It is a journalist's job to find news and to report on it as quickly as possible, in an arresting and engaging style.
Whether reporting on a local planning decision or a dramatic international conflict, journalists play a key role in society. They keep communities informed and satisfy the public's right to know.
Job Description, salaries and benefits
Journalists seek out news and bring it to the public as quickly as possible. They aim to present stories in a clear, engaging style.
A journalist may:
- attend press launches, courts, council meetings and other events
- interview people by phone or in person
- respond to tip-offs, calls and news releases
- record notes in shorthand or on tape and write stories up on computer.
Besides the pressures of working to deadline and getting stories out ahead of the competition, journalists must keep their stories balanced, fair and lawful.
Long and unpredictable hours are common in journalism. Journalists generally work 39 hours a week, but they may work shifts including early starts, nights and some weekends. They have to travel to where the news is, and may sometimes work outdoors.
Salaries start from around £12,000 for new local journalists, rising to £80,000 or more for top journalists in national news.
Journalists need to be:
- excellent writers
- good at relating to all kinds of people
- cool under pressure
- good at absorbing information quickly
- interested in current affairs.
There are opportunities across the UK, but competition for posts is keen. Enthusiasm and work experience are vital. Journalists are employed by local and national newspapers, broadcasters, news agencies, magazines and online news operations.
Most journalists have a degree, as well as a vocational or postgraduate journalism qualification. Their degree may not need to be in journalism, although many universities offer courses in media studies or similar subjects.
Journalists train on the job. They may also study on day release or work towards work-related qualifications. Some big news groups, such as the BBC, run in-house training schemes. There are also short courses to help them learn new skills.
With experience, journalists may move on to lead a team of reporters, or they may specialise in a field such as crime or business reporting. They can change to a publication with a larger circulation, or from print to broadcast journalism. Some take on new responsibilities, for example, as sub-editors and ultimately editors. Others move into press and public relations work.
What is the work like?
Most journalists start out as general news reporters. Their daily tasks might include:
- attending press conferences, court sessions, council meetings and other scheduled public events
- interviewing the people involved in news stories, in person or by telephone
- following up news releases, calls from the public or tip-offs from personal contacts
- writing news stories from notes taken, often to tight deadlines.
Reporters may use shorthand or tape recorders, or a combination, to take records of what is said. They type their stories onto computer.
The work involves close working with colleagues, such as photographers. A news editor usually assigns tasks to reporters.
Other types of journalist include:
- sub-editors, who check and shape the reporters' work and add headlines
- feature writers, who produce longer pieces that are less time-sensitive
- columnists and commentators
- those who specialise in a particular field, such as sports, politics or health.
The rolling deadlines of news operations can make the work demanding. Even weekly newspapers and magazines often have daily requirements to 'fill' a certain number of pages. There is often pressure to get stories in advance of rivals.
Getting the required information can be challenging. Some people are wary of journalists, or may simply want to conceal information.
Journalists also need to make sure every story is balanced - giving all parties a chance to have their say. Awareness of the law is important too: an unjustified allegation could expose the news organisation to a potentially expensive court case.
Salaries may start at around £12,000.
Hours and environment
Journalists generally work 39 hours a week, but sometimes more. The hours depend on the production deadlines of the news organisation. For example, core hours on an evening newspaper may be 8am to 4.30pm, or for a morning newspaper, 10am to 6pm.
Long and unpredictable hours are common, especially when responding to major incidents. Journalists may be expected to attend evening meetings. Some work shifts, including early starts, nights and some weekends and holidays.
Part-time work is not common. However, many journalists work freelance.
Journalists have to travel to where the news is, and usually need a driving licence.
On some stories, journalists can find themselves working outdoors in all weathers. They may encounter hostile or aggressive people at times.
Salary and other benefits
These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.
- New journalists in a local news organisation may start on around £12,000.
- With experience, senior reporters can earn around £22,000.
- The top journalists in national news operations can earn £80,000 or more.
Skills and personal qualities
A journalist must have:
- an enquiring mind
- excellent written English and a concise writing style
- the ability to win the confidence of all kinds of people
- high standards of accuracy
- the ability to produce good work under pressure
- a thick skin, to handle rejection
- persistence and stamina
- quick understanding - journalists often have to write with authority on unfamiliar subjects
- a knowledge of the law as it affects journalism.
