Work experience has always been a part of getting into journalism, and in today's tough jobs market, it is more important than ever. The benefits to work experience are many; something that looks good on a CV while also giving you real, practical skills that will serve you well as you break into journalism.
This guide includes advice from: Robin Elias, managing editor of ITV News; John Wellington, managing editor, Mail on Sunday; Neil Dunwoodie, executive producer, Sky News; and Leo Whitlock, editor, Kentish Gazette; plus John Thompson and Rachel McAthy from Journalism.co.uk.
Perhaps the hardest part of work experience is securing it in the first place. Leo Whitlock, editor of Canterbury's Kentish Gazette, knows first-hand how many people are looking.
"I get requests for work experience almost every day - which isn't surprising as there are three universities based in the city, a large further education college and a whole host of independent, grammar and comprehensive schools. I strongly believe in work experience because that is how I got into the profession, but as newsrooms get more and more hard-pressed, the temptation is to stop investing the time in youngsters."
When it comes to larger, national companies, the rate of applications is slightly lower. John Wellington, managing editor of the Mail on Sunday, receives an application "about once a fortnight." Robin Elias, managing editor of ITV News, gets "a few every week – and more around the summer".
"They range from secondary pupils with a vague interest in news; school leavers wanting find out what roles there might be in television news; to university graduates hoping to take the first step in a career," Elias told Journalism.co.uk.
Writing the covering email and sending your CV
When making contact to request work experience, do not just "throw out general requests" on social media advises Rachel Mcathy, editor of Journalism.co.uk. "Target people or departments and then follow up with an email or phone call."
And it is crucial to make sure you know the name of the person you are emailing. Getting this wrong or not including a name will immediately scupper your chances, says Wellington. "Make sure you write to a named individual, preferably someone important, and get their name and job title correct. Telephone first to check, if necessary."Show that you know something about the company and why you like or use itJohn Wellington, managing editor, Mail on Sunday
Once you have found and checked the name of the recipient, you need to compose the email which acts as a covering letter. This is your chance to show off your journalistic skills, and prove that you can convey relevant and useful information in a concise, easy-to-read manner. Understand what editors - who are also potential employers - need to know.
Wellington says the covering letter / email "should show that you know something about the company and why you like or use it".
You should show a personal interest and knowledge in the news organisation. According to Whitlock, "you need to demonstrate why we should invest our time in you".
"Why are you interested in becoming a journalist? What do you know about my newspapers, websites and radio stations?" Take the time to tweak each email slightly, giving it a personal touch that shows you understand each news outlet you are applying to.
If you are writing to a regional publication, try and come up with a local story ideas you can pitch in the email. Anything that shows journalistic talent will be useful. It might be a bit harder to come up with original ideas for a national (or global) company, but they will be noticed.
Attach or include links to the best examples of your work.
Elias, managing editor of ITV News, says he "always looks for evidence that the applicant has a demonstrable interest in news".
"That can be writing a blog, working on the school magazine, helping in hospital radio, shooting their own video, and so on."
If you need work experience as a requirement for a degree or another course, let the recipient know. Anything that might make them consider you over others is worth including. However, it is vital to "show an interest in the medium or company, as opposed to just saying 'we have to do two weeks as part of my course so I wondered if I could come to you'", says McAthy.
Always include your CV, and tailor it to fit the news outlet you are applying to. In this guide to CV writing, recruiters from the Telegraph and other news outlets say this should be one-page, particularly for a first and second jobber.
There are a number of things that would make Wellington consider accepting a request. "If I think that person might one day stand a chance of working for the company; if they have made a big effort with the application; if they have a good reason for applying; if the CV looks good and shows evidence of useful activity outside academic subjects such as sport, hobbies, work experience etc."
After you have applied for work experience it is a good idea to contact the recipient again if you do not hear back. The may appreciate your drive, says Whitlock. "Don't be afraid to follow your email up with a phone call. This shows just how determined you are and that you are confident on the telephone".
Balance must be maintained, though. Harassing someone with constant emails and phone calls could damage your chances.
Once you have secured a placement, make sure before going in that you are familiar with the style and content of the news outlet you are going to be working at, says John Thompson, managing director of Journalism.co.uk.
"Arrive with some of your own ideas, but be prepared to have at least some of those ideas rejected," he suggests. Gather leads by preparing well in advance by setting up a Twitter list of key contacts and RSS feeds that will help you in generating original ideas.
Another issue is what to wear. Ask beforehand and if unsure, opt for smart/casual, perhaps smart shoes, suit trousers and a smart button-up shirt.
The first day
Be punctual, advises Thompson. And then be appreciative of the fact you are there. Accommodating a work experience student is a commitment of both time and resources, and another thing for everyone to deal with on top of their normal work load.
"Don't show indifference to being on the work placement – you're guaranteed to lose the goodwill of the people you're working with," advises Neil Dunwoodie, executive producer, Sky News.
Make sure to introduce yourself to everyone you are going to be working with.Be interested. Ask questions. Be aware of the news agenda.Robin Elias, managing editor, ITV News
Elias says making a good impression is easy. "Be interested. Ask questions. Be aware of the news agenda."
Don't be afraid to ask questions as no one will expect you to know exactly what to do, and it is much better to ask and be sure than to do something wrong. But don't ask questions that could be answered by a quick Google query, suggests Thompson.
If you are given a small task that you finish quickly, let the person in charge of you know, and ask if they have anything else they need doing. And as Thompson says: "Be prepared to act on your own initiative."
When asked what the worst thing someone on work experience could do, Whitlock has a simple answer: "Tell the news editor you don't like talking to people, especially on the phone." Journalism is an industry that revolves around talking to people, and chances are you will have to telephone a number of people for interviews or clarifications.
As time passes, you might find yourself given larger and more important tasks to work on. If journalists are working on something big, hopefully they will involve you and ask for your input. Contributions will be noticed by the team. According to Dunwoodie you should "be keen and willing to learn, have lots of ideas and not be afraid to get stuck in."
As your time there draws to a close, Thompson suggests giving a gift.Be keen and willing to learn, have lots of ideas and not be afraid to get stuck inNeil Dunwoodie, Sky News
"A nice gesture like buying the office some biscuits or chocolates can be surprisingly effective!" Having people in the industry remember you as an appreciative person can come back to help you, months or years down the line.
Work experience is an "essential" part of an ambitious young journalist's career, according to Wellington, and is a must to break into the industry. For Dunwoodie "it's more important than the history of someone's education".
A helpful list of dos and don'ts
- "Make your email relevant and brief," says Neil Dunwoodie.
- "Be punctual. Late is clearly bad but turning up too early can be too," advises John Thompson.
- "Read the latest edition of the newspaper/website before you start so that you can talk knowledgably about it and the stories it contains," says Leo Whitlock.
- "Be interested. Ask questions. Be aware of the news agenda," says Robin Elias.
- "Be grateful - a nice gesture like buying the office some biscuits or chocolates can be surprisingly effective," advised John Thompson.
- "Write a thank you letter afterwards," suggests John Wellington.
- "Tell the news editor you don’t like talking to people, especially on the phone," advises Leo Whitlock.
- "Sit around looking bored, checking your phone, Facebook accounts etc," says John Thompson.
- "Show indifference to being on the work placement – you're guaranteed to lose the goodwill of the people you're working with," says Neil Dunwoodie.
- "Complain about anything," John Wellington.
- "Don't just sit quietly. If you want to be a journalist, you have to be confident enough to ask questions and communicate," says Robin Elias.
- "Ask questions that could be answered by a quick Google query," says John Thompson.
See BBC talent executive Daniell Morrisey's advice on work experience.