This is a section that may help/ answer some queries for people who want to get into journalism, or podcasting. As I don’t sadly have time to reply to individual queries, I thought this page may help.
How did you get into journalism? I had a traditional, but non-linear route. By traditional, I mean that I started via a series of paid assistant role. (Nearly a decade ago, many year-long placements were unpaid, so I was extremely lucky). By non-linear, I mean that I didn’t do the standard intern-assistant-junior writer-editor route – my first job was actually as a PA to a screenwriter, and once I got my first paid job at a now defunct fashion-sharing website for The Daily Mail, I jumped around a bit, mixing my mediums. It was a time when a lot of new online platforms and social media opportunities were opening up and I was keen to experiment in as many areas of publishing and media as I could. I have always been nervous of relying on one revenue stream, which is why I dabble in a few different things (currently writing and podcasting.) When I was at The Sunday Times, for example, I was also blogging, styling and consulting for brands in the evenings and on my weekends. I was keen to keep my portfolio varied and never put my eggs all in one basket.
How do I pitch an article to an editor? First, you need a clear title. For example (please note this would be a terrible piece of journalism):
WHY CATS ARE THE NEW DOGS
Secondly, with a summary that does not span more than 3 short paragraphs. For instance:
- An opening paragraph to your piece, including a statistic/ news hook that your theory about cats being the new dogs, hinges on
- Anyone you might interview to back up/ disagree with your theory
- The conclusion you may arrive at
Most of the time, publications will need this news hook to make it relevant to their publishing it. The only time they won’t, is when it’s a personal op-ed (although even then, they typically commission something in response to a news story.) Thirdly, include links to a few other things you have written – even if they are just on your blog. Include no more than five and include screenshots of your writing in the body of the e-mail, or attached as PDFs, or link to them. Do not attach them to the e-mail, as attachments often go unopened! A word of caution when you are pitching personal op-eds: are you pitching something personal about yourself because you really want to write about it, or because you see that as the only thing that can get published? There have been a lot of pretty valuable conversations in the last year or so about how young female journalists are often encouraged to write about deeply personal things, in order to get published, which they may then regret as they live on, forever, on’t internet. I am not saying you shouldn’t write about yourself – I love personal writing, that can provide comfort and understanding for others – but for your own mental health, make sure that you pitch from a positive space, not a negative one.
How should I NOT pitch to an editor? Don’t pitch a wishy-washy idea that rambles on; be concise and clear. Make sure (and it’s pretty easy now that almost everything is online) you do a cursory Search, first, to check they haven’t run something similar recently, in their pages or online. I find that it’s best to re-write a pitch e-mail several times to check for repetition or typos. Be sure to pitch via the proper route! Do NOT tweet or DM an editor, when you are pitching a story. Some don’t mind, but a lot find it lazy/ presumptuous. (Remember that attending to social media just becomes another layer to their job; use their inbox, that’s what it is there for.) Find out their e-mail address (ring the publication’s reception desk if you need, or tweet them asking if you can pitch.) Whatever you do, do NOT harangue your recipient via social media, if they don’t reply. Wait one week, send a polite follow-up e-mail and if you don’t hear back, pitch it to another title. Don’t let that put you off pitching a new idea to them in the future, though. They might not reply; but they will begin to recognise your name in their inbox!
How do I start a podcast? Whenever I am asked this question, I ask one back: why do you want to start a podcast? Is it because you think it’s a cool way to make money? It is – in the main – but it’s also extremely rare for a podcast to become profitable and a lot more work than you would initially anticipate. As unsatisfactory an answer as this is, I think that the only reason The High Low has become a success, is because we were in the right time, at the right place. At the time, there weren’t any culture podcasts helmed by 2 women in the UK. We never expected to turn it into a business; and those low expectations helped us to approach it really organically, and from a place of genuine enthusiasm. There are now, as I am sure you know, a lot of podcasts. If you want to start your own, really interrogate what your premise is. Is it something no-one else is doing? Or, is it something you are knowledgeable about? Loving something is not the same as having authority on it. Audio quality is also important, so you will either have to brush up on the tech skills (which I do not have) or hire a producer (which I do have) who of course, needs to be paid – so do consider the financial outlay of starting one, too. Sponsorship (although this varies of course) tends not to come until you hit the 10,000 weekly listener mark.
I’ve done all this, and I feel like I’m getting nowhere. What should I do? I know that feeling. I felt it a lot in my twenties. This is not an easy industry to break into. It is not even an easy industry to ‘make good’ in. This is why I have always been compelled to add multiple strings to my bow (although never at the same time. I only ever like to focus on 2 or 3 things at a time, not 15). I know this isn’t always possible for everyone – especially if you have children, or other unpaid care work obligations – but the absolute truth is that very few people survive in journalism, on writing alone. Many journalists combine the activities; some of the most commercial/ lucrative of those jobs might be ones they don’t shout about (corporate speaking, for instance.) In short, don’t be an idealist. If you want to break into journalism, write in your evenings or at the weekends, from the safety of a paid job. That way, it will feel like a hobby, and take the pressure off a bit.
Will the pandemic affect my chances of breaking into/ building up a portfolio in publishing or podcasting? As devastated as I am to admit this, the answer is yes. It is going to be a *lot* harder post-pandemic — not just for newbies, but for those of us who have been working a decade in this industry. Many publishers have folded or cut their half in staff. There are going to be a lot of freelance journalists – very good, experienced journalists – floating around the ether, as well as new ones wanting to grab opportunities. I cannot predict the shape, or state, of publishing in the future, but the one thing I can suggest is to look left, and right, not just straight ahead. Look to new websites emerging: for example, WeTransfer have added a creative writing platform to their website, called WePresent. Be expansive, in your pitching and your reading. Follow a range of journalists, not just newspaper ones, or magazine ones, or Twitter personalities. This will allow you to stay abreast of where is folding, what is emerging, etc etc. It’s crap, and I’m sorry, and I wish the media was in a better state to receive you – alas, the reality is quite bleak at the moment.
And one last piece of advice…. Be patient! I know it might seem daunting, particularly at the moment. But it can take years to really build up the by-lines. It *did* take me years. I think that we expect things to happen in a short space of time, now. Not everyone is a success story by the time they are 25. (It may also be useful to examine your ideas of “success” too – which should be about personal satisfaction and contentment, as much as professional. It’s something I think about a lot, now.) If you are finding that after 5 years, you have got nowhere; if it feels exhausting and unrewarding, then that is always the time to consider if this is a viable job option. (Which doesn’t mean it can’t still be a hobby! I think we sometimes think that everything we do, has to be profitable. But it’s okay to keep creative endeavours as hobbies. It’s probably much better for you, to have hobbies that are genuinely free from the obligation to earn money.) Until then, stay patient, and engaged. Read all the time; write as much as possible; keep refreshing those pitches. And GOOD LUCK!