Journalism: Making the news

Get the right training because most editors expect candidates to hold the NCTJ qualification
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The Independent Online

Journalists belong to a very privileged and powerful profession. Mark Twain, one of the great American journalists of the 19th century, put it best when he said: "A newspaper is not just for reporting the news as it is, but to make people mad enough to do something about it." Good journalism has helped bring down presidents, end wars and alleviate humanitarian suffering. This is powerful stuff, which is why it is important that those who are responsible for filling our newspapers and broadcast bulletins reflect society at large.

Broadcast news is admirably diverse, with journalists from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds providing viewers with their daily news fix: think ITN stalwart Sir Trevor McDonald, BBC newshound Rageh Omar or Channel 4's Samira Ahmed.

But the print sector has a long way to go. According to an April 2006 report from the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the journal and periodical publishing sector registers as 100 per cent white because the numbers from ethnic minorities are so minute.

The industry is keen to redress this abysmal record. "In an ever-growing multicultural society, journalism must change the complexion of its newsrooms, both racially and socially, so that we can properly report what's going on in modern Britain," says Joanne Butcher of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), which runs the industry-standard qualification that acts as a passport to your first job.

But this qualification can be expensive to obtain - fees can be upwards of £1,000 - so the NCTJ has just launched a bursary scheme to support aspiring journalists from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The new bursaries will cover course fees and make a contribution to living costs as well as provide support from an industry mentor.

Leigh-Ervin Jackson, 22, is one of the first to benefit from this and is about to embark on a postgraduate diploma in newspaper journalism at the University of Central Lancashire. He believes the support from the NCTJ will be critical to giving him his first break in the industry.

"It's very competitive getting started," says Jackson who, despite a CV that boasts a law degree, sports editorship of his university newspaper and work experience at The Times and Manchester Evening News, has spent eight months looking for work. "It is frustrating," he says, "because I've seen people who are less committed to the job than me get interviews on the back of who they know."

There are other bursary schemes out there: the George Viner Memorial Fund is administered by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) while the Scott Trust, owners of the Guardian Media Group, distributes six bursaries every year to help with course fees and subsistence expenses.

It's important to get the right training because most editors expect candidates to hold the NCTJ qualification. This is particularly the case with local newspapers, where most junior reporters cut their teeth. Local newspaper work is not well paid but it will give you that first, all-important step on the ladder.

"More than 90 per cent of our students have a job within two to three months of leaving and many have jobs lined up even before they have left the course," says James Morrison, a lecturer in journalism at City College Brighton & Hove.

It helps to have a driving licence and be prepared to move to find work: you'll be surprised at how even the quietest backwater can generate stories that get your name on the front page.

Magazine work is harder to come by: most magazines, even household names, are written by freelancers. The key to building a freelance career is to know your target audience inside out and then pitch accordingly. Be prepared to spend time on the phone selling your ideas to commissioning editors; you will need to be proactive and persistent to get started.

These two attributes are, of course, essential for any journalist. Ann Lee, 28, got her first break by phoning around editors - an attitude that has helped forge a career in London's highly competitive newspaper industry.

"You need to use your initiative to find a job," says Lee, who is now a senior reporter on the Hackney Gazette. "Journalists need to be able to write well but they also need to take the initiative, pick up the phone or approach strangers. If you don't have that in your personality then you might find it difficult."

Journalism is tough to break into but with the right training, attitude and persistence you will succeed. And, as most journalists will tell you, there's nothing more rewarding than seeing your byline above a good story.

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