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How to launch your career in the media industry: event report

Harriet Minter, Andy Smith (NUJ president) and Alex Wood  -  © Mark Thomas

3 February 2016

What would happen if I Googled you?

Would I find an exciting, up-to-date blog of your writings and interests? Would I have picked up your Tweets in the general journalistic chatter? Would I be impressed by the number of followers you have? Maybe you sent me an email saying how much you enjoyed my last article and I remember seeing your name in my inbox?

"We live in a great time," said Harriet Minter, editor of the Guardian's women in leadership section. "We can make relationships with people without having to meet them. We are able to showcase our work to the industry. We can find out who we need to pitch ideas to by doing some research on LinkedIn."

That's not to say it is easy. "It's really hard to get some budget out of a commissioning editor,” she pointed out. “What you have to do is find out what you can offer that others can't."

ULF 2016

Harriet was speaking at an event, sponsored by the Union Learning Fund, to help young journalists launch their careers in a very competitive industry. It was,as Michelle Stanistreet, National Union of Journalists general secretary, explained, a day of practical advice from people working in the media who knew how the industry worked; but all in a very entertaining way.

Harriet did a double act with Alex Wood, editor-in-chief of the technology and business website, The Memo. They came to journalism from equally unconventional paths, but shared a similar view of what is needed to get on in today's media market.

"Most of being about being a successful journalist is not about being a really good writer," said Harriet. "Sorry about that. It is about having really good stories, really understanding the audience you are writing for and being to give them what they want in a format they appreciate."

Alex advised media hopefuls to keep in mind the commercial side of the industry. "Be commercially aware,” he said. “I totally believe in the division between editorial and commercial, but we are a business and editorial and commercial are both in it together. There is nothing wrong with finding an area of interest and getting a sponsor involved."

Harriet trained as a lawyer and realised she hated it; she made the break by joining RollOnFriday, a news and gossip website for the legal world. It was a small team. "I learned how to do everything – from writing to community management, how to deal with clients, how to do the books, invoicing, and everything about running business as well as a digital publication."

She got her job on the Guardian not because she was a great journalist, she said, but because she understood how digital journalism worked and that was the one thing the Guardian needed.

Alex studied Japanese and business studies and, thanks to an inspirational professor, got a job not in a bank, but on an Osaka newspaper. He soon found himself reporting on the country's technology giants such as Sony and Panasonic and was given the nickname "Long-legs" by the Japanese press corps. But his real break came when, as a journalism student back in London, he had the idea to film the G20 summit protest using mobile phones. His student friends found themselves in the middle of the mêlée when they were kettled by police while the mainstream media were kept outside. The BBC asked him for his footage.

ULF 2016 framing2

Harriet said: "News organisations are full of great journalists with great contacts who can write great exclusives better and quicker than you.

"But perhaps they don't know about Snapchat or don't know how to create visuals for the website. You probably have better mobile skills than those people who have been journalists for many years."


Harriet and Alex's top tips to the young audience were:

  • If you haven't got a blog, start one today; but make sure you keep it up to date.
  • If you are pitching an idea, understand – really understand – what that audience wants.
  • Build up recognition on social media.
  • Get away from your desk. Meet people.
  • Don’t be afraid to look beyond the big brands for work.
  • Mine social media for contacts.
  • If you are going to sell visuals, learn how to frame them well.

Fortunately, the afternoon session showed the young journalists how to go about it.

Janet Awe, head of Awesome Communications, is a PR guru who has worked in the fashion and music businesses, print and broadcast media, the public sector and charities. She showed how the range of apps and media-sharing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TweetDeck, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google+, Vine and Pinterest can be used to maximise a professional profile and organise ideas and pitches.

Bill Shepherd, a production editor at The Guardian and The Observer newspapers, gave a hands-on session on mobile journalism and great advice on which kit to use. Everyone had the chance to learn how to frame someone on his or her phone for an interview.

