Dear Future Journalism Graduates, Some Advice

Because I graduated from a journalism masters’ program last year, my alma mater has sent me three identical surveys on my opinion of my education. (Why didn’t I answer the first two they sent? Because they were sending them to my parents’ house where I haven’t lived for more than a decade.)

The survey’s final question, Number 47, asks me to provide advice for 2009 journalism and mass communication graduates. The only advice that’s going to do them any good at this point is: be willing to work cheap and go where ever the job is. Work hard, harder than required, and be willing to freelance and work part time and have another job that pays the rent and offers health insurance.

But for graduates in 2010 and beyond, I have more advice. They’re still in J-school. While I suggested there are a ton of different things you should learn as a journalism student, many schools, including my own (which I now teach at) don’t teach them all. So my first piece of advice: Work hard, harder than required. You want to make it? Find something that interests you – programming, data visualization, computer assisted reporting – and learn it during a break. School has lots of those. Treat learning like a job where you only have one week of vacation each year. School is great because you can spend the time learning what you want to learn. You don’t have to do some of the mindless, boring stories that young reporters and interns often get saddled with. Even if your school does teach Django, ActionScript and Flash, mapping, social networking, Photoshop, blogging, audio production, etc., your semester or two won’t be enough. Do more on your own time.

Take writing classes. Writing is important. Take audio and video classes. Take HTML and online classes. But don’t compartmentalize them; think about how they relate to each other. Think about how different stories work better using different storytelling mediums and techniques.

Take classes outside of the journalism school. Here’s one I failed to do. I was dissapointed that, after I took a class in HTML and CSS, which I really enjoyed and did well at, there were no other classes that technical in the j-school. But I never took a class from the computer science department. I never took a class in business to learn how I might make a living doing my own project. I never took a photography class. Take classes outside of your comfort area.

Work on your own projects. Better yet, make everything you work on your own project. Even the boring assignments. Make them something you can be proud of. If you need your instructor to bend the rules a little bit, ask. If they say no, do it anyway and then sell the piece. You’re not doing this for grades. You’re doing this more experience and clips and renown.

Bleed your education for all it’s worth. Someone’s paying for your education. Make it worth it. Ask for Demand extra. Pester your professors with questions and for connections. Ask them to work through drafts with you. But don’t do it because you’re being lazy. Don’t ask questions that were covered in class. Don’t ask for help with your unproofed drafts.

Involve yourself. Work for the school paper. Write a professional blog and take it seriously. Get on Twitter and use it to find sources and pimp your stories. Read and comment on other blogs you find interesting. Participate in class. Life is more interesting that way.

Digest the media you consume. Not just the Times subscription your Introduction to Reporting and Writing instructor requires you to have. But the great audio slide show on nytimes.com and at the Las Vegas Sun. Stay up with Romenesko. Read some big-time blogs that interest you. Think about what makes it work the way it does. Be critical.

There are jobs for journalism graduates and there always will be. They aren’t jobs you can just fall into anymore, but they’re there. You just have to work hard.

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