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The COVID-19 pandemic is an uncertain time for early-career journalists. As the health crisis has accelerated both the decline of local news and the growing reliance on remote work, those just starting their reporting careers have been forced to adapt.
With internships and entry-level positions on hold as offices and newsrooms downsize and even shut their doors, how do young journalists move ahead in their careers?
To find out, I reached out to newsroom veterans for their advice on steps early-career journalists can take today during the COVID era.
Develop new methods to tell stories
Whether through social media or still growing new media forms in audio and print, several new avenues to create stories have emerged over the past few years. As young journalists are stuck at home, developing skills in new platforms to tell stories in fresh ways is key.
“There are so many ways opening up for young entrepreneurial people who are interested in the media and in journalism to develop quite exciting career paths,” said Anna Codrea-Rado, a freelance journalist who authors The Professional Freelancer, a newsletter that covers advice for freelancers, and co-host of the podcast “Is This Working?”
These storytelling methods are especially good ways for journalists to practice their craft independently, she said. She highlighted podcasts, social media platforms and newsletters, in particular. “The kind of overhead or start-up costs of starting a newsletter, for example — they’re actually quite low. It’s about being able to be curious and explore.”
These new avenues also create new opportunities for storytelling, said Nabeelah Shabbir, Conversation Editor at The Correspondent. “Instagram, but also podcasting, are areas where people are learning new ways to tell stories.”
Growing skills in these areas present opportunities for building an audience, while also offering exposure to new platforms desired by employers. “It may sound like it's already a saturated market, but those kinds of skills are actually quite valuable and people should experiment,” said Shabbir.
Grow your network
Social distancing during COVID-19 has also deprived young journalists of important ways to connect with professionals in the industry. In-person conferences, networking events and other opportunities to build connections have vanished as most large-scale gatherings are canceled.
The key, according to Shabbir, is to find the networks on Twitter and other social media that are involved with your interested fields. “I’ve noticed that I’ve built up over the years this community of people who all know what each other are talking about, and that are somehow following the same things,” she said. “The minute you start building up your community the sooner you’re able to start being a part of conversations.”
Building a digital community through social media isn’t the only way to start creating a network now. Kevin Delaney, co-founder of Quartz Magazine and current Senior Editor at the New York Times Opinion, said that journalists are more open to engaging with those starting out their careers by phone or email during today’s remote work era.
“Early on in my career, one of the really effective ways to get sources was to go to events. You knew that if you went to the right events you could wait to the end of [them] and create connections you didn’t have otherwise,” said Delaney.
“I think part of what is required for the journalist is to say, ‘I’m a freelance journalist, and I’m working with this institution, I’ve worked with these organizations in the past, and will you talk to me for this story?’” he said. “I think that more people may be open to [these calls] now, because they’re in front of the computer all day anyways.”
Consider alternative pathways
Not all journalism skills need to be developed in a major publication’s newsroom. Content generation, research reports, social media and communications techniques at journalism-adjacent organizations can help advance important abilities in writing, research and interviewing that can benefit an early-career journalist.
“If you really want to keep writing, my experience is that companies are always looking for talented writers to write for them for different things,” said Delaney. “Maybe the career pathway today is not that you start at a local newspaper and move up to other publications. Maybe it’s in the content arm of a consulting company, where you can gain skills and experience and confidence.”
Codrea-Rado added that working at a nonprofit, for example, can help build knowledge beneficial to both freelancers and those hoping to work in a newsroom alike. “The reality is that so many places make content. If you’re really clear about where you want to get to and you can’t get there on the direct route you are hoping, is there another route you can take?” she said.
Shabbir’s experience working as a communications officer allowed her to meet new people and potential interviewees from around the world. Through this position, she was able to continue developing skills in remote interviewing and different forms of writing.
The important thing, said Shabbir, is to “keep your output going,” even while working in a journalism-adjacent position. Consider starting a blog or freelance writing to build your presence and portfolio.
Don’t forget soft skills
As important as the hard skills — writing ability, reporting techniques, journalism ethics and law — are for journalists, so too are the soft skills. Resilience, adaptability and the ability to find new stories are all skills journalists should begin to develop early in their careers.
For Delaney, one of the key traits for a journalist is curiosity — specifically, the ability to determine what is interesting and what makes a good story. This can be a developed skill, he said. “One way very pragmatically to do it is to read articles and try to ask ‘what’s the underlying question that they’re getting at? What is the driving curiosity? Why is this interesting?’”
Especially in the freelancing world, the ability to bounce back from setbacks and adapt to changes in the industry is vital, said Codrea-Rado. “Resilience is not a fixed trait. It’s a learnable skill, something that you practice and you get better at and can build,” she said.
As the news industry struggles to find its way during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not all lost opportunity out there. It’s important to keep a positive outlook on your goals and maintain your passion for reporting.
“Do what makes you happy and do what you find interesting, and grow your connections in that area,” said Shabbir. “I don’t think we should let everything stop, just because we can’t go places in person.”
Devin Windelspecht is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.