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5 tips on breaking into journalism from Steve Gunn

Steve Gunn


Global Business Journalism reporter

Did you just hit on this link because you are a journalism major trying to get your first job or someone wants to start your career as a journalist? Or a journalist looking for a new opportunity?

If yes, then here are five tips on how to land a journalism job from Steve Gunn, a veteran journalist based in the U.S. with more than four decades of experience and an early adopter of digital journalism who has kept abreast of changes in the field.

“Simply going to a fancy journalism school is not the way of becoming a journalist,” Gunn believes. Getting your hands dirty, going out in the street, and talking to people are far more important, he adds.

So now let’s see what advice the former editor-in-chief of newspapers in Norfolk, Virginia, and Annapolis, Maryland, gives to those who want to enter the field.

#1 Network before you get a job

Reach out to professionals from whom you can get advice on how to get a job.

“The bigger the fish, the better,” says Gunn, who has worked for newspapers including the Charlotte Observer, the Kansas City Star, the Dallas Times Herald and Newsday. “If I were in Washington, D.C., I might just call the editor of the Washington Post.”

The point is to talk to those working in the paper you ultimately want to work for.

You can also find professional groups on and off campus. Friend people you meet there on LinkedIn or WeChat and tell them your plans. Maybe some of them will get back to you saying “hey, I heard there’s a job opportunity in Los Angeles that you should check out."

But remember to be careful when presenting yourself online and offline. Journalists’ self-presentation on social media should be professional. Never let controversial and unconfirmed posts jeopardize your career.

#2 Understand that you may need to make sacrifices… but gain unexpected benefits

Some journalists move a lot (or live somewhere they’ve never heard of) as required by available jobs. They’re always on the road and on call 24/7, going with the flow of news production but not their biological clocks. Also, journalism is not a path to big fortune.

Despite all these sacrifices journalists may need to make, there are rich opportunities in the field for personal growth and gaining a deeper way of perceiving the world.

Gunn’s suggestion is to make sure you can live with the money you’re paid but never let money determine your career choice.

“You don’t want to sell your soul when you are young,” says Gunn, a former visiting professor in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua University.

#3 Let your work speak for you

You’ll need to have five or six work samples to get you in the door. Three recommendation letters from those who know you well in terms of professional skills also help.

Once you have the materials that prove your capabilities, it’s important to wrap them up in resumes that are tailored for different positions. Highlight experiences that match requirements in the job description. Use strong action verbs such as “built”, “edited”, “accomplished”, “organized” but not dull verbs like “did” or “was.”

A cover letter works too. It’s like a written version of an elevator pitch that shows a potential employer why they need to hire you. Keep it short and highly relevant.

#4 Be flexible

Go with the flow. You may prefer to plan ahead and prepare for what’s coming up. But there will always be unanticipated scenarios that you have to accept and adapt to. It could be clues to the legal cases you are following, a reschedule of the event you are reporting on or your editor’s resignation that gives you the chance to take it.

Unpredictability means that your path down the road may not be the one you expected.

“Thinking about you aiming to work for the United Nation as a public relations specialist but ending up working for an NGO that you never heard of,” Gunn says. “Adulting can be hard.”

However, uncertainty also means possibilities. Be flexible and keep your eyes open for chances.

#5 Be a lifelong learner

“Journalists are supposed to evolve with the field you’re reporting on,” Gunn stressed.

If you’re a business journalist, spend 20 minutes reading about your industry every morning, he said. Keep yourself updated with emerging terminologies and new companies out there. You may want to subscribe to newsletters and talk to insiders and experts in the field.

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