It is important to have:
- a passion for current affairs
- an appreciation of the way news is presented by different outlets
- wide interests, which might lead to work in a specialist field.
There are thought to be up to 80,000 journalists in the UK. There are opportunities all over the country, with a concentration of news organisations in major cities.
The main employers are:
- local and national newspaper groups
- broadcast news organisations
- news agencies, which supply news to other outlets
- magazines - more than 9,000 titles are currently published
- online news outlets - either independent, or linked to traditional print or broadcast operations.
While opportunities are abundant, the large number of journalism and media courses means that competition for jobs is still keen. Enthusiasm and work experience count for a lot with employers. It is a good idea to show commitment by looking for a short work placement in a newsroom and to compile a portfolio of published work.
Vacancies are advertised in the employers' publications and websites. The Guardian (on Mondays) and the trade publication Press Gazette carry many journalist vacancies, as do websites such as www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk.
Entry for young people
Most journalists today gain a degree before starting work. Most have also completed a vocational pre-entry or postgraduate training course.
Degrees may be in any subject. It is not essential to have a degree in journalism, although this may offer practical experience.
Many universities offer courses in media studies or similar subjects. It is important to be sure that the course covers the right practical skills and context, and preferably includes some work experience. Suitable courses are accredited and listed by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), the Periodicals Training Council (PTC) and the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC).
For a degree, the usual minimum requirements are two A levels/three H grades, plus five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications.
Most practical journalism courses last for an academic year. Some colleges run 'fast-track' courses, lasting 12 to 22 weeks.
For pre-entry journalism courses, the requirements vary. Course providers are likely to ask for either a first degree, or two A levels/H grades and five GCSEs/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English.
Entry for adults
Some editors prefer mature candidates and may agree to train an older entrant who, for example, has extensive knowledge of the local community served by a newspaper.
Adults may decide to move into journalism after gaining experience in a first career which becomes their specialism, eg technology, music or sport.
Training is carried out on the job.
Trainees are normally taken on by a newspaper or magazine for a two-year contract, with a probationary period of three to six months. Trainees without a pre-entry qualification may be expected study on day release for NCTJ exams, including shorthand and law.
Some big news groups, including the BBC, Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press, run in-house training schemes. Some national newspapers also have schemes. Competition for places is fierce.
Journalists may study for an NVQ/SVQ in Journalism at Level 4.
A variety of training providers, including the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), offer short courses to help journalists learn new skills and adapt to changing technologies.
In local organisations journalists may go on to lead a team of district reporters, to specialise in a field such as crime or business reporting, or to work on the news desk. With more training they may become sub-editors.
It is common to advance by changing employers to a larger-circulation publication, perhaps a regional or national daily paper. There are opportunities to work abroad for news outlets with global coverage.
Newspaper editors, who control the editorial operation and act as the public face of the newspaper in a community, are usually journalists who have gained wide experience.
It is possible to move from print journalism to TV and radio news.
Some journalists move into press and public relations work in the communications departments of business, public or charity organisations.
- Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC), c/o Secretary, 18 Miller's Close, Rippingale near Bourne, Lincolnshire PE10 0TH. 01778 440025.
- National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), The New Granary, Station Road, Newport, Saffron Walden CB11 3PL. 01799 544014.
- National Union of Journalists (NUJ), Headland House, 308-312 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8DP. 020 7278 7916.
- Periodicals Training Council (PTC), c/o Periodical Publishers Association, Queens House, 28 Kingsway, London WC2B 6JR. 020 7404 4166.
- Careers brochure - NCTJ
- Guide to Careers in Journalism - NUJ
- In print: the Guardian guide to a career in journalism - Guardian Books
- Introduction to Journalism - Focal Press
- Journalism uncovered - Trotman
- Working in law - Connexions
- Working in sport & fitness - Connexions
- Working in English - VT Lifeskills
- Working in music - VT Lifeskills
- Your Future in Magazines - PTC
- The Guardian (Mondays)
- Media Week
- Press Gazette
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