Wednesday, 20 May 2020

How I got a job in journalism at 18 and into nationals at 21 - without a degree

I picked up my first magazine aged 10 and instantly fell head over heels in love with journalism. Eight years later, I managed to do it without a degree.

After having a few people who want to get into the industry or are starting out ask on Twitter (or while I’m twatted at the pub) how I got into journalism I decided I will write it all down so I could prove in what has turned out to be an essay that you can get into journalism without a degree.

I put off answering this question for a long time because it just screams boasting to me. But at the end of the day, I am proud and I wish someone would have written something like this for me when I felt too stupid for this career. I also know that due to Covid-19 times are scary when it comes to school, uni and exams, so here's another way...

It began when I was growing up, from the age of 9/10.

I was a very passionate little thing and would force my childhood best friend to create magazines with me after school. Much to her despair but nevertheless, I think even at 10-years-old, she knew it was important to me and went along with my bossy arse. (She still incredibly puts up with me).

What I'm saying is, my very first lesson was before anything in this industry, passion is the key.

If you love something, you'll do it. If you want it so bad it hurts, you'll get it. If you want to write, you'll write. And if you want to write well, you will ask as many questions as you can until you are blue in the face.

The passion grew as I went through school, with media studies and English lessons being the crux of my happiness during years fuelled with acne and a terrible sense of fashion.

I did my GCSE’s. I failed maths and science. Managed to get a B and above in everything I actually gave a toss about and instead of hearing my maths teacher say, "you won't get into journalism without maths", I began hearing my A-Level media studies teacher say, "there is no job that suits you better".

While I had the passion and okay grades, A-Levels were the tricky part for me personally because I was awfully bored of learning in a classroom and was hungry to educate myself in the field instead.

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For A-Levels, I took English Language, English Literature, Media Studies and Fine Art. Art was dropped in the second year because it was a lot of work and I wanted to focus on the craft of writing. But frustratingly I went on to get average grades because the passion had died.

It was my first spell of writer's block mixed with lacking faith in myself. I just kind of gave up and let myself get by on average grades and decided university was not for me in the slightest.

I'll hold my hands up, I would have failed university in the first year because I was too profoundly bored, and it's okay to feel that way and not want to go to uni.

But, I am the luckiest person in the world and have an adoring nan who couldn't bear to see me slip away even for a week. She found an advert for an apprentice reporter at our local paper, The Welwyn Hatfield Times, which is run by Archant, the day before my last A-level exam.

I took the gamble of sacking off that last day of cramming revision for my Media Studies exam to apply for the job.

The next day, after my media exam, I went home and cried quietly in my room because my head was louder than my gut. Once I pulled myself together, I checked my emails and I'd received an email from the editor asking me to write a local story and send it over to him within 5 days.

I dropped everything and wrote that damn article as best as I could and as quick as I could.

I sent it to him within the hour and ended the email by telling him that although he may think it's rushed, I wanted to demonstrate to you that while I've never worked a day in a newsroom in my life, "I know the importance of fine-combed research combined with accuracy and speed".

He replied that evening and gave me the chance of an interview.

I won't go into all the interview details but one thing I did shout about was my blog that I'd been running since I was 13. I didn't make a penny of it for three years but it turned out to be my fortune.

Seeing as I was only a teen with retail experience, I found out years later that it was that little blog which I poured my teenage years into that turned out to be the factor that made me stand out.

Three weeks later, I walked into the newsroom and was shown my desk, handed a shorthand notebook (I didn't even know by this point what shorthand was) and was told I was accompanying a senior report to court just before lunch.

I like to think he saw a kid who wanted nothing more than to fall head over heels in love with their job.

I spent three years in that office which became my second home. After two years, I passed my apprentice which consisted of sitting a lot of exams for my NCTJ (a qualification for journalists by the National Council of Training Journalists).

I learnt how to write in shorthand, the ins and outs of media law, how to write news reports for newspapers, how to write breaking news for online, how to create engaging journalism via video and everything you need to know about politics (very handy for Brexit).

My apprenticeship consisted of working Monday to Thursday, 9am to 5.30pm at my local paper and attending NCTJ lectures every Friday for two years for my qualification.

