Thomas Jefferson once said, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Indeed, journalism informs the pubic of important news and information. Journalists work for newspapers or magazines, write behind-the-scenes for broadcast networks, confine their work to the internet or go on location to gather information on events. Some work from a quiet office; others put themselves in harm’s way. Before they enter the field, however, most journalists pursue formal education.

What Does a Journalist Do?

Journalism Career Basics

At the most basic level, journalists investigate, collect, and present information. Journalists do this in newspapers and magazines, but it can also be done in radio and television broadcasts, and online, through websites, blogs, podcasts, and other digital platforms.

Journalism Careers In-Depth

Working as a journalist can take on many different aspects, from the day-to-day job of beat reporters to the intensive pursuit of investigative and so-called long-form journalists. But, in essence, all journalism is investigative in nature. It involves learning about an issue or a subject, whether that’s by reading official documents and questioning those in authority, or conducting interviews and sleuthing around like a detective. Individual journalists often work with editors and/or producers to verify facts, fill in missing details, and hone the narrative elements of a story. More and more commonly, as convergence blurs the lines between print and broadcast mediums, journalists are expected to be ready to do all of these things in an online environment, where written stories exist side-by-side with audio and video content. And, because journalism is a profession that depends on the interest the public, journalists also have to know how to package their stories, using headlines, photos, and other journalistic tools to get and hold people’s attention.

Journalism Salaries

Salaries for journalists vary widely from region-to-region, state-to-state, and individual job-to-job. Freelance writers, for example, can make as much as two dollars a word doing stories for national magazines, or as little $50 per story for an online site. As a result, the BLS doesn’t have reliable data for individual jobs in journalism, but the three charts below illustrate what salaries look like across the profession.

Median Annual Wages for Journalists as of May 2012

$55,380 Broadcast news analysts
$53,880 Editors
$37,090 Reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts
$35,870 Reporters and correspondents
$34,750 Total, all occupations

Source: BLS Occupational Employment Handbook

Highest Paying Employment Sectors for Journalists as of May 2012

$76,210 Business, Professional, Labor, Political, and Similar Organizations
$74,680 Social Advocacy Organizations
$66,640 Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers
$63,780 Cable and Other Subscription Programming
$63,270 Other Information Services

Source: BLS Occupational Employment Handbook

Steps to Becoming a Journalist

People who have successful careers in journalism tend to have a few things in common:

  • They are critical thinkers who can access, synthesize, and retain factual information logically and systematically

  • They are motivated and persistent in their efforts to get at the best available or obtainable version of the truth, and then to verify those facts

  • They are good communicators who have an intuitive understanding of storytelling and the non-fiction narrative devices that create drama, tension, and suspense

With that in mind, below are steps one can take to enter the field of journalism:

1
Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism

There are no absolute educational requirements to become a journalist. However, if you’re looking to work professionally in print, broadcast, or Internet journalism, it’s important to demonstrate to potential employers that you have the right knowledge base and the practical skills to get the job done.

A two-year associate degree program is one way to begin this process. But, because journalism is such a broad field that encompasses political reporters, sports reporters, entertainment reporters, science and technology reporters, and health and fitness reports, as well as photographers, videographers, and a range of other specialists who may contribute various specialized skills to a media project, it’s more common for journalists to pursue a four-year bachelor’s degree. Some colleges and universities offer students the opportunity to major in journalism, while others may offer a journalism minor as part of a larger communications department.

2
Go to Journalism School

Journalism school — or J School — generally refers to graduate or master’s degree programs in journalism, offered by schools such as the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the Missouri School of Journalism.

A graduate degree in journalism can be helpful to those already working in the field and are aiming to further their career objectives. It’s also a good way for people who want to transition from a career in business, law, psychology, sociology, or almost any other discipline in the arts and humanities, to a career in journalism. In addition, a graduate degree in journalism is generally a prerequisite for those wishing to teach journalism at the college level.

3
Complete an Internships

Historically, journalism was often learned through internships, apprenticing, and trial-and-error on-the-job experience. Now a days, learning the principles of journalism is something that happens in a classroom and learning the practices of journalism is dependent on real world experience. Colleges, universities, and even some high schools encourage this though school newspapers, radio stations, and in some case television production labs. Online blogging and podcasting have also become more common at the undergraduate level.

