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Behind the Headlines

An editor’s guide to a winning journalism job application

Starting out in journalism? Guardian journalist Joseph Harker shares his top tips for improving your job applications and interviews.

Be specific - what have you done?

We look for evidence that you have a real interest in journalism. Work experience on local newspapers or on other established media is great to have, though we do recognise that these opportunities are severely limited and dependent on your ability to fund yourself for a couple of weeks. But you can still try to get stories commissioned as a freelancer. If you have gone through the process of creating an idea, pitching it and getting it published, this shows you have been proactive and can follow through on a task. 

The art of pitching

Often people aren’t successful in pitching their story to a publication because they are pitching to the wrong place. If you are pitching to the Guardian, for example, be mindful that you are competing with a large number of people, and some of the best writers in the world. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pitch, but if you are starting out, you’d have a better chance pitching to smaller or less well-known publications to get the ball rolling. 

All it takes is for one piece to be published and then you are starting to build a portfolio. To decide what to write about, think about your background, your own interests and then think about how you can use that to add depth to a story. Too often, people pitch something that everyone else is writing about, and they end up running against too much competition.

As you build up a body of work, whatever the publication, it starts to look more and more impressive and you start to be seen as an “experienced journalist”. From there it gets easier to write about broader subject matters, for a wider range of publications, and you’ll have more of a licence to explore a variety of topics. The better your portfolio, the more chance you have of securing a staff position.

Bring your fresh perspective

These days, if you include a published article in your job application, I am only partly interested in the quality of the writing: the piece could have been heavily edited by someone else. I’m much more interested in whether your article offers new insights. It’s about how you tackle a given subject and whether you are saying something different, thought-provoking – offering a perspective on any given subject that I’ve not seen before. Anyone can have a view about the cost of living crisis, or Ukraine, or the latest Westminster scandal – but does the angle you take show that you have a real insight? The depth of your thinking counts for more than your writing skills. 

There are many stories that the media has collectively failed to anticipate, such as the Brexit referendum result or the election of Donald Trump. Many journalists were blindsided because they didn’t understand what significant groups of people were thinking. Journalists need to be connected to different communities and their differing priorities – that’s why a reporter coming from a background traditionally underrepresented in the media should potentially have an advantage. 

The media has long been predominantly white, middle-class, male, and led by graduates of universities like Oxford and Cambridge. But things are beginning to change, and the value of employing people from different backgrounds is starting to be recognised. There are news organisations that are changing the way they recruit, so you should feel confident in showing how you stand out and can bring new and different perspectives. 

However, you do not have to feel pigeon-holed. For example, some people of colour like to write about race and racism and some people don’t, and that’s absolutely fine. That’s just one aspect to your identity and there are so many parts to all our lives. There will always be enough alternative aspects to keep you busy – to be expert in, passionate about, and in a strong position to write about.

The interview

Your application will give us an idea about whether you can do the job and the interview allows us to go into greater depth. 

For any journalism role, make sure you are up to date on the news cycle. At the most basic level, it’s expected that you'll have a strong interest in current affairs, so you need to be aware of the day's news. We might ask you for a story idea, and knowing what is going on in the world will make that idea more immediate and therefore more interesting. 

Being specific is vital. What would you do to develop a story? Who specifically would you talk to? Don’t just say ‘an MP’: knowing names and details shows us you know the subject matter well.

Another easy win is to find out who is going to be interviewing you so you can research them. People are easily flattered, so this definitely helps! But more than that, it shows you are well prepared and taking the interview seriously. The same goes for any job, in any industry. 

Another easy win is to find out who is going to be interviewing you so you can research them. People are easily flattered, so this definitely helps! But more than that, it shows you are well prepared and taking the interview seriously. The same goes for any job, in any industry.

Transferable skills and quiet determination

Non-journalistic transferable experience can absolutely count. In journalism there are so many different skills that you need. It’s not just about being a good writer: among other things it’s about having a sense of curiosity, being at ease with people, and not giving up when you face obstacles. Any experience you have that demonstrates these traits will be valuable, so try to bring it into your interview answers.

Sometimes people think ‘I need to be confident to be a journalist’ or ‘I need to be a person who can command a room’; but mostly it’s not about having a big personality, it’s more about a quiet determination. You don’t have to be an extrovert (though that’s fine too!) you just have to be someone who sees the job that needs to be done, and does it. You don’t need to come in and wow us with sparkling wit and charm, we are more interested in your ability.

Joseph Harker is the Guardian's senior editor, diversity and development. He was previously deputy opinion editor at the Guardian and is a former editor of the newspaper Black Briton.

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