So you want to be a journalist?

PUBLISHED: 11:25 04 March 2011 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013

Berkshire & Chilterns Life editor Tessa Harris

Berkshire & Chilterns Life editor Tessa Harris

This is a précis of a careers talk given by Berkshire & Chilterns Life editor Tessa Harris to sixth form students at The Marist in Sunninghill in April 2009.

This is a prcis of a careers talk given by Berkshire & Chilterns Life editor Tessa Harris to sixth form students at The Marist in Sunninghill in April 2009

You've read the newspapers, seen the TV footage, heard the radio reports and you quite like the idea of being where the action is, but before you decide to embark on an exciting/boring, dangerous/dull, glamorous/ pedestrian contradictory career in journalism, you need to ask yourself a)what really motivates you and b)what areas attract you.

Some journalists are good with people: from the biggest celebrity to the seemingly ordinary street cleaner, they know that everyone has a story but that the skill lies in prizing that story out.

Some journalists have a cause: to expose injustice in the world. They want to investigate big business, dodgy dealings, and corrupt officials.

Some journalists want to campaign: they want to educate people on issues about the environment, diet and nutrition or fair trade.

Ask yourself what sort of journalist you want to be and then ask yourself if your personality type fits in with this.

If you want to be a campaigning/investigative journalist are you prepared to doorstep people, go through their bins, trail them? Are you prepared to ask people embarrassing questions and repeat them over and over before you get an answer? In newspapers some editors will send you out on very tough and demanding assignments where you really need to be tenacious to get a story. If your goal is to get on the news desk of a national newspaper you will really have to pull out all the stops to get the best scoops.

If that doesn't appeal, perhaps you might be more suited to specialist fields of journalism, or lifestyle and heritage publications. This type of journalism involves a lot of research and the ability to digest information quickly and to relay it in an interesting way to your readers.

No matter what you field you choose you need absolute commitment. You need to be prepared to go that extra mile to find a great story, write a moving report, conduct and penetrating interview. This requires you to be a good listener, to see other people's points of view and to be able to argue your case.

A good grasp of spelling and grammar is important and, of course, you need to be able to write and this isn't as easy as a lot of people think. That's why training is essential. But just what training should you seek?


There are so many 'media courses' that it can be very confusing. But the first thing to remember is that some of them aren't worth the paper they're written on. Only choose accredited ones. The good news is there are only three national training organisations in the UK so that automatically makes your life easier. These are the Broadcast Training Council, the National Council for the Training of Journalists and the Periodicals Training Council.


You don't have to do your first degree in journalism. It can be in law, history, English or anything else for that matter. What employers want to see is a commitment and an eagerness to learn and they want to know that you're passionate about journalism. So, while at uni you will at least have written for the student newspaper and on vacations you will have written various articles and, hopefully, had them published so that you will have your own portfolio.

Many newspapers will train you on the job and then send you to a college for a few weeks to hone your skills in law, local government and of course writing. Shorthand is still taught in most colleges and is a useful tool.


Never miss an opportunity to get a good story, accept an invitation or to do anything that will help you on the ladder into journalism. If you have an interesting hobby, pitch an article to an appropriate magazine. If you've travelled somewhere unusual - write about it. If you have some stunning photographs, so much the better. But before you pitch to an editor, make sure you know that publication inside out. Study it. Know the readership, and then pitch accordingly in two or three paragraphs how you intend to treat the subject and what angle you would take. No matter what the economic climate, editors are always looking for something fresh and exciting - suggest images, interviewees etc - but don't promise what you can't deliver. Interviews with President Obama sounds too good to be true - and they usually are!

Finally journalism is a wonderful career, but it's also a vocation. It can take you to far off places, open wonderful doors and be incredibly rewarding but most of it doesn't pay very well, even though the hours can be long and anti-social. Most journalists would, however, tell you that they wouldn't swap their jobs for anything else and that has to be the best recommendation there is.

Tessa Harris (BA Oxon), NCTJ qualified.


Freelance submissions are welcome but please email in the first instance with a detailed proposal of your feature.

Download the excellent guide to getting into journalism from for a full and up-to-date guide to courses etc.

Broadcast Training Council,

National Council for the Training of Journalists,

Periodicals Training Council,

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