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I am a fairly experienced writer, but I have little experience in journalistic writing and no formal education in journalism. I believe I can pick up the craft aspects of this form of writing. However, I don't really know where to begin in terms of career path.

So, I would like to know what options are available to a skilled beginner without a diploma whose goal is to become a professional magazine or newspaper journalist. Should I write freelance articles and submit them where I can? Should I apply for some sort of junior/intern/coffee-delivery position at publishers? I understand that any path will probably take years, and I am alright with that. I am just looking for general advice on where to get work when first starting out.

I am also curious if the lack of degree will hurt me significantly. Would four years back at school benefit me more than four years trying to break into the field without that degree?

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2 Answers 2

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The degree is less important than your clips and prior work experience. However, journalism is very hierarchical. Bigger papers have a higher status, higher pay, better jobs, etc, and they only hire reporters with good clips, and experience at larger papers. So you're going to have to start at a smaller paper, and work your way to bigger papers. I know a guy who went from a tiny crap paper to one of the best papers in the country in about 6 years (of course, then he burned out, and is now working back at a smaller paper again).

Stringing is a good way to start, but it's often deadly boring. If you're thinking more about magazine journalism, thats a bit different. Many magazines work on a contract basis, but that can make it even harder to break in, as they produce less content, and what they do produce they farm out to specific people.

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(I had to look up your use of the word "Stringing" here.) Stringer: Also called string correspondent. Journalism. A part-time newspaper correspondent covering a local area for a paper published elsewhere. –  sjohnston Dec 20 '10 at 20:05
    
@sjohnston: Doh. Sorry, I actually work in the industry, so I forget that it's not in the vernacular. –  Satanicpuppy Dec 20 '10 at 20:13
    
Having articles posted on reputable websites can also be good additions to a journalist's portfolio. –  Ralph Gallagher Dec 20 '10 at 20:36

I heard once from a relative who knows a lot of professional journalists (and is a published nonfiction writer) that a journalism degree is actually a waste of time, because field experience matters more than an academic degree in the field. I'd say, four years in the field is a much better use of your time. I'd say start out trying to intern at a small paper, do your best, get some good experience and published clips, and go from there. (Just as a caveat, though, I'm speaking based on my impressions alone...I'm not a journalist!)

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It's good for some things, learning the laws, how to interview, etc, etc. But being a good reporter is more about being a ridiculous gossip than anything else: if you want to know what's going on, if you're capable of wheedling it out of people who know, and if you're then capable of sharing it with the world in such a way so as not to piss off the person who told you, then you'll be a good journalist. Being a good writer helps, but isn't critical. –  Satanicpuppy Dec 20 '10 at 20:17
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A degree isn't worthless. You can learn a lot of valuable skills - research techniques, how to conduct an interview, etc. It's also a lot about networking. A lot of journalism teachers and professors used to work in the journalism field and still have contacts. Doing well in a class and showing your professors that you're good at journalism could help land you a job if someone they know is looking for a new writer. They can also help guide you toward smaller papers/magazine/websites to boost your resume and portfolio. –  Ralph Gallagher Dec 20 '10 at 20:35

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