How NOT to Get a Job in Journalism

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It is very difficult to break into the journalism industry.

So I’ve heard.

Newspapers are in decline.

Terrific, I chose the right degree to study.

Job competition is fierce; make sure you stand out to prospective employers.

And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take this opportunity to add one more point – and possibly the most important one of all:

Try not to run away in the middle of your first day on the job at a newspaper.

And here’s why: chances are, surprisingly enough, it is highly likely that you will not get the job if you do.

However, if you do happen to forget that last piece of advice then please, I’m begging you, at least remember this:

If the interview is in a small rural town and you run straight to the local pub after making a break, look out the window before you leave again.

Otherwise, you may run directly into a journalist that recognizes you as “the girl (or boy) that did a runner on us an hour ago”.

Can anyone spell awkward? Actually, that is one thing I can do. However, as I had quickly learned a mere two hours earlier that day, there really isn’t much else I can do in the “real world” outside of my university classes.

This is the short tale of my first tentative step into the journalism industry; non-existent ink stains and all.

It’s the same at every family gathering:

“What are you studying again?”

Journalism.

“What exactly do you want to do when you finish?”

Good question.

And of course, the ever familiar pestering from my oh-so-lovely, high-achieving brothers who are a doctor and pilot respectively:

“Have you even done any work experience, Louise?”

Not yet.

“When were you planning to do some?”

Uh…

“How do you expect to get a job then?”

“Leave me aloneee!”

Although annoying, I knew they were right.  Why hadn’t I done anything about this whole “work experience” thing yet? Procrastination and I are just too good of friends I suppose. It was time to cut the cord between us. I couldn’t keep relying on the writing competition I won when I was twelve anymore as the shining achievement on my resume either (although I still believe that a $25 Amazon gift voucher is not a prize to sneeze at).

Ok, so I’ll be perfectly honest – I didn’t meaningfully stumble across the cadetship advertisement. I like to scroll through job websites on occasion just to see if there are any job openings better suited to my lifestyle, e.g. watching Sex and the City in bed for double my current retail pay. However, this time before I could even begin to type in the specifics for my search (TV–bed–pay-by-episode) my finger slipped on my mobile screen and without warning was flashed with the words: NEWSPAPER-CADETSHIP -RURAL.

Interesting. Although the word “rural” didn’t exactly appeal to me much…

Oh hell, I was in no position to be picky. I may as well give the application a crack while I waited for the microwave to sing out that it was finished “cooking” my noodles.

As it turns out, writing a resume for a journalism position with no experience is like trying to illustrate a picture book when the extent of your drawing skills are smiling suns and overlapping triangles that are supposed to be stars. In other words, very difficult and not nearly enough content to fill half a Word document page. So I did what any PR person working for a troubled politician would do in my situation: spun and stretched the truth so thin it nearly became transparent.

Low and behold, less than two hours later I received a reply. Not an automated ‘No, thanks, but good luck with your future whoever you are’ reply, but a ‘we’d like you to come in ASAP’ reply. Either I had just weaved the most dazzling web of words that even Charlotte would have been proud of, or they were becoming desperate for applicants. In hindsight it was most likely the latter, but they were still willing to take a chance on me and that was enough to make my head enlarge slightly. Until, that is, I read the dreaded words “…for a work test.”

Cue the sun’s smiley face to turn upside down.

I don’t wish to boast, but I have become quite the pro interviewee throughout my juvenile years. It’s only natural for those like me who still live at home to become one after flouting from one casual job to the next like a happy bee from flower to flower like our lives don’t depend on the employment (because it doesn’t… yet).  But a work test?

I’d never had to win any employer over by demonstrating my skills before apart from the usual cashier maths quiz to see whether I know what 2 and 2 make – and if not, don’t fret, the registers know the answer anyway.

I highly doubted this test would be along the same lines (the answer is 4 by the way).

I’ll fast forward the next few days that followed but in that time I did more punctuation, grammar and spelling practice than I’d done in all my school years combined. Thrown into the mix was the study of the complete history of the publication in question (“the knowledge will show you’re extremely interested in the position”) and the memorization of a plethora of adjectives to draw upon in order to detail what a super addition to the company I would make.

5.00am.

Ugh, only a fool like me would elect for an interview to be the next morning after Australia Day.  Bleary-eyed and spilling coffee all down our fronts, my sister and mother (for moral support) and I clambered into the car to begin the hazardous two-hour drive in the teaming and unrelenting rain.

I felt like one of the trees shaking tremendously in the wind. After an hour went by I eventually managed to find my voice to break the nonsense car conversation and ask for some words of confidence. My sister, upon sighting a rumbling truck ahead carrying cows, commented in reply that I was like a lamb being taken to the slaughter. So much for moral support.

