My first journalism job: what I’ve learned in a month

Four weeks ago, after almost a year of job applications, I started my first, real journalism job. The past month has been a bit of a whirlwind. Aside from all the practical things, like learning how to navigate the custom CMS and realising that you can’t schedule tweets with images in Tweetdeck, here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned during my first month on the job.

Not everything you write will be published

One of the first things my editor asked me to write was a quiz about food waste. “Make it really funny,” she said. “It has to be hilarious.” I thought about this for some time, put together a quiz that I had tried desperately to make witty, and sent it to her – all the while thinking: “Seriously though, who can make food waste funny?” Not me, it turns out. Stuart Heritage, on the other hand, is a dab hand at making the driest of subjects completely hilarious. (I’ve read his version of the quiz probably more times than anyone and still find myself chuckling.)

But there, something that I had put real effort into was passed over in favour of something else. And it won’t be the first time. It’s really crucial not to take this personally, and the sooner you can come to terms with it, take it on the chin and move on, the better. I have learned – although I already had a inkling – that I’m not a funny writer. And that’s perfectly okay. I have other strengths like… umm… I’ll have a think about this.

Sleep is really, really important

When I was working in pubs and applying for journalism jobs, sleep was just this thing you did after you’d given up scouring job sites for the day, or after you’d come to end of the available episodes for a particular programme on Netflix. It didn’t really matter when you went to bed, how much or how well you slept because, really, you could very easily have a nap on the sofa in the middle of the day if you felt like it.

In retrospect, my sleeping patterns during that time was horrendous. I worked in the pub in the evenings, arrived home well after midnight, probably watched something on TV ’til 2am, and finally hauled myself out of bed the next day at 11am. My days rarely got going before the rest of the world had eaten lunch.

Maybe it’s the shock of having a normal, real, day-time job. Maybe it’s joining a big project a few weeks before launch. But I have never appreciated the value of a good quality, 8-hour sleep as much as I have in these past few weeks. Lattes with an extra shot can only keep you going for so long, and you absolutely cannot be firing on all cylinders if you’re burning the candle at both ends. And I think the same truth is applicable for job applications. If you want your work to be at its best, then you have to have some decent rest. There you go, a nice little motto…

Criticism can come from anywhere

Sadly, I have also learned that there will always be someone, somewhere who has something negative to say about the work you’re doing. I’m working on Guardian Live Better: an online project focused on sustainability, funded by Unilever. The idea of an international corporation funding a project which encourages people to be ‘green’ has attracted some criticism. And although bloggers and columnists have questioned the partnership, rather than the actual content I help to produce, it is hard not to take such comments to heart. Sometimes, I feel as though I may have already compromised my journalistic integrity at the very start of my career.

But the content I produce is editorially independent from any sponsors, and living in a way that is respectful to our environment is something I cared about long before I got this job – I am keen to share ways to do this to a wider audience.  I can also take some comfort in the knowledge that it is largely accepted that sponsored content will become more and more commonplace as the future profitably of journalism grows increasingly uncertain. Besides, it’s important not to dwell on these sorts of doubts for too long, or I’d never get anything done.

What is slightly harder to come to terms with is the criticism from people you know personally; who question your suitability for the role you have taken on. The key lesson to learn here – and it’s good to learn this one early on, too – is that these people are not worth your time, focus or energy. The only people you should surround yourself with are those who congratulate you and wish you well.

It’s all worth it in the end

How patronising are those seven words? Yeah, I know. I was on the receiving end of so many of these types of phrases for the best part of a year. ‘It’ll all be worth it in the end.’ ‘Something will come along eventually.’ ‘The perfect job is just around the corner.’ I’ve had them all, and those comments were followed by a strong desire to punch whoever had said them in the face. But, actually, they were (dare I said it?) right.


All your hard work is not for nothing. You are not putting this much effort into your  journalism courses, NCTJ qualifications,  job applications, internships and work experience placements for nothing. As Dev Patel’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel says: “Everything will be alright in the end, so if it is not alright, it is not the end.”

This post originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.


Getting started in international development journalism

The term ‘development journalism’ only came to exist in the sixties, as media organisations in Asia and Africa responded to the growing number of aid agencies working in developing countries. As such, there’s no real set route to pursue to become a development journalist. Those working in the field now openly admit to having ‘fallen into’ the profession, through subbing, volunteering, and working for NGOs.