Louise Bolotin, a journalist in print and broadcasting for 35 years, gave practical advice on how to start in the industry as a freelance. "If you don't understand money, you will never have a freelance career," she warned.

There was one tip all the speakers agreed upon – join the NUJ (especially Alex, who had to be rescued from Uzbekistan by the union when filming the country's Fashion Week).

Holly Page-Powell echoed his advice. "The NUJ will help you with your career, introduce you to networks of journalists and give you professional credibility and status. It will offer you protection if you have a problem at work. But, most of all, you will be part of a community defending press freedom and debating the issues that matter in the media industry."

@EmmalouSheppard was obviously listening. After the event she tweeted: @alexwoodcreates @HarrietMinter @NUJofficial Really enjoyed hearing you both speak -- thank you for the inspiration & insightful advice.

What they said:

Shruti Sheth ULF conference

Shruti Sheth has just finished her NCTJ course at Lambeth College.  She said: "I gave up my full-time job last year to do the course in September and here I am to learn more. For me, just starting out, it was good to have tips on how to approach commissioning editors, to pitch ideas and get a foot in the door because it is so difficult. There were lots of really useful tips for newly-qualified journalists. I will now really look at the section I am hoping to pitch to, work out what the editor likes and the readers want and see how I can contribute to that. Alex suggested thinking about something you have to contribute that others don't, and I think I have very good video skills. I can put packages together very quickly, and hope that would be of use to any newsroom. My social media following is medium to strong. I have about 400 followers, so I should probably work on that. I shamelessly promote my blogs everywhere – one is more a personal, where I talk about life, and a professional one, where I put all my professional work.

Alistair Quaile works for the Journal of Paramedic Practice. "I was particularly interested in what Harriet had to say about how to squeeze budgets out of commissioning editors and it was also interesting to hear how Alex launched his own website,” he said. “What they were saying about digital being the future reaffirmed what I thought was the case. But it was also good to hear Alex say that print isn't dead. I think people do like to have something tangible. What they were saying about knowing your audience was important and also that it is increasingly necessary to be aware of personal branding. I do have a blog and more recently I was thinking about setting up podcasts of people working in the emergency services and would want to learn how to do videos."

walker darke ulf young worker conference

Walker Darke is in his third year at Canterbury Christchurch University studying French and music. He is an NUJ student member and has covered some stories, including sports for football magazines and politics for a number of websites. He also has a blog,, and has written about his year studying in Lille – accompanied by a selfie with French president, François Hollande. Because I have just being doing a few bits and bobs, I think the advice I received this morning could take me to the next level. The NUJ has also been a great help, I get all the emails and newsletters and it’s good to know what the main issues in journalism are. “I found Harriet and Alex very inspiring and it was good to hear that there are different routes into journalism as I am not doing a journalism degree. What I learned was that it is about the skills you have and that journalism isn't just about working for the BBC; there are so many possibilities."

Ahmed Madi is in his second year at King’s College London studying comparative literature. He did some work experience at the World Service's Future Voices programme. He has been involved in citizen journalism and is considering journalism, probably broadcasting, as a career. "I have learned a lot – all about the different areas of journalism that I don't know much about,” he said. “I learned about the importance of digital, and the Q&A session was very useful. I don't have a blog, but perhaps I will start one now."

aarti thobhani ULF 2016

Aarti Thobhani works in the voluntary sector and does some freelance work. Previously she edited a magazine in Leicester and studied journalism at Nottingham Trent University. "I am a member of the NUJ and do come along to events because, even though I am based in Leicester, it makes me feel I belong to the journalist community in London. I came along because I wanted to learn about the present climate and hear from people who are working full-time in the industry; particularly their advice to those who are just starting out. Both Alex and Harriet have given me the confidence to go ahead and try. I was also very interested to hear how you can use Facebook and Twitter professionally."

All pictures © Mark Thomas

Tags: , ulf, training, students, young members, guardian, harriet minter, alex wood, janet awe, louise bolotin, bill shepherd, freelance, event