Before I knew it, the newspaper office I recognized from Google images silently loomed up before us under the grey sky. The reality of the day ahead suddenly hit me hard in the ribs. Oh god, oh god, oh god. What had I gotten myself into? Restart the engine and put the indicator on.

I need a large sip of wine.

It’s only 7.50 in the morning.

Something has to be open.

No luck.

I had no choice. It was time.

The front door turned out to be a push, not a pull. This might be the first part of the test – a comprehension exam to see whether the applicants could read a simple door sign and follow the instruction. Weeding out the weak before they even entered.

I hope the lady at the front desk didn’t see.

“Hi, I’m here for the cadetship… job… position.”

Smile. Remember to smile.

“Oh, yes. Name?”

“Louise.”

“Ok, follow me into the office Louise and have a seat at the table.”

I promptly followed her, a big awkward smile still plastered to my face. I was so nervous but first impressions are important so I tried my best to look like the confident girl I supposedly should be. I needn’t have been so aware of myself. Nobody seemed to notice me even though it was quite a small room – smaller than I thought it would be – and not many people in it.

“Not everyone is here yet so just have a flip through our newspapers in the meantime,” the receptionist motioned to the array of papers.

I nodded obediently and quietly sat down. I tried to seem extremely interested in the article I was reading, hoping my facial expression was achieving the right balance of inquisitiveness and enthusiasm, but in actuality I was only rereading the headline over and over again. None of the words seemed to be able to sink into my brain and convert into any sort of cognitive meaning. I was much more interested in the conversation the journalists were having about how ‘hot’ the bodies of Djockivich and Federer’s looked in the tennis game the night before.

If this were the conversation topic between any other groups of people, you would not be able to stop me from putting my two cents worth in. I almost did pipe up, but quickly decided against it. First day etiquette?

And so, I continued to silently sit, my ears pricked up like a fox terrier as I listened to the staff talk, inwardly agreeing with some points or mentally shaking my head about the shared opinion over…

Wait… stop… snap out of it! What if they quizzed me about some of the local stories that I was supposedly reading in order to give them an indication of how interested I was in their community?

Ok, ok, a woman… and something about her bird… no wait, read it again… a woman, her bird and a local show… Federer. Damn!

“Louise was it?”

My head snapped up.

“Hi, I’m Peter. The editor. The one who you have been conversing with over the emails.”

He seemed very official, very serious, very busy, very… all the describing words that make a job applicant feel more lacking in self-assurance and the situation all of a sudden very real.

“Hi Peter, yes I assumed that. Nice to meet you.”

Argh, why would I say I assumed that? Because he seems scary??

“Come with me to my office and we’ll have a talk about what’s going to happen today.”

Interview time. Game face: on.

“I will not be interviewing you.”

Great.

“I don’t believe in interviews, they don’t tell me anything. I find that a lot of the time people will sound like an excellent candidate in words, yet their work is not very good at all. Instead, you will spend today doing work tests that will be led by the chief of staff. Not only do you have to impress a grumpy old editor like me, you also have to prove to the other journalists that you’re the right candidate for the job. At the end of the day, because they are such a tight-knit group, it is up to them to decide whether they like you or not and believe me, they are a tough bunch.”

At this point, you would think I would be secretly jumping up and down inside. 95% of the “group” was female. We could bond over fashion, makeup and the colour pink – too easy, right?

Wrong.

Put simply, I am more like what Jerry Seinfeld describes Elaine Benes as being a “man’s lady.” Don’t get me wrong, I can be girly, but for some unknown reason I find it much harder to become friends with girls than with boys. I even hate going to the hairdressers just because of the awkward chats I am forced to enter into (thus explains the state of my unruly hair at the moment).

“So… what exactly will I be doing in this work test?” I tentatively asked Peter, trying to hide the nerves in my voice.

“You will be writing two articles for the paper tomorrow.”

Gulp.

“The head of staff will assign you stories which you are to complete. Oh and by the way, these country folk will be able to smell out whether you are an experienced journalist or not. If you don’t seem credible enough or they begin to wonder if you really know what you’re doing, they’ll eat you alive.”

I couldn’t wait to start?

I found myself next sitting at a big round table waiting for the morning brief to begin. A few minutes later, the mood changed and it was straight down to business. The conversation went around the circle to each journalist as they read notes for ideas to write their articles on.

“Labor party blah blah blah… Huge financial pressure blah…” (I’m fairly sure they didn’t actually say the word “blah” anywhere in their sentences, but I couldn’t hear much else over the sound of my rapidly increasing heart beat).