Another important part of journalists’ training often come in the form of paid and unpaid internships at media outlets, including newspapers, magazines, websites, and broadcast stations. Because journalism is a profession that has historically been learned through apprenticeships, and because there is a need for young, ambitious journalists-in-training to work alongside the professionals in newsrooms, most media organizations have some kind of formal program for interns. And, in many cases these programs are affiliated with one or more college or university. Summer internships are also usually open to independent applicants who may or may not be enrolled in an academic journalism program.

4
Choose an Area of Specialization or Concentration

In the past, the practice of professional journalism broke down into two main areas: print media and broadcast, with radio and television as the two main categories in the latter area. Digital or multi-media journalism has emerged as a third area that has blurred the distinction between print and broadcast. In fact, the latest trend in journalism studies is toward convergent media, an idea that centers on the fact that journalists and media companies are increasingly online entities that encompass print and broadcast functions.

In general, there are journalists who are generalists and those who have a specialized area of coverage. Here are some common areas of specialization that are addressed in journalism programs:

  • Broadcast Journalism
  • Business and Financial Reporting
  • Environmental Journalism
  • Feature and Magazine Writing
  • Global and International Journalism
  • News Reporting
  • Online or Multi-Media Journalism
  • Photojournalism
  • Political Journalism
  • Science and Health Reporting
  • Sports Reporting
5
Land an Entry Level Job

There isn’t any one clear, circumscribed path to getting your first job as a journalist, but there are several things a person can do to get his or her foot in the proverbial door. Aspiring journalists should aim to have a portfolio of work in the form of published stories and/or photographs, or clips from radio or television broadcasts. These are materials that can be accrued through internships and/or journalism school projects, but it also possible to generate useful clips through independent activities like blogging, videocasting, and podcasting. Aspiring journalists should also be prepared to approach editors and producers at publishing and media organizations with professional queries that contain portfolio materials, a clearly written cover letter, and several potential story ideas.

6
Continuing Education and Advanced Degrees

It’s often easy to forget that journalism is a technology-driven enterprise. Just as the advent of radio and then television changed the ways in which journalism could be practiced, the Internet and the proliferation of wireless mobile capabilities has created new opportunities and a fair amount of anxiety and disruptions about how journalism is done, and how it is ultimately paid for. Most media analysts agree that technology will continue to change the nature of journalism into the foreseeable future. These issues are addressed on a daily basis at journalism schools that have master’s and PhD programs, both practically and on a theoretical level. There are also workshops and fellowships offered by research groups like the Poynter Institute and by media organizations like the New York Times, for those who are already working as journalists professionally.

Journalism Degrees & Concentrations

Matching Journalism Career Goals to Journalism Degrees

These degree programs offer something for everyone, including both seasoned and prospective journalists

Career Goals & Educational Needs Associate Bachelor’s Master’s Online PhD
I am well on my way to establishing a career in journalism, but I need a bit more “oomph” for my resume. I’m also so busy that attending courses seems an impossible dream.
Working as a journalist is all I have ever wanted to do! I know that it takes both talent and education, and need a degree that will give me an edge in the job market.
I think I want to go into journalism, but I’m not sure. While I’m a strong writer with a knack for human interest stories, I’ll need to “get my feet wet” to decide if journalism is right for me.
Though I am doing well as an established journalist, I’d like to advance to a higher editorship or producer role. I need a program I can handle while working full-time.
I have reached the highest levels available in my career. Now I want to contribute to the world of journalism by teaching or conducting research.

Journalism Degree Levels

Though journalists often begin with a dream and remarkable talent, most need a degree to enter the field. Whether students earn associate degrees to learn the basics or pursue PhDs teach or conduct research, journalism degrees can provide the tools and education necessary to move up in the profession.

Associate Journalism Degree

Associate-level journalism degrees prepare students for entry-level positions or to advance to higher degrees. Associate degrees take approximately two years to complete and establish a firm foundation for career or educational advancement, though most journalists earn at least a bachelor’s degree before entering the field. Students who choose to start with the associate degree can expect the following courses:

News Writing

A basic introduction to gathering and presenting information, working with sources and creating compelling copy.

Skills Gained
  • How to properly research a news story
  • Writing structure of news articles and features
  • Crafting and pursuing a strong interview
Broadcast Journalism

This course covers the basics of broadcasting, including timing, live camera work, interviews, and FCC rules and regulations.

Skills Gained
  • An understanding of FCC rules
  • Creating news stories that move seamlessly from written word to live broadcast
  • Live interview strategies
Social Media in Journalism

Focuses on how social media transforms journalism through at-the-moment reporting, rumor, and immediate reaction; also emphasizes studies in sociological behavior.

