As a student who was never quite sure of my career track, for a long time I didn’t seriously consider journalism as a profession. After all, I’d be looking at long hours, low pay, deadline-induced hair loss, and layoffs, right?
But here I am, a professional journalist: I am now an associate editor at the Daily Caller. How did I get here?
After ending my college athletics career, I felt as though I needed a competitive outlet to replace sports. I turned to politics. Like many other young, aspiring politicos, I tried writing opinion pieces.
Eventually I ended up at the University of Michigan, where I sought out an alternative publication and found the Michigan Review, a paper in ISI’s Collegiate Network. Lacking a staff and editorial experience, I turned to the paper’s most distinguished alumnus, John J. Miller of Hillsdale College and National Review, for advice.
John’s first point was to focus on learning to report the news, rather than giving commentary. I took this advice unenthusiastically, but in all honesty it was (and is) the most crucially formative bit of counsel an aspiring journalist could receive. After all, no one in the Beltway (or beyond it) really cares about a twenty-two-year-old’s political opinions, not to mention that it’s usually news—not op-eds—that goes viral.
I dug in and wrote campus news and covered controversies. On the strength of my work, I became editor in chief of the Michigan Review and, with help from John Miller, landed an internship at the Detroit News. There I learned AP Style and the inner workings of a major metropolitan newspaper.
After I graduated from the University of Michigan this past spring, I began a yearlong Collegiate Network fellowship at the Daily Caller.
The long hours, low pay, and deadline stress I imagined? Well, those things are part of the journalist’s life, but the (nonfinancial) payoffs are both rewarding and invigorating. If you’re interested in journalism, it’s a path I would definitely recommend.
Here are my top insights for aspiring journalists:
1. You don’t have to major in journalism
In fact, you shouldn’t. For one, it’s a waste of money (especially for graduate school). But more important, the journalist’s skill set is best learned through experience—in the field, not in the classroom. Take a wealth of courses that interest you, major in something useful, and consider the possibility of your major being your beat. (Political science majors report on politics, engineering majors report on technology, computer science majors report on cyber-security, etc.)
2. Find a paper or website to write for
If your campus doesn’t have a paper, that’s no excuse—establish one if you have to. ISI’s Collegiate Network and other organizations offer grants to fund papers, and they provide journalism training. Multiple websites provide space for students to gain experience reporting; the College Fix and Campus Reform are a couple of popular sites.
3. Get a reporting internship or fellowship
There are endless opportunities for students to get journalism internships, either through sponsoring organizations like ISI or newspapers/websites themselves. But don’t think of it as an internship—think apprenticeship. Be an understudy.
Perhaps more important, figure out your niche by trying both print and digital media.
4. If you want a true apprenticeship, you’ll need a mentor
So find one. Read his work, study her portfolio, absorb criticism. Don’t use this as a cynical opportunity; invest in it. Eventually your mentor could be the one hiring you or getting you a job. At the very least, you’ll need a strong recommendation letter, and who better to write it?
5. Be ready to learn more than just writing
There’s more to journalism than just writing and reporting. I found this out quickly at my current fellowship and have picked up a lot of new skills. Be open to learning things like how to clip video, post to social media, read analytics, and prep e-mail lists. To put this in a corny way: broaden your horizons.
6. Be aware it’s stressful and you will be rejected
Deadlines, interviews, and editorial meetings: you’ll have a lot on your plate in a high-paced career like journalism. The best way to ease the tension is through humor. Have fun with it.
You’ll also face a lot of rejection, especially when pitching stories, so use this as motivation. Find out what works for you and tailor that to the publication you’re pitching to, but do so without sacrificing your personal style.
This list isn’t exhaustive, of course. The best way to familiarize yourself with great writing is by reading it. I recommend, at least to begin with, Tom Wolfe, Matt Labash, and P. J. O’Rourke. When it comes to reading opinionated journalism, make it a point to read content you don’t necessarily agree with. My list? Christopher Hitchens, Ron Fournier, and Jonathan Chait.
The more experience you gain, the less you’ll worry. Journalism certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s one hell of a ride in a rapidly evolving profession.
Derek Draplin was an ISI Honors Scholar and Collegiate Network editor at the University of Michigan. He now serves as the ISI Collegiate Network fellow at the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter at @ddraplin.