How to Become a Journalist
Some Practical Advice for Beginners
W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, vol. III, February, 1891, p. 149
Hardly a week passes in which I do not receive letters from persons who feel within them the aspiration to become a journalist, and asking what they must do to get their feet upon the first rung of the journalistic ladder. I therefore condense here some observations which I wrote for the Young Man under the above title.
THE BREAD AND BUTTER JOURNALIST
If you want to be merely what may be termed a bread-and-butter journalist—that is to say, a journalist who takes to journalism as a man takes to shop-keeping or a woman to dressmaking—the procedure to be followed is very simple. Learn to write a legible hand, master the elementary principles of grammatical composition, make yourself efficient in shorthand, and then apply for a post as apprentice reporter on the paper published in your own neighbourhood.
When once you get your footing in that capacity—when you are, say, eighteen or nineteen years old—everything depends upon yourself how far you rise. If you are faithful in small things, you will be promoted to more important duties. You will get on and make a livelihood, and that being the aim and end of your ambition, you will do well therewith to be content.
I don't think any one should dream of becoming a journalist—except of the bread-and-butter order—any more than he should dream of becoming a minister of religion, unless he has a vocation.
WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE?
The first thing, then, that such a man must ask himself before he decides to become a journalist is this, If I am to teach, What am I to teach? What is my message? What have I to say that is worth saying? Why should I, out of all the millions of my countrymen and countrywomen, be selected to fill the post of public preacher to the daily congregation? He may not have any very clearly articulate message. He must be in earnest about something; and the greater the range of things he can be earnest about, the better is he is likely to succeed in journalism, the more enjoyment he will get out of his work, and the more he will be likely to interest and benefit his readers.
THE FIRST QUALIFICATION OF A JOURNALIST
Hence the first qualification of a journalist, if he would be a real journalist, is the possession of a heart. Hence I would say to any one who wanted to become a successful journalist: Be sympathetic. Avoid cynicism and indifference as the very devil. Regard indifference to any subject whatever as a proof of ignorance, and therefore of incompetence. Touch life at as many points as you can, and always touch it so as to receive and retain its best impresssions. If you do not feel strongly, you will not, as a rule, be able to write powerfully; and if your sympathies are deadened, and the eyes of the understanding are dulled, you will become a bore and an abomination, whose copy will descend into the wastepaper basket. For the first duty of a journalist is to be alive, and he who does not feel does not live.
THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE
But suppose you feel intensely enough, and are a part of the sympathetic nerve of civilisation, then get to know your facts, and learn to master your tools. The first of these tools is the capacity for saying clearly, with such emphasis and precision as the case may permit, exactly what you have to say, and then to be done with it.
Learn also to write legibly. Learn at any rate to read French and, if possible, German. If you can also master shorthand and are an adept at the type-writer, so much the better for your chances of success[.] These things are among the tools of the journalist, and the man who can handle them well will find himself the better for it at every turn in the race.
HOW TO GET A FOOTING.
But when you have mastered your tools, what then? How have I to get a footing in the Press? How do I know whether or not I can write? My young friend, it is no use asking me that question, or any other man. The question whether or not you have a chance of success depends, not upon any particular essay which you may throw out, but whether you have an eye to see, a heart to feel, a will that carries you over obstacles, and a patience that knows how to wait. These are qualities which are not discernible by the eye of the most sympathetic friend, or of the most lynx-eyed critic, to whom you may submit your early contributions. The only test which is worth anything is the test which you can apply yourself any day you please. All around you there are multitudes of editors, all of them, to such measure of perspicacity as they are gifted with, eager to find some one capable of writing on subjects that interest their readers, and especially anxious to discover such a phenomenon free gratis and for nothing. Every new beginner always writes for nothing. I wrote for years before I received a pennypiece. It is the apprenticeship of journalism. "But how can I get an editor to take my copy even for nothing?" How? Well, by the simple expedient of sending it on to him, and letting him taste it for himself, and see how he likes it. Don't go and ask him what to write about. It is the last thing he will tell you. for the simple reason that he does not know what is inside of your head, and therefore cannot declare what shall come out. Choose your own subject; the very choice will help to show whether you have got a journalistic eye in your head, and then don't write about it if you have got nothing to say. Wait another day, choose another subject on which you have got something to say, and then say it in as few words as is possible to give full and clear expression to your meaning.
REMEMBER TIME IS EVERYTHING
Then send it on to the editor without losing time. Remember in journalism time is everything. If Shakespeare and St. Paul combined their gifts to produce the masterpiece of human genius in the shape of an essay about an event three weeks old, it would be basketed by almost every daily paper now printed in favour of some merely ephemeral production that was "on the nail." Getting an article accepted by the paper is like catching a train. If you are not there in time, you might as well not have been there at all.
But what subjects? As a rule, the subject that lies uppermost. When you go home, to tell the home folk what you have read in the papers, you will usually mention first those subjects on which the editor will be hungriest for copy. But no editor wants copy spun out of your interior as a spider spins its web out of its abdomen. What he wants is fresh facts bearing upon the topic of the hour; fresh light it may be from the oldest of books or the latest of newspapers that will enable him to illustrate the subject under discussion. In any case you must try to give the editor something he doesn't know, but which he wants to know just at the moment when he wants most to serve it up. Don't meander away with a page of generalities, sail briskly into the heart of your subject at once. Contribute your quota, whatever it may be, of fact, or reflection, or quotation, or parallel, or saying, and be done with it. Persevere. The waste-paper basket is one great test of capacity.
You must cross that to get into print. Then when once you are in print, you can go on until you can find some one to pay you for your copy. That is the only school of journalism that I know of. It is that in which I graduated, and where most of those whom I know have learned their trade.