Skills Gained
  • Strong understanding of social media
  • Grasp of human psychology in the immediacy of breaking news
  • Ability to predict how social media users will respond to information across various platforms
Intro to Mass Communication

Focuses on the historical, theoretical and practical application of a variety of media, including print, audio, visual, electronic, and more.

Skills Gained
  • Understanding of mass media background
  • The ability to see relationships between various forms of media and use them for future advantage
  • The rise of electronic media and its effect on traditional avenues of reporting

Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism

The bachelor’s degree in journalism is ideal for those who want to start in entry-level positions and advance through hard work, talent and dedication. Bachelor’s degrees often take four years to complete and prepare students for numerous journalism career paths and media specialties. The following courses are common among journalism bachelor’s degree program, regardless of concentration:

Broadcast Reporting

An introduction to reporting news through audio and visual media, as well as gathering and presenting news in the field.

Skills Gained
  • An in-depth look at how newscasts work
  • Live news presentation
  • Writing for a live audience
Investigative Reporting

Focuses on analytical skills and techniques required to evaluate newsworthy events and report key information accurately.

Skills Gained
  • In-depth research skills
  • The ability to triage news events and present only the most pertinent points
  • Tips on following ‘leads’ and identifying the most promising ones.
Mass Communication Law

A rundown of the pertinent laws that affect journalists, including freedom of the press, government controls, source protections and legal obligations.

Skills Gained
  • A firm grasp of legal points that affect all types of media journalism
  • An understanding of laws regarding sources and reporting
  • Appropriate actions in response to gag orders, suppression requests and the like
Advanced Reporting

This class might focus on certain concentrations – feature writing or broadcasting, for instance – and prepare students to craft a well-written, informative or persuasive piece.

Skills Gained
  • How to adhere to time limitations or word counts
  • Understanding the difference between informative and persuasive writing
  • Practice with various techniques of writing, including narrative, profile, or in-depth features

Master’s Degree in Journalism

Master’s degrees in journalism can prepare experienced professionals to move into more lucrative and senior positions or enhance marketable skills. While baccalaureate journalism degrees focus on general mass communication, master’s degrees build specialized expertise while learning the latest technology and techniques. Many schools require an in-depth master’s project demonstrating what students can do.

Master’s degrees typically require one and two years of study, depending upon curricular requirements and student course load. For convenience, many master’s programs can be taken entirely online. The following are a few typical courses.

Graduate Seminar

These intensive seminars are tailored to specific concentrations and expose students to notable experts, readings and case studies on significant news events.

Skills Gained
  • Stronger research abilities
  • An understanding of the social impact of news
  • Gauging public reactions to news media and how those reactions affect stories and broadcasts
Evidence and Inference

Instruction in advanced research techniques, maintaining objectivity, fact-gathering, and the journalistic method of testing assumptions.

Skills Gained
  • Intense research abilities
  • Identifying and presenting important facts without bias or agenda
Specialized Topical Reporting

Students study the nuances of reporting on a particular subject, how to use inoffensive language, fact-sharing and collaboration with other journalists, and dealing with sources who might be in precarious situations.

Skills Gained
  • Learning to work closely with other journalists for the good of the story
  • Understanding of the legal responsibilities of journalists to sources
  • Choosing language appropriate for the subject matter
Outside Courses

Graduate students are encouraged to take courses that can enhance their careers, including finance, business, entrepreneurship, management and the like.

Skills Gained
  • A grasp of the behind-the-scenes information for certain subjects
  • How to run media businesses
  • Improving interactions with colleagues

Doctorate Journalism Degree

PhDs are ideal for journalism students who want to reach the highest echelons of the field. Doctoral graduates typically go into research or teaching, but they can also help active journalists gain significant expertise, advance their careers and enhance their resumes. The PhD program can take anywhere from three to eight years to complete, depending upon students’ choices; researching and writing the dissertation takes up the bulk of that time. The following courses are among those one might take in a journalism PhD program.

Research Methods

These courses focus on qualitative and quantitative research, and the impact of news media and journalism on the public at large.

Skills Gained
  • Strong team leadership
  • An understanding of the power of media to influence social change
  • Ability to understand large amounts of raw data
Teaching Program

Helps students learn how to convey pertinent information about the field of journalism to postsecondary students.

Skills Gained
  • How to create an appropriate curriculum
  • The in-depth requirements for teaching students about the world of journalism
  • Moral and ethical consideration when teaching students how to convey news to others
Dissertation Seminar

These courses are dedicated to various parts of student dissertations, including reading, research, writing and presentation.

