No editor knows for sure what their next lead will be, or where it will come from.
One question many journalism students ask is, why should we study journalism when so many newspapers and television stations are closing (or in the case of Zimbabwe, Rwanda etc., when governments are shutting down newspapers)? My answer has been (and will always be) that although newspapers and television stations are closing, the people’s need to read is not declining and while governments can shut down newspapers, they cannot control the people’s need to know. The need to know is extra-territorial, and as a story-teller, this your market. As institutions continue to fail, it is becoming clear that the future of journalism lies with independent story-tellers.
This list is by far not exhaustive. Just a few tips.
1. Local is key – Cultivate your news awareness in your local environment. Success at a regional or international level builds directly on your experience working in your local community. “International stories” are local to the people that experience them, all stories are inherently local.
2. Build a base – Take every interaction, every story as an opportunity to build a comprehensive base of contacts and sources in key places in government, the private sector, diplomatic corps, the military, hospitals, mines, intelligence, aviation, non-governmental organizations among other institutions. There is nothing as rewarding for a journalist as finding out as soon as a news event occurs that you have contacts in all the places required to get a story and file in 45 minutes.
3. Read, read, read – I have not known a successful athlete with no passion for exercise. If you want to pursue a career in writing, then you should teach your mind to express itself through the power of the written word. Expose yourself to as many varieties of literature as possible, and write, write, write. Writing helps condition your mind for what will be a rigorous writing career ahead.
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4. Create lasting relationships with editors and people in general, everyone is a source – this point cannot be over-emphasized. A lot of the stories that professional journalists produce are come in the form of assignments from organizations that already have access to institutions and resources to travel. Assignments create a lot of reporting opportunities, access to institutions and allow you to build contacts while also producing footage and material that you get to keep for your own archives.
5. Create a profile on Lightstalkers.org or a similar organization – How do editors find you? An online profile helps you market your skills to other journalists, publishers and editors. Your most valued asset as a freelance journalist is your location. No matter how hardworking you are, no-one is going to know where to find you if you do not have public profile that lists your skills and your area of expertise. No editor knows at the beginning of the day what their lead for the next day will be, it will depend on the events that occur throughout the day and in turn the coverage of those events will depend on which journalists are the first to write about them in the most comprehensive way.
6. Create a personal website or blog – Even more important is the need to create a self-hosted platform like a blog or website that serves as a repository of your work. Keep your contact details up to date.
7. Join a professional organization – Professional organizations are the best way to market yourself and meet professionals who will help you along the way with advice, recommendations and tips.
8. Develop a passion for something. Create a niche – Don’t restrict yourself to the craft of story-telling. Journalism schools have taught the craft for the past century and are beginning to realize the need to equip their students with more that just story-telling skills like computer programming, public policy and medical science. Choose a subject and pursue it along with your passion for journalism.
9. Retool, take training opportunities whenever they arise – There are plenty of training opportunities for reporters. Make time to attend workshops, boot camps and retreats with professional journalists. This allows you to learn and interact with professionals.
10.Pitch story ideas. Persistency pays off – When pitching stories, don’t restrict yourself to a few editors or publications. One editor’s spiked copy is another editor’s lead story. Set your own deadlines and get an idea of how long it takes you to produce good copy, packages etc. Make your personal deadlines more stringent that what any editor can throw at you, and you’ll be fine.