So you want to be a journalist?

Dan Synge is a journalist, writer and visiting lecturer at City University London. He has contributed to a number of national newspapers and consumer magazines including The Guardian, Financial Times, Daily Telegraph and Esquire. His new book The Survival Guide to Journalism is aimed as an essential reference for any aspiring journalist. In this excerpt, Synge examines the essential qualities of a good journalist & how they work.

When I set out on a career in journalism back in 1994, the media landscape set out in front of me was a relatively simple one to chart.

There were local and national newspapers, most of which recorded healthy circulation figures that looked set in stone for years to come. Then, of course, there were magazines: consumer, contract or trade.

Most young journalists started off by working for a local newspaper or a trade weekly. Having done their training in this hands-on arena, the more talented ones would end up on Fleet Street: The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Express, The Sun and other esteemed titles.

Although some of these publications were, and still are, competing for the same readers, they had yet to contend with 24-hour news channels, text and online messaging, free sheets, podcasts, digital platforms or anything else that is loosely described as ‘new media’.

The more traditional forms of media appear to be suffering something of a setback in the wake of these exciting new developments, and yet paradoxically, there appear also to be increased opportunities for journalists, provided that they are prepared to adopt new skills to survive in this highly dynamic and ultra-competitive environment.

So while fledgling reporters were once expected to learn shorthand and type double-spaced hard copy on sheets of A4, tomorrow’s media stars are filing exclusive film clips or interviewing Hollywood A-listers via social networking or messaging service sites. As one national newspaper insider told me: ‘We’re no longer just a newspaper, we’re a media organization.’ Like any professional group, journalists have always had to respond to social and technological changes. As ever, those who embrace change best will have the greatest chance of survival.

The essential qualities

Needless to say, you are talented and hard-working with superb social skills and a CV that will impress anyone sitting in an editor’s chair. However, if you lack any of the five essential qualities below, a career in journalism is unlikely to get beyond the preliminary stage.

1 Curious

Do you know or care what your neighbours get up to? What’s that exciting new building development all about? Why have the letter boxes in your street been painted yellow? Why is there a police officer stationed outside the house up the road? A natural-born journalist always finds the answers to questions like these. Some even become front page stories.

2 Self-motivated

Unless you already have envy-inducing personal contacts in the media, making it in journalism requires enormous dedication and an ability to find and develop your own contacts and stories. You must also be disciplined enough to manage your own workload, which, as any self-employed person will tell you, is a job in itself.

3 Knowledgeable

You’ll need an acute awareness of what’s going on now and what is about
to happen in the near future. Reading a lot (not just your favourite daily
paper or news website) is essential and you should have a reasonable
knowledge of practically everything that is covered by print and digital
media, whether it’s the names of newly appointed cabinet ministers or the
latest trends in the property market.

4 Literate

Not all successful journalists are great writers, but a more than average command of English and a love of language will give you a healthy advantage in what is an increasingly oversubscribed profession. If your skills are not up to scratch, read and study the work of reputable journalists and writers.

5 Numerate

This doesn’t only apply to trend analysts and science reporters. All journalists
deal in facts and figures and the best ones know how to use them to their story’s advantage. Numeracy also comes in handy when claiming expenses or negotiating a fee. In the long run, letting someone else do the sums for you can leave you seriously out of pocket.

How journalists work

Journalists are almost unanimously interested in breaking new stories or helping to add to both the reputation and circulation of their publication, yet they work in increasingly diverse ways.

First, there are the many different types of editorial roles on offer, be it a local news reporter, national newspaper columnist, freelance travel writer, arts reviewer or website editor.

All these people have highly contrasting working hours, salary packages, levels of influence and job satisfaction, yet all are considered journalists. Take into account also the unstoppable growth of media empires and the increasing amount of online content over the last few years, and you have another reason for the job’s diversity. Journalists today don’t just take notes, file their copy then move onto the next story. They are expected more and more to record sound and video clips, respond to readers’ emails, write online blogs and possess many other skills associated with our technological age.

Gone for ever is the mythological hack with his long Fleet Street lunches and worn out shoes. The twenty-first-century journalist is a multi-tasking, laptop-wielding wordsmith with an active and inquisitive mind, a finger on the pulse and the nose for a good story.

Here are some of the most sought-after editorial positions in the profession:


Anyone from a global media magnate to a work-from-home with their DIY online newsletter can claim to be publishers. Essentially they are the people who finance and manage the publication, paying special attention to sales and advertising revenue, on which every publication’s success is founded.

Although they should have more than a passing interest in what goes into the publication, essentially they are in the business of money and are always on the look out for new ways to make it.


The role varies depending on the scale and importance of the publication, but most editors will oversee and decide on the publication’s editorial content (including news stories, features, layout, cover design, headlines etc.).

They should have a clear vision of where their publication is going and head regular editorial meetings with staff to generate suitable content. Where relevant, they should also develop a good working relationship with their publisher in the drive for increased sales and advertising revenue.

Deputy editor

Working alongside the editor, the deputy has a rather more hands-on role and will work with budgets, commission articles and edit copy as well as cover for the editor’s absence (editors are frequently ‘in meetings’). They will have a firm grip on what has been planned for future issues and will also understand and advise on production issues such as page design and picture sourcing.

Features editor

Feature stories (as opposed to news stories) are the longer, more human interest articles found in magazines and newspaper supplements, and these are normally commissioned and edited by a features editor. Along with the editor, they chair regular features meetings in order to generate content while looking out for new, talented writers to bring to the publication.

Commissioning editor

In a more junior editorial position than features editors, they are also involved in the commissioning and editing process. Commissioning editors are normally assigned sections or pages and may also be asked to edit other sections or contribute short articles.

Staff feature writer

Some writers are fortunate enough to be employed by their publication on a full-time basis, which means that they attend regular features meetings and contribute to appropriate parts of the publication.

Staff writers are multi-taskers and should be able to write a snappy news story as well as an in-depth profile. They often cover specialist areas such as crime, foreign affairs or the environment.

Freelance writer

Although not normally on the payroll of any particular publication, a freelance
can work for any number of editors. The most successful freelance writers contribute to dozens of publications on a regular basis.

They are paid a set word rate for their work, but this can be negotiated. Like staff writers, a specialist area of interest helps but good, reliable freelances can turn their hand to most subjects. Unlike staff writers, they rarely work in their publication’s office, choosing instead to work from home or in a shared office with other freelances. My book, 'The Survival Guide to Journalism,' contains more
detailed information on freelancing.


When it comes to proofing and editing incoming copy, the sub-editor (or ‘sub’) is the key member of the editorial team. Sub-editors report to the chief sub-editor on a large publication and also write headlines, standfirsts and picture captions.

The Survival Guide to Journalism by Dan Synge is out now published by Open University Press priced £14.99 ©  2010


10th November 2010

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