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If you are an undergraduate, then you are well situated to get off to a good start. The first thing you need to know is that you don’t have to major in journalism. Journalism is learned on the job. I, for one, never took a single college course in journalism. When the publisher of a Dutch newspaper asked me to become an America-based freelancer, I had no formal credentials. But I was qualified: I loved the news, I could write fast, and I knew how to put together the elements of a story fairly quickly. I simply started writing for the newspaper. When I worked for Dutch television news, I mentored fifteen interns. I could tell within a week whether they had what it takes. One intern, a fourth-year journalism student, could not write a coherent news piece, whereas another who studied international relations learned how to write good copy within a week.
I recommend that you major in a subject like philosophy, economics, history, political science, a foreign language, or a hard science. Your undergraduate major should involve serious reading, thinking, and writing. Some of my best interns have attended St. John’s College. This school has a “great books” curriculum—from Homer to Marx—with a strong emphasis on writing and Socratic discussion. I think that philosophy might be the best undergraduate major for a future journalist. As a journalist, you should have a knowledge of economics, political science, and history. If you major in journalism, the required courses in that major will crowd out course work in these core subjects.
If you want to pursue a career in television news, I am open to the argument that you need a degree in broadcast journalism. Mastering all the skills required to do television demands hands-on experience. Your undergraduate education is one means of acquiring those skills. Tracy Oppenheimer double majored in international relations and broadcast journalism at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California. She interned at Fox Television News in New York City between her junior and senior years. Her executive producer would have hired her immediately. Annenberg made her “TV ready.” She now works for Reason TV. Andrew Kirell, however, majored in economics and acquired all his television skills through internships. Fox News hired him after his internship. The chapters by Pete Weitzner, Kristen Diaz, and Patrick McMenamin discuss various routes to achieve the same goal.
Regardless of your major, you should use your undergraduate studies to peruse the Classical Liberal canon. You should look for course offerings where you can read John Locke, Adam Smith, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, Alexis de Tocqueville, J. S. Mill, Lord Acton, Ludwig von Mises, and F. A. Hayek.
Every journalist should follow the news. I recommend that you read a quality newspaper (I read the Washington Post) each day, as well as writers whose style and content are worthy of emulation. You should also read libertarian news magazines. Reason is an obvious choice.
In addition, you should attend IHS, Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), or Cato Institute seminars. These seminars are excellent opportunities to spend time dealing with classical liberal ideas. You will also meet a lot of smart people.
Make regular engagement with the ideas a part of your career planning. IHS is committed to helping you do this at all stages of your career. IHS offers weekend and week-long summer seminars in the ideas for undergraduate and graduate students. In addition, IHS cooperates with Liberty Fund to offer weekend Advanced Topics in Liberty seminars (or ATs) for graduates and professionals. Some of the ATs bring together a group of journalists to discuss readings in the Classical Liberal canon, such as Hayek and Tocqueville.
If your university has a newspaper, you should report for it. I want to emphasize the word “report.” Many applicants for journalism internships send me opinion pieces as their writing samples. The problem is that everyone—liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc.—wants to write opinion. But you will only make a career in reporting. If your goal is to land on the editorial page, then you will only get there by producing quality news pieces.
In practice, this means writing about student council meetings, dormitory fires, auto accidents on campus, bake sales by student clubs, and rising tuition. Most of the student newspapers will be run by editors who are not sympathetic to Classical Liberal thinking. But aspiring libertarian journalists should not be deterred by that. I have had two excellent interns who wrote for the Daily Californian at Cal-Berkeley. You need to get reporting experience, and you should get it any way you can.
If your school has an alternative conservative or libertarian paper, you could also write for it. The Collegiate Network and the Leadership Institute both support a network of college newspapers. But don’t let that become the opportunity to start writing opinion. Stick to reporting.
You may be at a university or college where there is no opportunity to write for a school newspaper. If so, then you should consider writing for the Student Free Press Association. The SFPA offers students the opportunity to publish online. The SFPA has an agreement with Fox News to publish its best articles on the Fox News website.
No time? Some applicants have told me that between their studies and part-time work or even sports, they don’t have time to write for the school newspaper. I sympathize with the work load. But if you cannot make time to write for the school newspaper during your undergraduate years, then you should probably choose another line of work.
If you are more interested in radio or television, then campus broadcast facilities may offer an opportunity get hands-on experience. I still think that every journalist—radio or television—should be able to write. Reporting for a newspaper remains a fundamental skill you need to master.
I like to send my print interns to the Freedom Communication newspapers in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Arizona. I know that they will receive editorial oversight and return with a bunch of clips. Anne Slagill Malinoski brought back sixty clips from her summer at the Yuma Arizona Sun.
If you are serious about a career in print, then I recommend that you first intern at a small newspaper. You may think that you would make a good intern at the New York Times. But the road there or to the Washington Post may run through Brownsville, Texas.