Skills Gained
  • How to organize a great deal of information into a single coherent and pertinent paper
  • Conducting independent research

Components of a Successful Journalism Career: Skills, Tools, and Technology

Skills

Communications skills, both written and verbal, are a key component of a successful career in journalism. Journalists interview people on the phone, in person, and through email and other digital platforms. They report back to editors, and ultimately have to tell a story to an audience, either in print, broadcast, or online. So the ability to express oneself clearly and logically, and to maintain strong interpersonal relationships is crucial.

In addition, journalists must cultivate critical thinking and data analysis skills. Healthy skepticism and the ability to synthesize and sort through information quickly and with accuracy are important to the job. So, journalists have to be strong readers of texts and of people, and must be able to place information in a context that is easy for others to understand.

Tools and Technology

The tools of journalism vary from job to job, and story to story. Increasingly, it’s important to be adept at handling digital recording devices and digital cameras that are interfaced with laptop computers, handheld mobile devices, and satellite uplink equipment. Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms are also becoming more central to the job of reporting, and journalists who are adept at working in the digital realm with websites, blogs, and audio and video streaming have a distinct competitive edge in the job market.

The research involved in reporting also has a strong digital technology component. Knowing how to use databases and spreadsheets, and a familiarity with advanced online search-engine capabilities are a big help in this area. And, an understanding of search engine optimization, or SEO coding is another distinct advantage in the field.

Finally, journalists are often asked to edit their own audio and video content, which requires a working knowledge of editing suites like Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Pro Tools. Similarly, it’s helpful to know the basics of print and online layout and design, and the software that’s used in this process, including Photoshop and Adobe’s Acrobat Pro and InDesign.

Career Trends in Journalism

Journalism is migrating to the web, and the hot jobs tend to be either in digital content or the integration of print and broadcast with digital content. The chart below illustrates where journalists worked, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data:

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Newspaper Publishing 44%
Television Broadcasting 20%
Data Processing, Hosting, and Related Information Services 8%
Radio Broadcasting 5%
Related Careers
Editor Median salary: $54,890

Editors may oversee sections of particular publications and/or websites (i.e., a sports editor, a political editor, an arts and entertainment editor), or they may be in charge of an entire site or publication. Their job is to plan and coordinate the work of writers, photographers, videographers, and other content providers, to assign and oversee projects, and maintain the editorial quality of the media company.

Art Director Median salary: $80,880

Art directors work at magazines and newspapers, advertising agencies, public relations firms, and in film and video production, overseeing the visual style of content, whether its in print, online, or film and video. They’re often part of a team that includes editors, photographers, artists, and other content providers.

Broadcast News Analyst Median salary: $55,380

Broadcast news analysts are the anchormen of yesterday, and the webcast hosts of tomorrow. They are on-air personalities and behind-the-scenes writers, producers, and reporters, whose job it is to sort through and interpret news events and craft them into stories for broadcast purposes.

Job Growth, Prospects, and Outlook

After a long period of growth throughout the 20th century, journalism has undeniably been in the midst of a major disruption that’s led to fewer jobs and an uncertain outlook since the emergence of the Internet and the rapid proliferation of digital platforms for news and entertainment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 13 percent net decline in jobs for reporters and correspondents through 2022, largely due to decreased advertising revenues in print, radio, and television. At the same time, however, there has been intense growth in online journalism and media companies are investing heavily in new media possibilities.

What Do Related Occupations Make?

The skills and training that come with being a journalist are fairly easily transferable to other professions. For example, journalists can often easily transition to jobs in public relations and marketing that involve creating and editing content, and it’s not uncommon for journalists to move into writing books and/or screenplays, or writing/producing/directing documentaries. Here is a look at the salary levels in some of those related occupations:

Related Occupations: What You Need to Know

The careers below illustrate the salary, job outlook, employment numbers, and education level for journalists and other related occupations.

Source: BLS Occupational Employment Statistics

Journalism Degree & Career Resources

American Press Institute

In-depth information for student journalists, covering everything from social media impact to new laws that govern the press.

Global Investigative Journalism Network

Up-to-date news articles, studies and research resources for investigative journalists.

International Reporting Project

Johns Hopkins University highlights critical international issues that are currently under-reported in mainstream media.

Journalist’s Resource

A clearinghouse of key daily news topics, scholarly studies and reports curated by Harvard and the Carnegie-Knight Initiative.

Journalist’s Toolbox

An exhaustive list of journalistic resources compiled by the Society of Professional Journalists.