Have you got what it takes?
You think you want to be a journalist. But what sort of person do you need to be? The truth is there are all sorts of people working in the media. But there are some common personality traits that are more suited. Do you enjoy people-watching? Are you nosey? Do you enjoy a gossip? Can you get on comfortably with a wide range of people? If so, you're showing you're interested in people - and communicating - all fundamental to the job.
You'll also need to be persistent and competitive - not least to get a job in a fiercely competitive market. And if you can beat the rest to an exclusive story - that will put you out in front. What about your general knowledge? You'll need to know a little about a lot of things - or know where to look to find out. So read the newspapers and watch TV - you'll learn a lot. Can you write clearly? You'll need to be able to spell well.
Remember convergence - in the digital age, organisations are using multiple ways to reach their audiences. So if you work for a newspaper or magazine, you could well find yourself working on its website and making videos for use online - or you could be working on your radio station's website.
And forget about instant riches. In most cases, particularly in the regional press, the starting salary, notably for graduates, is relatively low. If you're a graduate, you're likely to already be in debt. That is likely to stack up during a pre-entry course.
There is usually more cash on offer in broadcasting and magazines. But accept you'll probably be poor for a couple of years. Get to know Tesco's Value range and charity shops for clothes. That's the reality, especially if you want a budget for socialising.
The government careers agency Learn Direct says trainees on local papers earn up to £13,000, with £15,000 for seniors, progressing upwards. The graduate careers site Prospects says the average for all journalists is £22,500, ranging from £17,500 in the regional press to £40,000 in the national press.
In 2004 the NUJ was reporting nearly half of all journalists earned less than the national average wage, then £26,151, and graduates were starting on £7,000 less than the graduate starting average.
But there is financial hope. Your pay will go up when you qualify as a senior journalist. Maybe you'll get swift promotion, switch into better paid broadcasting or move on to work reporting or sub-editing shifts on the national newspapers. Maybe you'll move into PR where there is more cash on offer. Maybe you'll present the national news or a TV show... it's up to you where you take your career.
An insider's view
For a warts-and-all view about life as a trainee journalist, read training consultant David Scott's wake-up call to anyone who may be looking at the job through rose-tinted spectacles. Read his article here
Where to start
There are many opportunities to train as a journalist in local newspapers, from small weeklies to the big dailies. There are two main routes in - direct entry straight from school, college or university - and after a pre-entry course. To get on a course you will usually be expected to show some sign of commitment to a career in journalism. So you would be expected to have done some work experience in the media and to have had work published, for example in a university newspaper or online, perhaps by writing your own blog. There's little excuse not to have produced your own work. See Paul Bradshaw's article on this site for more about making the most of online opportunities.
Some newspapers and magazines run their own training schemes. Many editors prefer their trainees to have completed a pre-entry course.
The National Council for the Training of Journalists accredits more than 60 courses at 41 journalism schools, mostly at colleges and universities. But there are lots of others which operate extremely successfully outside the NCTJ accreditation system.
Distance learning is becoming increasingly popular as a cheaper option which can be followed at the student's own pace. It is particularly suitable for career-changers who don't have the time and those who can't afford the cost of a full-time course.
Most courses will equip the trainees with the skills to sit the NCTJ qualification called the preliminary Certificate in Journalism. There are three disciplines - newspaper, magazines and photography/photojournalism. The courses range from HND to one-year degrees postgraduate courses. The prelims cover news writing, local government, law and shorthand. Most also offer some training in digital techniques such as writing for the web and video production.
The minimum requirements for the NCTJ tests are five GCSE passes (grades A-C) or equivalent - one must be in English. But about two-thirds of entrants are graduates, and the most of the rest have at least two A-Levels or the equivalent.
If you join a title direct, you will probably sign up to a two-year training contract and do the prelim exams by day or block release. After a pre-entry course, training normally last 18 months. In both cases you register with the NCTJ and, after on-the-job training and some short courses, sit exams for the National Certificate Examination. They are designed to test your all-round competence in the full range of job-related skills. The exams are available for reporters, sub-editors and photographers/photojournalists. Newspaper reporters will need shorthand at 100 words per minute - 80wpm for magazines. Independent providers offer preparatory training courses. Some are accredited by the NCTJ.
After completing training to become a senior reporter journalists often specialise, for example in crime or health, can train to become sub-editors, or after a period move into management on the newsdesk, or switch into magazines, online, broadcasting, or the national press.
Starting in broadcast journalism
A good place to start is with the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, a partnership of all the main employers in the UK broadcast industry - three departments of the BBC (News, Nations and Regions and Training), ITV News Group, ITN, IRN, Sky News, C4, Reuters, RadioCentre (formerly the Commercial Radio Companies Association), the NUJ and Skillset, the Sector Skills Council for the audio-visual industries. More than 20 colleges and universities are associate members, running courses for undergraduates and postgraduates. Some organisations offer traineeships, such as the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme.