Credit: Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

The Student Publication Association (SPA) is one organisation which pairs university journalism students up with industry professionals to provide work experience and career advice.

This mentoring scheme allows reporters from Sky News, the Telegraph, BBC and Metro to pass down their wisdom and insights to the next wave of journalism hopefuls. But what makes a good mentor?

If you are thinking taking on a mentee, Edd Church, training and opportunities officer, SPA, outlines five areas where mentors must focus their efforts.

Prove it is possible

Every mentor on the SPA scheme is under the age of 30. Why? Church said this is because it is important that mentors are recent leading examples that landing that first job in today's market is not as daunting as it seems.

"Someone who can relate to their mentee on a level that isn't just because of relevant industry, but through shared experience, is important," he said.

"The best kinds of people are those who can show how it might seem terrifying but it is not impossible to break into the industry without previously having contacts, like family relatives."

Traditional methods of getting your foot in the door are not as effective today as they used to be, so Church called on mentors to give best modern-day advice for developing contacts and making their mark with potential employers.

Give advice on the application process

The single biggest concern facing student journalists, Church said, is knowing what editors and publishers are looking for in a job application. Because students are so insecure about the future post-graduation, this is the most valuable advice mentors can give.

"What people want to know is how to fill the gaps in the knowledge and skills once they leave university," he said, adding that this helps when trying to impress on work experience.

On a personal note, Church said nailing a freelance pitching is still his main sought-after area for guidance.

"Pitching and getting a job is the main concern, it's universal with the people I've spoken to," he added.

"The skills they are expected to have on their CVs which they might not have, those are discussions they can have with their mentor and ask 'What is it I'm missing?'"

Understand the market value

There is a second reason that the SPA looks for mentors of this age bracket. It is so they can set realistic salary expectations for young reporters and offer guidance on whether opportunities are financially worthwhile.

Because many work experience and freelance opportunities are unpaid, being in a position to help weigh up whether this is worth it helps.

"It's easier for someone who has been in the industry for decades to see the whole issue of getting a job as 'easy'," Church added.

Being responsive and insightful

Church said that good email correspondence may seem obvious but mentees need to see commitment from their mentor and not be left in the dark amid their own deadlines.

Mentors can also use this space to advise on key areas of student journalism, like pressing universities for information or developing core skill sets.

"There has to be willingness to not babysit people but be able to go through and develop specific skills. For instance, if someone wants to learn how to write headlines, offer examples and explain the ways to overcome those problems," he said.

While offering technical support, like Adobe Suite programmes, is always useful, it is the more 'behind-the-scenes' journalism skills that students will find most beneficial. Filing FOI requests or pitching articles are two common areas of confusion, according to Church, but there are more basic examples too.

"One of the interesting things that came out of our national conference was that people really wanted to know when in the day to email journalists - will a 2 pm email get lost in the pile? These are things that you just don't know when starting out," he added.

Demonstrate specialism

"One of the big pieces of feedback we've received is that mentees are keen to get more specific matches for specialisms. Last year, we had a lot of mentors who were local reporters and political journalists but a lot of mentees who wanted to do lifestyle journalism," said Church.

He adds that the SPA is targeting particular passions, such as music or sports journalists. Up until now, mentees with particular interests have had to settle with makeshift mentors but these areas of expertise are becoming more important.

This also applies to wider roles in the newsroom beyond the typical reporters and editors; applications are welcome from sub-editors, social media editors, video producers and PR staff.

"We've also signed up freelancers because we want to target younger journalists and freelancing is increasingly a way in," he adds.

Looking for a job in journalism? Head over to the Journalism.co.uk jobs board for the latest industry opportunities

This article was updated on 23 October 2019 by Jacob Granger

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