Advice from Dylan C. Robertson

1. Take advantage of your school and program.

Not every journalist went to journalism school. If you’re in j-school, make the most of it. Get to know your professors, supervisors, teaching assistants and sessional instructors (non-professors often still work in the industry and can have a more accurate picture of it). Learn as much as you can from these people and try to build some contacts. Research the scholarships, exchanges and opportunities that only journalism students get.

Not in j-school? See what media opportunities your university offers. This includes undergraduate publications, media-related courses and research projects. Some universities hold journalism-related events through fellowship programs and policy institutes. In either case, get involved with campus media. There’s quick turnaround and lots of opportunities for training and advancement.

2. Pitch.

If you’re in j-school you’ll write a lot of stories, learn the basic of query letters and freelancing, then start pitching every assignment you do. You’ll learn how to sell your stories by efficiently summarizing them and making them enticing — a skill needed for effective journalism. The clippings will motivate you, build your portfolio and generate some cash.

3. Approach online with caution.

It’s important to gain experience starting in first year. You need to try things out, make mistakes and discover your skills. That being said, avoid crummy prospects, especially online. While the Internet has allowed for many high-quality start-ups, it also has prompted sites of dubious quality.

Some news and comment blogs focus on daily content quotas and will publish just about anything that gets pitched. Many entertainment blogs follow a cookie-cutter pattern, posting hundreds of restaurant reviews with amazing photos and terrible writing. Make sure every opportunity you take, online and otherwise, will help you learn things and become a better journalist.

4. Diversify.

Every three months you should complete a project you’ve never done before. If you’re a hard-news-type who’s most comfortable with print, attempt another medium, or an article on sports or arts. Audio slideshows are great, as they hone many skills at once: photography, writing for broadcast, narration and composition. A journalist must be a jack of all trades; a diversity of clippings impresses employers and makes you a more flexible journalist.

5. Network.

Be friendly, curious and assertive. Many journalists are private people, but learn to work past their shyness. At any journalism event or conference, make an effort to speak with at least three people you’ve never met. Make some decent business cards and exchange them. A room full of cliques is no excuse; wallflowers often have fascinating perspectives.

6. Be an assertive Tweeter.

Follow journalists and public figures you admire. Ask them intelligent questions and try to be helpful when they seek information. Twitter’s a public arena with a laid-back vibe, making it easier to connect with strangers. If you seem interesting or intelligent, they’ll inform you of journalism opportunities. If you’ve gotten a few replies, ask to meet for coffee.

7. Get on LinkedIn.

While a personal website is ideal, open a LinkedIn account and make it thorough. Having a complete, up-to-date and public resume is invaluable, and past employers can post references. Include a link in your e-mail signature and send potential employers the URL. Its clear format will entice time-strapped editors to browse your qualifications, plus the link ensures an up-to-date copy.

8. Clean up your Facebook

It’s important purge any incriminating photos and content, even with the most secure privacy settings. But keep all your contacts, and add coworkers, classmates and sources. Having a lot of friends on Facebook will provide a diversity of perspectives and issues to better inform you. And you’ll automatically watch what you post online. Plus you’ll have access to a wealth of contacts. Say you have 30 minutes to file a story on dentistry law changes and need to speak with a dentist; having the number of that guy who sat next to you in the fifth grade—who’s now a dentist—could save your skin.

9. Harvest your contacts.

Identify communities you have experience with, and keep contacts you’ve already made. Consider groups you were raised with or participate in: religious, cultural, political, linguistic, related to sexual orientation, etc. Maintain your relationships with people in these communities; you’ll have a source for scoops and can provide context when reporting on issues that affect these groups.

10. Get a driver’s license

More than a handful of friends are kicking themselves over jobs/internships requiring drivers licenses. It’s something many city folk, especially of the eco-generation, don’t see as useful. And it bites because it takes years to be fully licensed. I’d recommend aspiring journos start on their license even if they have no desire to drive.

About Dylan

Dylan C. Robertson

  • Name: Dylan C. Robertson
  • J-school: University of Toronto journalism undergrad ’13
  • Current/Past employers: This Magazine, The Varsity, The Catholic Register, The Toronto Globalist
  • Publications: See above, plus Toronto Star, Xtra!, OpenFile.ca
  • Platforms: Print, Online
  • Twitter: @dylan_robertson
  • Link to a good sample of your work: UTM diploma typo prompts recall
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