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June 9, 2008

Get ready to face up to the big wide world

By James Ball

The exams are over, the coursework’s handed in, and all that’s left is wait for the degree certificate to be printed. As the year’s journalism courses come to their end, a whole new cohort of journalists are looking for that crucial first job.

Unfortunately, if you believe the economic commentators, this could be the worst time to hunt for jobs since the Great Depression: the threat of recession looms and newsrooms across the countries are cutting back. The competition for vacancies is fierce. With that in mind, it’s worth considering every route into the newsroom – not just the conventional ones.

Graduate training programmes are the traditional first step for most professions, and though journalism has fewer than other industries, almost every newspaper takes a few trainees each year.

However, graduate training schemes have application ratios to make the most confident hack worry: The Guardian’s programme saw around 400 applications for just two places, ditto The Times. Those competing for The Telegraph’s places faced competition from across the world, not just the UK, and broadcast journalists face a similarly tough ride on schemes like ITV News Group’s traineeships. So it’s no surprise that the vast majority of newly qualified journalists won’t get in via the formal route.

Those on NCTJ-accredited courses can look to local newspaper traineeships, leading to the NCE qualification. This route will be most familiar to those who qualified 10-15 years ago, but the number of places are dwindling, and for the best chance of getting a place you must be willing to relocate: waiting for traineeships on papers close to home is largely a fruitless prospect.

But thankfully there’s more than just the conventional route. Talk to almost anyone in journalism and they will tell you their first job (or an early job) was thanks to an uncanny series of coincidences, or blind chance. Stellar journalistic careers were launched thanks to being in the right place at the right time. The trick is to make sure you’re well placed for that chance first job to come along.

Doing more work experience might not be an appealing prospect after a year of mandatory placements, but it does get your foot in the door. Getting into a newsroom is a great chance to demonstrate your talents and abilities, and get you known by a publication’s staff – all a great help when a vacancy comes along.

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Being available outside of the most competitive times, Christmas and Easter, means you’re now more likely to get placements where you want them. Since you don’t have to dash back to your course, longer placements are possible too, but bear in mind the NUJ suggests unpaid work experience should be no longer than four weeks.

If you’ve managed to accumulate a few work-experience placements and a decent cuttings file, shift work is an even better way to get more exposure and experience. Better yet, it’s a chance to start earning straight off, which is a relief for anyone saddled with student debt.

Shifts can cover either the news desk, features, or subbing. Work experience can be a good foothold to shift work, but some publications advertise for casual work. All advice given for work experience – being punctual and helpful, delivering decent copy, et cetera– counts here, but more so. This is paid work, after all.

Shifts aren’t confined to print: the BBC regularly advertises for casual production assistants. Like many first jobs, they’re not glamorous: a recently advertised casual role in the BBC’s business newsroom involved working from 4am-noon. That said, many of the department’s producers started out in similar roles. If you can cope with the uncertain income, shifting somewhere you want a full-time job may be a better option than taking full-time work somewhere you’re less keen on.

The final, happy, prospect is that a job will come knocking. And finally, a growing handful of bloggers have been approached by media organisations offering a job on the back of what they’ve produced. You never know – it could be you. Did I mention that I blog?

James Ball blogs at

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