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How to become a Journalist in Scotland

Traditionally, every writer on a newspaper, magazine or TV show would have to work their way up from the very bottom. Starting off as a copy taker or runner, they would spend a few years learning and watching before gradually moving up the career ladder.

Today however the most common route into journalism is through study. Gaining a recognised qualification in journalism not only proves that you are serious, it also equips you with the essential skills you will need throughout your career. Whether you opt for an HND, degree or post graduate course, you are certain to cover areas such as proofreading, editing, report writing and even shorthand. Scotland has a wide range of courses on offer at a number of universities including the University of Strathclyde, Edinburgh Napier University, the University of Edinburgh, Glasgow Caledonian and Stirling University. Most courses will also encourage, if not include, on-the-job experience – giving rookie writers the chance to see what life is really like in a busy newsroom.

It’s through work experience that many journalists gain their big break. By building up relationships with influential people like editors or programme directors, you can begin networking in what is a very close-knit industry. If you work hard and show your enthusiasm there is a good chance you may be asked back to work on a part-time or even full-time basis. Even when your studies are finished, it’s a good idea to get as much first-hand experience as possible. A few weeks spent working in a busy editing room, news or sports desk can be a golden opportunity to learn from true professionals.

Some media companies and organisations such as the BBC and ITV do offer apprenticeships or internships but competition is rife. Every year thousands of hopefuls apply in the hope they will be lucky enough to gain essential training from some of the biggest names in the industry. Many newspapers and magazines also offer internships and various forms of apprenticeship but this tends to be on a more informal basis. Rates of pay can also vary dramatically. You could find yourself gaining valuable work experience but living off a lower wage than you expected.   

Once in the door, there are a host of daily journalistic tasks to master. As well as researching stories, conducting interviews and actually writing, you will also have to be prepared to build up a large list of contacts. Whether you are dealing with the local fire station or a large international corporation, you have to be able to network and get the information you want when you need it most. Specialist skills such as shorthand can ensure that you are a crucial part of the team too. For instance, court reporters need to be able to record proceedings both quickly and accurately without using technology like dictaphones as these are banned in court. Similarly, having a business degree or experience of working in the city can equip you with the necessary knowledge to become a well-respected business reporter.

But no matter what area of journalism you decide to focus upon, you will need to be able to bring in your own exclusive stories. It’s not good enough just to write articles about well-known events or rely on what is already pencilled into the desk diary. Using your knowledge, skills and contacts you have to prove you have what it takes to produce a newsworthy and interesting article from scratch. Being a journalist also means long working hours. It is not unusual to work well into the night to ensure breaking stories make the news as soon as possible. Sub-editors and senior members of the editorial team will often stay as long as it takes to make sure everything is perfect for the first print run. If you want to work full-time for a newspaper, magazine or broadcaster you will have to get used to working unsociable hours.

Of course there are a number of ways to write for a living and over the last few years the number of freelance journalists working in Scotland has dramatically increased. Many freelancers are professionals with considerable experience working in the media industry and who already have lots of valuable contacts. But even if you’ve never worked for a newspaper or magazine it’s always possible to build up a career as a freelance writer. Being able to pitch your news story or article idea to an editor is an essential skill for any freelance journalist and can take a bit of practice. You’ll need to get used to the idea of phoning up publications and essentially selling your story cold. Rates of pay can also vary wildly depending on the topic and publication. If you are commissioned to write, it’s worth remembering that some newspapers and magazines won’t pay until your article appears in print – which can often take a lot longer than you would like.

Whether you want to work as a full-time writer or try your luck as a freelance journalist, you’ll have to be prepared to put in a lot of effort. Most people start their journalism careers at a local and regional level, where wages tend to be lower than on national titles. Similarly, if you’re working for a small radio or TV station, don’t expect to be paid handsomely. Some media organisations will even expect you to work for free to show just how committed you really are.

If you think you've got what it takes to become a professional writer there’s no reason why you can’t become a household name like Jackie Bird, Ian Bell or Lorraine Kelly. With a little bit of luck you could enjoy a long and fruitful career as a busy Scottish journalist.

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