If you're a journalism student or even just a college student who's thinking about a career in the news business, chances are you've encountered a lot of confusing and contradictory advice about what you should do in school to prepare. Should you get a journalism degree? What about communications? How do you get practical experience? And so on.
As someone who's worked in journalism and been a journalism professor for 15 years I get these questions all the time. So here are my top five tips.
1. Don't major in communications: If you want to work in the news business, do not, I repeat, do not get a degree in communications. Why not? Because communications degrees are so broad editors don't know what to make of them. So If you want to work in journalism get a journalism degree. Unfortunately, many j-schools have been subsumed into communications programs, to the point where some universities don't even offer journalism degrees anymore. If that's the case at your school, move on to tip no. 2.
2. You don't have to get a journalism degree: Here's where I contradict myself. Is a journalism degree a great idea if you want to be a journalist? Absolutely. Is it absolutely necessary? No. Some of the best journalists around never went to j-school. But if you decide not to get a journalism degree it's even more important that you get loads and loads of work experience. And even if you don't get the degree, I would definitely recommend taking some journalism classes.
3. Get work experience everywhere you can: As a student, getting work experience is sort of like throwing lots of spaghetti at the wall until something sticks. My point is, work everywhere you can. Write for the student newspaper. Freelance for local weekly papers. Start your own citizen journalism blog where you cover local news events. The point is, get as much work experience as you can because that, in the end, will be what lands you your first job.
4. Don't worry about going to a prestigious j school. A lot of people worry that if they don't go to one of the top journalism schools, they won't have a good head start for a career in news. That's nonsense. I happen to know a guy who's president of one of the network news divisions, about as important a job as you can get in this field. Did he go to Columbia, Northwestern or UC Berkeley? No, he went to Temple University in Philadelphia, which has a good journalism program but one that probably isn't on any top 10 lists. Your college career is what you make of it, which means doing well in your classes and getting lots of work experience. In the end, the name of the school on your degree won't matter much.
5. Seek out professors with real-world experience: Unfortunately, the trend in university journalism programs the last 20 years or so has been to hire faculty who have PhD's in front of their names. Some of these people have also worked as journalists, but many have not. The result is that many journalism schools are staffed with professors who've probably never seen the inside of a newsroom. So when you're signing up for your classes - especially practical journalism skills courses - check the faculty bios on your program's website and make sure to pick the profs who've actually been there and done that.
6. Get the tech training, but don't neglect the fundamentals: There is a lot of emphasis on technical training in journalism programs these days, and it's a good idea to pick up those skills. But remember, you're training to be a journalist, not a tech geek. The most important thing to learn in college is how to write and report. Skills in things like digital video, layout and photography can be picked up along the way.