Who is a journalist?
A journalist is but a story-teller. He tells the world the story of itself, refining it to its finest. He has a love for the language, a thirst for knowledge, and a passion to go out there and make an impact. They say that if your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon.
If you dream of pursuing this profession of passion, you are probably plagued with the question of how to proceed – Should you go for a degree in journalism or can you become a journalist without journalism degree? Will you miss out on something if you take up a different discipline instead? Is it still possible to become a journalist if you’re from a totally irrelevant field?
To answer these questions, let us first look into what it takes to be a journalist.
What Are the Skills You Need to be a Journalist?
Fundamentally, a journalist needs the following set of skills to begin with –
- Communication Skills: A journalist is expected to know his way around people. The job involves interacting with common folk and celebrities alike. You need to win the confidence of the people you’re interviewing. You will have to be polite and persistent at the same time. Good stories are made by communicating from and to the people in the right way.
- Writing Skills: A journalist’s writing must be impeccable. It has to pay attention to detail, has to be concise, accurate, and coherent. There must be a clarity of thought in your words. Your aim is to make your writing appealing to your audience.
- Research Skills: Researching has a knack to it. You must know what to look for and where. Your sources have to be reliable. Once you do get the data, you need to know how to make best use of it. To get the hang of good researching, you need to understand the working of the media sector.
- Staying Updated: This includes not only keeping up with the current affairs, but also with the varying presentation styles of different news outlets. A journalist must maintain a regular reading habit. From science and technology to politics, you need to brush up your knowledge about the world. Like they say, you’re expected to know a little about everything.
- Other Skills: Being a journalist means you’re expected to work under pressure. You must learn to adapt to the situation and get along with the changing trends. You need also learn to be diplomatic, skeptical, and constantly curious.
That being said, we know that the field of journalism has transformed over the years. We’ve witnessed the shift from print media to digital media. Almost every newspaper has its own online space today.
Major news organizations in India like Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, NDTV, First Post, News18, and The Quint have a reach of over millions in their social media handles.
In fact, there has been a further shift from digital media to mobile media. Back in 2016, Hindustan Times hired a team of over 700 journalists specializing in mobile journalism. That means in this digital era, opportunities only keep growing.
Naturally, this emerging section of digital journalism asks for a new set of skills –
- Digital Skills: It is best to have a hang of the popular social media handles. Keeping in touch with latest technology and getting familiar with newer methods of data mining is a must to keep up in the field. If you plan to write in the digital space, an understanding of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and data analytics will come in handy as well.
What of the future of journalism? We cannot ignore the one technology that has been taking the world by storm – Artificial Intelligence. Not surprisingly, it has made its way into the media sector too.
From a survey conducted by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, almost three quarters of the leading editors are already using AI in their newsrooms.
AI makes fact-checking and research easier. Many of the grunt work in the newsroom can be handled faster with this technology.
As of now, it is here to assist your work in the profession. However, whether or not intelligent bots will pose a threat to job opportunities in the future in the field is still debatable.
So, Can you become a Journalist without Journalism degree?
Now that you know what skills are needed to become a journalist, the question is about how you can go about to develop them. As long as you can learn the things you need to know on your own, your degree should make little difference, right?
But the veterans in the field seem to have mixed opinions.
According to the 2013 Poynter NewsU Survey, 96 percent of journalism educators believe that a journalism degree is important to understand the values in the field. However, only 57 percent of the professionals share the same view.
Again, while 80 percent of the educators stressed that the degree is needed to learn news gathering skills, only 25 percent of the professionals agreed to that.
We see that not all professionals think a journalism degree is important. This is because not all journalists of today went to J-schools and yet they’re doing just fine.
For instance, look at the Press Secretary of the President of India, Ashok Malik. He has formerly worked with Times of India, India Today, The Telegraph, and The Indian Express, but has no degree in journalism.
The founder of Outlook, Vinod Mehta, who was also its editor-in-chief, serves as another example. So does Om Malik, a web and technology writer who has formerly written for Forbes and Red Herring.
But let’s be real, it’s a tough world out there and the field of journalism is highly competitive. To gain expertise in journalism without a degree will definitely take extra effort and time. But there is ample proof to show that it isn’t impossible.
How Do You Develop Journalism Skills?
To start off your journey to become a journalist, here’s what you need to do.