My notepad was empty.

Calm down, don’t stress Louise.

There was no way they would expect me to have any article ideas about the town I had only arrived in thirty minutes ago, right…?

How wrong I was.

“How about you, Louise? What are your story ideas?”

All eyes at the table instantly locked onto me.

Pause.

“Ummm, I don’t have any actually.”

Their eyebrows raised in unison.

“Ok…”

I could actually feel the judgments. Clearly, I was completely underprepared and this was unacceptable. There was no babysitting here. If you were in that office you were supposed to work god dammit!

It was soon time to get cracking down to business, which meant the stories that had been written up on the whiteboard were now being assigned so that each journalist could start their work.

A political story.

I put my head down and pretended to be extremely interested in the lint on my sock. Please not me.

Sports.

I kept my head down.

Phew, I was in the clear.

“Is it unAustralian for employers to make their workers come in the next day after Australia day?”

I nearly jumped out of my chair in eagerness. Please pick me!

I knew I could write a great piece – and even add the fact that assigning job “interviews” also fell under that same category.

I wasn’t assigned.

“The Coles business merger and effects – Louise.”

Oh no. Give me politics. Give me sports. The only story I didn’t understand was this one! Even if I had been listening properly I’m sure I still wouldn’t have understood it. But as a journalist, I was supposed to understand. I decided to wait until the rest of the staff cleared off back to their computers except for the “chief” before I very casually asked her for clarification.

“Oh, you know, just about the ramifications. I’ll email you a list of the PR contact numbers down in Sydney so you can delve more deeply into it with them.

Ramifications? PR? Sydney?

“Here’s your computer. Just wait while I go grab your login details.”

While she was gone, I quickly whipped out my phone and started frantically Googling to see if there were any other articles written on the subject so I would at least have a shred of a clue about what it was I was supposed to be writing about.

Yes, it was all a very Confessions of a Shopaholic type moment like when Rebecca Google’s her story topic on her first assignment. Except it’s not as funny when you’re the one actually doing it in real life.

And there were no chances of me ever finding my editor attractive, even if I had have had that drink that morning.

The chief came back and I quickly dropped my phone back into my handbag.

She leaned over my desk and logged me into the computer before proceeding to give me a thirty second tutorial (obviously it was an extremely detailed one) on how to use the program where I was supposed to type my story.

“Make sure you format correctly or the subeditor will not be happy when she receives it to be proof read.”

Format correctly?

“What else? Oh yes, there’s your phone, press 0 to dial out. Let me know when you’ve finished and I’ll get you started on your next article before lunch.

Next article? Before lunch?

I shouldn’t have been so surprised but it was at that point that I really started to get extremely nervous.

At university, we have weeks, if not a month to write an article and submit it for assessment. Obviously, I knew I didn’t have weeks in which to finish my story today, but in only a couple of hours?

In all my years of studying, I have never been under this type of pressure before. Nor had I ever learned how to cold call from a list of PR numbers or anything even remotely similar.

I believe that’s the problem with the majority of today’s journalism courses. Students spend months and years analyzing texts, studying media convergence, writing essays about journalistic standards, outlining business proposals and critiquing god knows what and what for – but this has largely nothing to do with what really goes on in the day to day jobs of working journalists.

University may enable degrees, but they do not prepare students in the slightest for the real world of journalism work.

I decided then and there that even though I may be a good journalism candidate in the future, I definitely was not yet.

I had two choices: I could stare blankly at my computer until I mustered up enough courage to call PR down in Sydney and make a complete fool out of myself in front of the whole office, and then write an unfinished, you-missed-the-point-completely article.

Or I could stand up with some dignity and tell the chief that while I appreciated the opportunity, this was way over my head at this point in time, but thank you anyway.

And so, I walked with my head held high over to her desk… took a deep breath… and asked her if there were any pharmacies nearby as I was only just getting over tonsillitis and needed something to soothe my throat, all the while puncturing my words with a few small coughs simply for good measure.

I walked out of that office that morning and never looked back.

Actually, I ran.

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5 responses to “How NOT to Get a Job in Journalism

  1. This is very very funny, in a dreadful sort of way! Once I was on a working holiday in New Zealand from Tasmania and got a job where I had process the pay for hundreds of people in a biscuit factory. I looked at this huge accounting machine at which I had no experience at all and nearly threw up. Next morning I rang up and said I had found a better job.

    • Thank you! Oh it seems that a lot of people have been in a similar sort of situation… But not running away haha. At least you stuck it out the entire day! 🙂 Hopefully I won’t do the same thing again!

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