But don't expect apprenticeships compared to university to be the "easy option" because you will be mistaken. You will still have countless exams to study for, learning shorthand and then learning to write 100 words in 60 seconds in basically a foreign language.

In the office, you will also have countless newspaper deadlines coming out of your arse, learning how to interview someone face-to-face and stay composed, and also learning how to do the ins and outs of your job.

After I passed my NCTJ, I decided to spend another year at my local paper so that when it came to moving onto a national I felt 110% ready. I also loved the team with my entire heart and wasn't ready to fly from that nest.

Another thing I often hear people looking down upon is local news, but I'll tell you why local news is the crux of our industry, not nationals.

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At local papers, journalists that are starting out get the chance to interview their MP, councillors, businesses etc.

They get to challenge their local authorities and find the answers the locals are seeking. Has knife crime actually increased? Did that councillor cheat their expenses? Has that landlord broken the law? It's your job to go and find out and it truly can be quite rewarding.

Local papers teach bidding journo's how to report a live court case, inquests and go out into the heart and soul of the community to get stories face-to-face with the people they are interviewing.

So how do you go from one high-pressured environment to one with an even bigger office filled with some of the best journalists in the country?

If you are looking to go from regional press to national, I would highly recommend you take the step I am about to tell you.

I was 21 and the thought of working at a national paper, screwing up a headline and having the whole world laugh at me was terrifying. I'd also heard rumours that you can get death threats (the trolling journalists receive is still wild to me but that's another worthy essay).

Everyone in this industry knows everyone and I was petrified that I would tarnish my byline so early in my career that I couldn't get a gig anywhere and so I decided to dip my toe in just a little bit over a period of time instead.

Going from a local paper to a national newsroom is in some ways similar but in other ways, it's a completely different ball game. You can be a puppy in a local newsroom due to having more chances to learn from those around you, but at a national, you've got to be able to bite.

So instead of quitting my job I stayed at the Welwyn Hatfield Times and used my holiday allowance for a year to take on shifts at The Daily Mail and MailOnline to get a sense of this crazy fast-paced industry.

I was very fortunate that during my three years at Archant I had made contacts and friends who guided me and got me shifts because I had no problem asking for their help.

My biggest tip is to just reach out to journalists on Twitter or LinkedIn and ask if they have any shifts going, to pitch to them or if they can help. We all know how hard of an industry it is to get your teeth into when you’re just starting out on your portfolio so we will help you as much as we can.

Another thing I did was freelance and sell the occasional story to the big names. Don't get me wrong, I had so many pitches rejected but you can't let rejections set you back in this world.

I've received heaps of career-changing advice in the last five years from those I've sought it from and the best bit of advice I ever received was from my very first editor who told me to find my niche, something not many people wanted to write about, that I was good at, passionate about and to run with it.

For me, it was sex and relationships. I’ve always been a very open character and lack the feeling of embarrassment so it was a no brainer that I could make some good money and grow my portfolio by freelancing some raunchy bits.

After being published in The Sun, Cosmopolitan, MailOnline and anywhere that would print my words, I applied for my first full-time position at Daily Star Online and have been there for nearly two years now.

By this point, I’d had enough experience in a national newsroom to float for five days a week as I dealt with the adjustment.

And now I'm still learning every single day. From reading countless emails about SEO, media law, headline writing, writing copy and figuring out how to be more engaging on social media.

I'm still what some would class as mega fucking annoying. If I want something, I'll ask. If I want to learn a teeny detail about something, I'll ask.

I hope what you take from this is that it is possible to get into journalism without a degree, that you can work up the corporate ladder like your peers with degrees, and that the industry is friendlier than you may think at first and will help you if you give back to it.

I could do what I’m trained to do and cut this lengthy post in less than half, but there isn’t a single thing I’d do differently and if it helps even one person without a degree then it was worth it!

If you have any questions on anything I mentioned, would like some advice if you're starting out, or want me to go more into detail then pop me an email at or my DMs are always open on Twitter - @SophieBlackmann.

Written by VavaViolet's Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Sophie Blackman.

PS: If you are looking for jobs in journalism please check out Jooble


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