economics, or whatever floats your boat. You don’t want the vast majority of your classes to be trade-related.
It’s time to apply to internships! What clips should I send?
Reported local news clips are invaluable when you apply for internships, as are reported cultural features that show some analytical depth. Op-eds — if they’re extraordinarily sophisticated for a college student — might be helpful if you’re applying to political magazines, but be warned: Most of the op-ed submissions I’ve seen from internship and entry-level job applicants have been pretty banal, and haven’t tilted the process in the applicant’s favor. Reported opinion columns might be an exception. Music/film/book/restaurant reviews are appropriate if those are the kinds of pieces published by the place you’re applying to.
When in doubt, send the stories with the best ledes. (And yes, that’s spelled correctly.) If you want to take a look at some of the clips I used to send around as a college student, here they are.
Where should I intern? And what’s better, newspaper or magazine internships?
The question of newspapers vs. magazines can be a complicated one. If you are fairly certain you want to be a newspaper journalist, you will need, at some point, to do newspaper internships; you just won’t get hired without them. But if you are dying, just dying, to be writing on glossy paper, things get more complicated. Doing a rigorous newspaper internship can be one of the best ways to jump start a magazine journalism career. Why? Because newspaper internships throw you into daily reporting, while magazine internships entail far more research and fact-checking than they do writing. If they do contain writing, it’s now often blogging, which doesn’t provide you with the meaty, carefully edited clips that will take you to the next stage of your career — unless you want to make it as a full-time blogger (more on that later). And mag internships are often unpaid or incredibly poorly paid, which might make them either impossible for you to do or much less attractive.
That said, magazines hire their former interns constantly. If you’ve been a successful, beloved intern, you have a huge leg up in any applicant pool for a staff position. So here’s my rule of thumb: If you have a dream magazine you’d love to work at — say The American Prospect — you should, by all means, try to intern there if you can. You’ll be making valuable connections. But if you didn’t get accepted at a dream publication, or your dream publication doesn’t pay or is in a far away place you can’t afford to live in, or any other factor — take the job you’re offered with the meatiest set of responsibilities, the one that will teach you to report, write, analyze, copy edit, and yes, fact-check. Weigh who your boss will be and if that person seems like a good mentor. Also consider whether an internship offers a summer speaker series or other professional development opportunities.
But perhaps most important when choosing an internship, realistically assess if you are ready to contribute to that publication as a writer. If you are a wonk who reads think tank reports for fun and has seriously studied American politics, you may be able to get some great clips at a public policy opinion journal. If, however, you are like me when I was in college — someone who liked to interview people and write articles, and who was more of an intellectual generalist — you’ll probably find more opportunities at a general interest publication or newspaper, where you aren’t expected to be an expert on what you report on.
So what about blogging? Could it be my golden ticket?
Maybe, but don’t count on it. Exceptionally talented young bloggers sometimes get hired for jobs that consist primarily of blogging. And it’s important these days to demonstrate that you can write pithy blog posts as well as report out longer stories. But diversifying the kind of writing you do and the clips you show off is a safer bet.
One thing experienced bloggers are good at and everyone should do more of is reading news and analysis constantly via RSS readers. So sign-up for Google Reader and subscribe to a bunch of blogs, newspapers, and magazines right now. Knowing what’s been reported and argued in competitor publications and, in fact, all over the web, is very important to proving to editors that your story pitch is relevant, fresh, and has a news peg. That way you can say, yes, Ben Smith already mentioned this, but my piece will be different/add to the conversation/move the ball forward because x, y, and z. There’s nothing more unfortunate than a pitch that fails to realize a prominent journalist has already written this exact piece in a high circulation publication.
Okay, I’m finally a magazine intern! How do I make the most of it?
First of all, and this is a total no-brainer, do absolutely everything you’re asked to do enthusiastically, no matter how menial the task. Ask questions, but not if you can find their answers out on Google. If there are other interns or entry level staffers who can answer your questions, go to them before you bother higher-ups. Don’t linger by people’s cubes or outside of their offices if they are on the phone or in a meeting. Go back to your seat and approach them again later.
Okay, enough office etiquette. Sorry ’bout that, I have some pet peeves. For most interns, of course, the primary concern is getting to write as much as possible. Hopefully your supervisor will give you some tips on how you can make this happen at your particular publication. Generally, though, you want to start out by pitching the smallest, least ambitious items available. You will not be writing a “think piece” the first week of your internship; you might be doing a short, newsy blog item. When it comes to print, focus on those one paragraph front-of-the-book pieces. If you’ve made some headway with smaller items, by all means try to get a web article or two out of your internship. You will need to ask the relevant editor how she wants you to go about pitching such a piece, and follow her directions exactly. Then wait patiently. She will respond to your pitch when she has time. It’s okay to check-in after a few business days, but don’t be a constant nuisance.
If you land a pitch, congratulations! Now comes the humbling editing process. The key word here is “humble.” Engage in dialog with your editor and let him know if a certain edit confuses you. But you must accept that he is the final arbiter of what is published, he is more experienced than you, and he is doing you a favor by publishing your work. Making this process as painless as possible for him will put you in his good graces and possibly land you future assignments. He will tell others what a great person you are to work with. Score!
Okay, I’m applying for jobs. What if I work at a think tank or non-profit for awhile? After all, I do need health insurance while I try to make it in this crazy field. Will it dead my journalism career?
Not necessarily, but be very careful. When I worked at a think tank, I actually did opinion journalism all day long as an assigning editor and writer for a political website. And the place I worked at was a D.C. institution that allowed me to rub shoulders with the magazine editors I wanted to be writing for. That’s how I got freelance assignments and subsequently, my job at the Prospect. So be realistic about the job you’re taking and whether it will move you toward your goals. And if you are side-lined at an NGO, freelance, freelance, freelance!
What’s a better career skill to develop, writing or editing?
I honestly love editing — even copy-editing — and used to love being a full-time editor. I also love being a reporter, and I think that at this stage in my career, it’s the best skill to develop for my journalistic growth. That’s just me of course; everybody has different goals. Staff writing jobs are the hardest to come by, so many people turn to editing opportunities, which are slightly more prevalent. It’s important to remember, though, that editing is a different job with significant management responsibilities and increasingly, tough web-dictated hours. You should know what you’re getting into.
The truth is that at a small magazine, even full time writers will find themselves copy editing, fact-checking, assigning stories to freelancers, and doing other non-writing tasks. Staffs are ever-smaller and overworked. A passion for as many of the steps in the journalistic process as you can muster will make you a much happier magazine worker.
This has gotten ridiculously long, so I’ll stop here for now. I’ll do another installment if folks have questions — leave them in comments!