- Sharpen your writing and reading skills: Follow the age old rule – practice. Experiment with different writing styles. Read lots of articles and keep an eye for the details. If you’re still in school/college, join the media committee in your institute. It could be the newspaper or magazine committee, or even a writing club. Start a blog and build your portfolio. Have someone go through it critically. Make mistakes, learn from them, and grow.
- Improve Your Communication Skills: Take a keen interest in people. Take part in group discussions and other opportunities to speak up. Make yourself comfortable around people. Take small interviews of them, maybe for your institute’s press, or just for the sake of it. Learn to express yourself clearly and fall in love with social interactions.
- Build a Network: Try and get to know editors and writers. It always helps to have contacts in the field. Even otherwise, write to the editors of newspapers and magazines. If you get to meet them, interact and understand how their profession works. They will only be happy to share their experiences.
- Gain Experience: This is by far the most important step in your path to becoming a journalist. Try to get your work published, if not in print then in online spaces. Apply for internships and don’t stop until you land one. Everything else that you need to know will be covered in your work experience.
- Stay With the Trends: This goes without saying if you’re an ardent reader. Catch up with the current affairs. If you’re specializing in a particular subject, stay up-to-date with its latest news.
It is important that you are consistent with your work. Like we said, there is a sea of competitors out there and you need to prove yourself amidst them. To do that, you need to find your niche and show how you stand out.
But don’t get too worked up about that. Focus on improving your skills and things should fall into place with time.
Is Taking a Degree a Waste of Time?
So you know what to do to develop the skills of a journalist. Suppose you do opt to take a journalism degree, it does not mean that you needn’t emphasize on skill development in this case. It’s just that developing them becomes a lot more easier.
If you decide to opt for it, there are several benefits to speak of.
- Studying in a J-school gives you a solid foundation in the field. It teaches you all the fundamentals that you will have had to learn on your own otherwise. You will not miss out on the essentials of being a journalist that only a journalism degree can teach you.
- You get access to specialized classes by professionals. There are mentorships, workshops, and guest-lectures that happen frequently. Being in a college of journalism naturally keeps you updated with the latest trends in the field through these sessions. These sessions will probably not be available elsewhere.
- Hands-on-experience is guaranteed in a J-school. There will definitely be opportunities within the institute to grow as a journalist through experience. You could use your free time from college effectively in building your skills and discovering your interests.
- Taking a degree in journalism also means that you get the right exposure to the field. Getting contacts of professionals will be easier now. You will receive proper guidance. You also will have more opportunities open to you.
- A student of journalism has an upper hand when it comes to applying for internships. You are by default expected to have knowledge of the basic skills needed for the job. Again, gaining experience will be easier.
How Does it affect employability?
“I think journalists need qualifications, which are not necessarily taught in journalism school.” – senior journalist, Arati Jerath.
There are some virtues that no school can teach. A journalist ought to be sensible. He must know how to deal with a given situation. When it comes to employability, an employee will be fired if he does not perform, irrespective of his degree. That is what Arati Jerath stresses on; the qualifications of the employee, be it gathered with or without a degree.
“In my career, I have hired many new people as journalists who are far more knowledgeable and equipped than journalists who have spent years in journalism or have earned degrees in journalism.” claims Chandragopal Puppala, author at First Post.
He says that a basic qualification is a must, but not necessarily in journalism. It could be anything that would equip a person to make them capable of understanding situations or aspects.
Independent journalist and educator, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, agrees. “There is no dearth of examples of journalists who have succeeded without degrees much as journalists with degrees such as Dr Chandan Mitra. The ability to communicate, write or express articulately is nothing to do with a qualification in journalism.” he says.
From the very words of the professionals in the field of journalism, we can understand that the educational degree in journalism is not what employers are looking for, but rather the skills and experience one has gained with time.
But this most definitely does not rule out the benefit of having a degree for employment.
“I believe that a degree will only help the person. Also, it depends on an organization, what are they looking for – someone with good skills but no degree or someone with a degree and good skills.” – Deepa Gahlot, film critic.
Like Deepa Gahlot pointed out, some organizations may ask for a journalism degree as a minimum criterion. The ones with the degree have an upper hand in the case. Also, there is no scenario whatsoever wherein a degree in journalism turns out to be useless.
In a nutshell, a career as a journalist asks for a lot of wit, an intense desire to learn, and a resolve to keep going.
If you have the resources to gain experience on your own, getting a journalism degree should be your last concern. Keep in mind that experience without a degree is preferred to a degree without experience.
But then again, if you have the option of taking a course in journalism before you, it will only add to your knowledge and help you reach your goal. The choice is yours.