Personal branding is key for would-be journalists

Journalism students in the United States ‘got it’ long before those of us in the UK. Personal branding is a concept that doesn’t sit easily with too many of the wannabe journalists I’ve met. It is either seen simply as too time-consuming or a practice that has no tangible immediate reward. The latter point is undoubtedly correct – but, just as with slow-burning, off-diary news stories, the fruits only bear themselves with patience.

Trawling through the ‘Tomorrow’s News, Tomorrow’s Journalists’ forum on Journalism.co.uk towards the end of 2008, it became clear to me that I couldn’t rely solely on a printed portfolio and a stint on the university newspaper if I was to get a job in journalism after graduation.

Writes Josh Halliday…


Even the local newspaper – the traditional first foot on the ladder – had abandoned its trainee scheme. US students talked endlessly about brand alignment, domain names and networking. None of which, it was immediately clear, seemed to have much at all to do with journalism. If anything, they were a distraction from actually doing journalism.

But four days, as 2008 slipped into 2009, kick-started the online drive which just over a year later got me a job at the Guardian. In two postings by Suzanne Yada, a twentysomething US j-student at the time, the mantra of doing new media as a journalism student was truly laid bare.

Yada’s two career resolutions for the year ahead amounted to: “become invaluable” and “network like mad”. Her dispatches spread like wildfire across the web, with new media pin-ups Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen pointing thousands of people in their direction. While these may not seem earth shattering, what they spelt out was clear: it will be the
extra-curricular work that gets you hired; not what you do inside university.

And that’s as true today as it was on the final day of 2008. Getting off the ground in this brave new world is undoubtedly the hardest part. Where do you start? What do you want to be known as? The first job is to decide what image you want to project online. This is branding, and we already do it subconsciously everyday.

Without wanting to sound too prescriptive – because we’re not all self-aggrandising journodrones - the key is to map out interests, research the market, and remember that what you publish online could quite easily make it before the eyes of a potential employer.

BBC newsroom.

It’s a first step into the right circles without being pushy, obtrusive or unnaturally self-assertive. Dave Lee, a 23-year-old journalism graduate from the University of Lincoln, says his online network helped land him a dream job at the BBC World Service. It was a guest lecture at his university by Phillip Knightley, the celebrated formerSunday Times investigative journalist, that inspired Lee to write a brash blog post challenging some of what the veteran newsman had said about the industry. Martin Stabe, then a reporter at Press Gazette, found Lee’s post interesting enough to link to. That small gesture “essentially started my career”, he says now. But Lee grabbed his 15 minutes of fame with both hands.

He later wangled his way into the Sky News newsroom after uploading a clip of a small earthquake in Lincolnshire to YouTube and – again somewhat brashly – noting how late the BBC had covered it compared to its rival, Sky News. Julian March, the Sky News production editor, offered Lee £50 to use the clip. “Forget the £50. Give me a work placement,” was his response.

Lee, today sitting in Bush House at one of the most important news institutions in the world, crafted his crucial career steps with a combination of digital media nous, brand development and, most importantly, hard work.

Lee and many other determined student journalists around the world are learning cutting-edge online reporting tools from the comfort of their own home – and often courtesy of free advice by experts thousands of miles away. This should be seized upon. At university, I spent roughly the same amount of time heeding the words of Mindy McAdams, a leading teacher of online journalism at the University of Florida, as I did tutors at my own institution.

Her Teaching Online Journalism site is an indispensable resource for extra-curricular students. “Journalism is not rocket science,” McAdams wrote inprovocative post in 2008. “You don’t need a master’s degree to know how to do it, and you won’t do it well until you haul yourself out of school and into a working newsroom. Journalism is learned on the job, and, if you’re not prepared to go out and do it after four years in undergrad, maybe you should just give up on it and go to law school instead.” Quite.

As a friend once said to me: “The difference between those who make it into the industry and those who don’t is that the successful ones were student journalists, as opposed to being merely journalism students.”

Those at the front of the queue in this brave new world of journalism will have all the best traits of the ‘old school’ journalist – the dogged determination, rat-like cunning and the ability to build stories from conversations – as well as a willingness to experiment with fresh storytelling enabled by the internet. Nepotism is giving way to social networking, and never has there been greater opportunity for your journalism to precede you. It won’t always be straightforward, but doors will always be open for those who remain undaunted by the pace and scale of change.

Josh Halliday was hired as the Guardian‘s trainee media and technology reporter in June 2010 – a fortnight before his graduation from an undergraduate journalism degree at the University of Sunderland. Social networking, not nepotism, is one of the prime reasons for this uncanny break of luck, he says. The rest is down to sheer hard work – most of it extra-curricular.

This is an extract from an essay from Face the Future: Tools for the Modern Media Age, edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble, and published by Abramis.

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