The first rule about journalism is that there are no rules.
For better or for worse, gone are the days of traditional newsrooms. There’s no beaten path for a modern writing career. But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Access is everywhere and opportunity is there for the taking. You just have to want it. Really want it.
When I started getting interested in journalism, I had no idea what I was doing and I was a million miles away from a degree. Instead of going to college right after high school, I jumped into the working world and ended up becoming an executive assistant at a popular video game developer. But, as the years passed, I discovered something about myself. I didn't want to be an administrative worker forever. I wanted to write!
So, I signed up for classes at my local community college. Again, I should stress that I had no idea what it meant to be a journalist. I thought truth should always trump bias, that the written word was a powerful art form, and that Hunter S. Thompson was really cool. That's about all the context I had.
In class, I took any and all advice very seriously. When they told me to memorize my AP Stylebook, I consumed it. To learn the industry's culture and lingo, I familiarized myself with journalist websites and blogs de jour (Mashable, 10,000 Words, Media Bistro). And, perhaps most importantly, I read news all the time. All. The. Time. I compared and contrasted news sites, just for fun. Nerd alert!
It was a slow burn, as I had to support myself while going to school, but I eventually became a section editor of the Santa Monica College Corsair. It was there that I met a compatriot in the fight for journalism. We both had a passion for truth and collaborated on a project to help fight against news bias.
We launched a little website, LAActivist.com, and devoted ourselves to covering the facts of social organizing and protesting around the Los Angeles area. We even made our own press badges and business cards. While running from place to place to cover news, we built up credibility and gained followers. We sharpened our writing ability with investigation pieces, profile pieces and hard news. We challenged ourselves by learning photography, audio editing and attempting video projects (key word: attempting).
When I finally applied to intern at the Huffington Post, I was ready. I had clips I was proud of and I had confidence. If I didn't get the job, I knew I'd still be happy doing something I loved.
I ended up getting the internship. They liked me so much that I became an associate editor -- that's right, I got paid for writing words! Many months later, I used the skills I learned there to apply for a job at KUSC (one of the best gosh darn classical music stations in the nation). And that’s where I am today, living happily ever after.
If I could do it, you can do it. Trust me, I’m no genius. I learned everything the hard way. Here are some suggestions so you don’t have to:
There are going to be dark times, my friend. You think your college diet was bad, just wait until the journalist diet hits. It is comprised mainly of coffee, cigarettes and whatever free meal is offered at the thing you're covering.
But there will be good times, like when your favorite media outlet retweets you or when you finally get your first paying gig.
So, go -- create your own rules. The future of journalism may seem undefined, but that's just because you haven't written it yet.
Carly Gillis is a journalist and avid media literacy advocate. In 2010, she co-founded LAActivist.com, an online news media outlet dedicated to reporting on activism in Los Angeles. She has published work on The Huffington Post and helped launch Counterspill.org, a resource for non-renewable energy disasters. Carly currently works for Classical KUSC, a classical music station in Los Angeles, as a writer and interactive content manager.