Special Feature: Journalism – Still alive and kicking!

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Barry McCall of the National Union of Journalists examines the current journalism landscape and offers advice for anyone considering a career in this field.

The imminent demise of journalism has been predicted almost since the invention of the printing press which enabled its birth in first place. No other trade is more susceptible nor has proven itself more adaptable to technological change than this one.

Various technological revolutions including wireless telegraphy, radio, TV, photocomposition, desktop publishing, and the internet have all been hailed as harbingers of oncoming doom for journalists and their craft. Yet there are more journalists working today than at any time in history. Furthermore, their number is likely to  grow as the amount of outlets and channels expands.

Making a living as a journalist

The challenge is not merely being a journalist; it lies in making a living from journalism. And that’s a test which has faced almost every generation of journalist. For example, when the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) was founded in 1907 newspaper reporters were expected to be turned out in neat, clean morning dress. They paid for out of own pockets for travel, notebooks, pens and so on. It is little wonder they felt the need to form a trade union.

Freelancers, who make up more than 20 per cent of journalists today, face similar problems. The NUJ is constantly engaged in battles to ensure they are adequately rewarded for their work. In addition, they should be compensated for the expenses they incur. This includes computers, camera equipment, transport, and other essentials of the trade.

But it’s not all a struggle. Journalism can offer a hugely interesting and rewarding career. You will need the interest, perseverance, and no small amount of luck to break into it.

Choosing your course

For those considering a career in journalism the first step is to choose the right third-level course. Very few journalists enter the trade today without a relevant qualification. This doesn’t necessarily mean a journalism diploma or degree. While there are many excellent journalism courses available to students in Ireland there are other routes to the job.

Anyone qualifying in economics may find fertile ground for their knowledge and skills, for example. Similarly, history and politics and business studies have given us many of our better-known broadcasters and newspaper reporters over the years.

Core skills and qualities

Qualifications such as these are helpful but they are not in themselves an entree to journalism. The would-be journalist needs to possess a few characteristics and acquire a few skills. They must be able to write clearly and in a form which is easily understood by almost any reader or listener.

The other skill is research. The ability to research a subject is the core skill of almost every journalist. A reporter may cover a huge range of topics from day to day. When asked what they know about a topic, their usual answer should be: ‘I don’t know but I know how to find out’.

Sharp research skills leavened with a strong measure of lateral thinking are essential.

And then there is the character trait which is more important than any qualification: the ability to talk to strangers and ask them questions. The most gifted writer or photographer will never get beyond the starting blocks if they aren’t able to phone or approach a complete stranger and ask them sometimes very searching and personal questions.

Finding work

If you have the skills and qualifications the next step is to break into the trade.

Journalism courses are highly effective at organising summer placements for students. These are in a variety of media organisations and are very useful for gaining on the job training. Students should not be used as a source of cheap or free labour. This undermines staff members and freelancers who are trying to earn a living from journalism. It also devalues the work of everyone including the student.

Early experience is best gained by using those research and other skills to gather stories from your local area or other field of expertise and offering them for sale at appropriate freelance rates to a publication, broadcaster or online service which may be interested in it. And there is almost sure to be some outlet for just about every story.

Ireland has a thriving trade media sector with magazines covering a vast range of specialist topics from weddings to wind energy and pubs to paintings while local and regional media base their market appeal on the broad spectrum of their coverage. For the journalist starting out it’s a question of using that ability to speak to strangers to approach the editor or news editor and pitch their work.

Oh, and one last thing: make sure to join the NUJ as soon as you can.


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Whichcollege.ie is a national database of universities, colleges, institutes and providers of third level and PLC courses in Ireland. We operate a national search database of courses at certificate, diploma and degree level as well as providing information about career paths and directions.
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