Megan Ward and Katherine Mangu-Ward discuss a career in print. Ward talks about the traditional path from small newspaper to the big time. Mangu-Ward thinks that you can bypass the traditional path altogether. She recommends moving to Washington, DC, New York City, or Los Angeles and starting to freelance as opposed to finding a small newspaper, moving to a medium-sized paper, and then making a stab at a major metro. But her recommendation is based on the changing media landscape. Matt Welch points out that these changes have essentially eliminated the gatekeepers. Talent and ambition can more easily move to the top now. The experience of two of my interns underscores this. Andrew Kirell started as an intern at ABC’s 20/20 working for John Stossel’s crew. He moved with Stossel to Fox, where he got his first job as a production assistant. In April 2012, Mediaite, a young web news and commentary site, hired him. Two weeks into his job Kirell found himself jousting with Glenn Beck. Another of my former interns, Mytheos Holt, now writes for Beck’s website, the Blaze. Holt came to Washington to intern at Broadbandcensus.com. He worked the 2010 election for National Review, moved from there to a U.S. senator’s speechwriting team, and then to the Washington Times. He is now a writing for a national audience at the Blaze. Andrew Kirell graduated from George Mason University in 2009; Mytheos Holt graduated from Wesleyan University in 2010.
Many IHS interns are hired by the media outlets where they intern. This applies to both print and television interns. Hope Hodge interned at the Jacksonville Herald after her sophomore year of college. The next summer she interned at the New York Sun. Following graduation, the Herald hired Hope. Fox Cable News in New York City has hired most of its IHS interns. IHS is not the only organization that offers internships. The National Journalism Center offers fall, spring, and summer internships at media outlets in Washington, DC. The Collegiate Network has both summer internships and year-long fellowships. The Student Free Press Association has paid internships.
About a third of my interns are graduate students, law students, or recent grads. If you belong to that category and want to pursue a career in journalism, you are not starting too late.
If you are a graduate student, you too should write for the school newspaper. The only thing standing in your way is pride. One of my interns already had a JD. She decided to begin a graduate program and wanted to get into journalism. She went to the university’s newspaper and started churning out news articles, alongside eighteen-year-old freshmen. Another grad student at Duke University freelances for the Duke student newspaper and local papers.
If you have already graduated, then you will need to find ways to get reporting experience. A paid internship is one means. A second option is to self-finance an internship with part-time employment or savings. Due to heavy layoffs, most newspapers are understaffed. If you approach a city editor about interning two or three days a week, the chances are good that the editor won’t send you away. Self-financing an internship represents an alternative to a master’s degree in journalism, the next topic.
If you have already completed your undergraduate work and have discovered a call to journalism, you may think that you need a master’s in journalism to get into the profession. The master’s in journalism can help you acquire skills and clips. But you need to carefully consider the costs and benefits. In particular, you need to ask how much student loan debt you will acquire. A year at the Columbia School of Journalism may very well get you your first job. But the salary at this job may not be enough to service the loan debt. My major concern with a master’s in journalism is that the student loan debt might actually force you out of journalism.
Let me provide an example. Katherine Timpf was an IHS intern at Fox Business News in Los Angeles in 2010. Timpf was an easy choice for an internship. During her four years at Hillsdale College she reported for the school’s excellent student newspaper. She was editor-in-chief during her senior year. In 2009, she interned at the Washington Times. When she arrived at the journalism seminar in 2010, she informed me that she had been accepted into the Columbia School of Journalism. I told her that she did not need the master’s degree. She had already acquired the necessary skills on the job. My arguments did not sway her initially. The allure of the Columbia degree was hard to resist.
But the prestige of this degree came with a price tag. Timpf also told me that her financial aid package to Columbia would require over $50,000 in student loans. I urged her to postpone her decision for a year. She finally agreed. It turned out to be a good decision. During her internship at Fox Business News, Timpf started working in the radio news section. She then found an internship at KFI 640 AM Radio, the largest talk radio/news station in Los Angeles. The news director liked her so much that he helped her find a job at Airwatch Radio in Los Angeles. In the fall of 2011, Timpf moved to the Washington Times. She now has two years of television, radio, and print experience. And no student loan debt from an unnecessary master’s program.
If, for instance, you had $25,000 to put toward the Columbia degree, you could also use that to finance a year-long internship at a media outlet. You would emerge from the year with a lot of experience and clips. You wouldn’t have a master’s degree. But you wouldn’t have any student loan debt either.
Journalism can be a satisfying and lucrative career. But your salary during the first years will not be very good. The television network news programs pay $25,000 to starting producers. Small-market television stations sometimes pay their beginning reporters less than that. Kristen Cosby Diaz’s first job in Sioux City, Iowa, paid $20,000, with no moving expenses from her home in Florida. Newspapers pay about the same to cub reporters. This underscores why you need to try to minimize your student loan burden coming out of college. You will also need to live frugally. In his contribution, Matt Welch remarks that a car payment might be enough to push you over the edge. You probably need to supplement your income with freelancing.
You may be frightened away from journalism by the large number of layoffs in the news industry between 2008 and 2010. And the reports that traditional media continue to struggle. Twenty-two of my interns found their first job in 2010, and twelve more in 2011. The news industry has been shedding its older, more expensive workers. If you are in your twenties and flexible, there is work. It probably won’t pay very much to begin with. But it represents your foot in the door.
IHS is committed to helping you get that foot in the door and move forward during the lean years. The internships are one tool. The ATs are another. In 2011 and 2012, the journalism program held three career development seminars: pitching stories to editors, television for print journalists, and employing social media to further your journalism career. Networking is another important part of a career. In the first half of 2012, the journalism program held networking receptions in Washington, DC, New York City, and Los Angeles. The journalism programs director also offers mentoring and advice. I hope that you will consider IHS as a partner in your career.
John Elliott (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the journalism programs director at
the Institute for Humane Studies.
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