So if your goal is to report on development issues – be it food security in the Sahel, women’s land rights in Rwanda, or access to life-saving medications in South Africa – what can you do to steer your career towards becoming an international development journalist? I spoke to three experts – Sue George (freelance writer and editor of the Guardian’s annual International Development Journalism competition), Tom Murphy (blogger and journalist on humanitarian issues for Humanosphere), and Mark Tran, (correspondent for Guardian Global Development) – for their advice on becoming an international development reporter.

Gain a ‘level of legitimacy’

Tom Murphy: “There’s a whole language to the field of development and you definitely want to familiarise yourself with the names of all of these NGOs and some of these key buzzwords and phrases that are often repeated. That really helps you actually talk about it with the people that are involved and it helps you see between the lines. It’s really valuable when you can know what’s going on and be able to ask the right questions.”

Know your stuff … and pick a specialism

Sue George: “I think having a specialism within development is really important, actually, certainly if you’re trying to get started. I think that lots of people end up having that anyway. Maybe they have a country specialism because they know a lot about that country, or maybe they have a theme specialism.”

Mark Tran: “I think the best way to do this is to have a general knowledge of development issues and then have an area that you try and develop and deepen your knowledge of. It always stands you in good stead to know one particular subject, or a couple of subjects, that you know in detail more than others, but you need a broad general knowledge of the field as well. If you can combine the two, I think that’s the ideal way to do it.”

Identify neglected issues

Tom Murphy: “The over-arching thing that I think needs to be thought about more, and will be changing, is how aid is going to be different in the next few years. There’s this possibility that the age of the NGO might be coming to a close sometime soon, so what does it look like when Oxfam is becoming less relevant? And when do we reach that point?”

Sue George: “One thing I know that is not covered sufficiently is the area of non-communicable diseases [a non-infectious and non-transmissible disease]. The developing world is having increasing problems with things like heart attacks, diabetes and road traffic accidents. All these things are big, big problems in the developing world and I don’t think that they’re being looked at sufficiently… so someone could have a go at that!”

Prepare for the future 

Tom Murphy: “The most important (and also most boring) thing to know about is what happens after 2015. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are going to run out and that is a major discussion that’s going to be happening at the UN in September. Whatever comes of that is really what sets the bar [for the future]. It’s going to have a long-lasting affect. The conversations are really weird and non-specific at this point, but when these goals start being hammered out, that’s going to matter a lot and that will change how people report.”

Keep your eyes peeled

Tom Murphy: “There are fellowships and there are opportunities. The Pulitzer Center is looking for people to report on global health. The International Reporting Project (based out of John Hopkins University) does trips. I went with them to Tanzania in October and I’m going with them to Brazil in March. They do a few trips per year; you go for two weeks and it’s a pretty neat opportunity to get your hands dirty. You get to work alongside some really stellar journalists from different subject areas and parts of the world.”

Get out there

Sue George: “One thing that might be a good idea if you’re really keen on doing this is to live in a developing world country for a bit. So let’s say you can speak French; maybe you could go to Senegal and see if there are any stories there that you could write about. You find out more and more about living in that country. You get really good contacts. You could pitch some stories to all sorts of publications and you would get to know the individuals there to find out what the stories might be.”

Tom Murphy: “Try to get out there and familiarise yourself with the region. When things that garner a larger attention happen, then you’re really well placed to do a lot of reporting for a lot of different places. A good example would be Westgate (the al-Shabaab attack on a Nairobi shopping mall in September 2013). The major news networks from the US and Europe were pleading for anything and everything in terms of stories, so the people who were there who already knew the city and who knew Kenya, were able to churn out a tonne of stories. That’s a rare exception but these things do come up every so often, and when you’re there, you’re in a much better position than anyone else.”

Mark Tran: “It’s almost like trying to be a foreign correspondent and the best way is to be somewhere, where there is a demand for foreign news. For example, if you’re in somewhere like Afghanistan, development is also such a huge element of the story so you can end up writing about resource exploitation, education… so in a way, it’s like an extra dimension to foreign reporting. And with foreign reporting, the best place to do that is from a particular country or region. If you’re lucky enough to be somewhere interesting like Mali or Nigeria, development is going to be a very important part of the coverage.”

This article originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.