In April this year I went down to London for a month of work experience in journalism. A required part of my MA course, I went to the capital for two separate placements during which I was privy to the goings-on at the features desks across four women’s magazines. As you might expect from being the ‘workie’ in the office, my experience was incredibly varied – I’d go as far as to say I went through the motions quite a bit.
First off, I have to give a shout out to PressPad. I booked these work placements knowing there was a big chance I would have to cancel later down the line because London is quite an expensive place, and even going back home to Birmingham and commuting every day was going to be too expensive and exhausting each day. Through PressPad, I was put in touch with a journalist with a spare room who allowed me to stay for my entire month in London, and it made the experience not only possible, but also incredibly easy. All I had to worry about in the end was the train route in each morning and the actual placement itself, which was a lot easier to manage. PressPad is a brilliant initiative (which is clear by the awards they’ve won recently!) and if you’re looking for work placements in London in particular, be sure to get in touch with them. It made all the difference for me.
While I won’t go into too much detail about each of my placements – as I would actually like a job at the end of my masters (!) – I’ve worked out exactly what I learned during my time – and if you know me well, you already know exactly where I went so can probably join the dots yourself. You may not be an aspiring journalist reading this, but if you are, I hope this goes some way to help you in the future – it was by far the most eye-opening part of my journalism training.
#1. You’ll probably spend most of your time doing the most menial of tasks – but that’s okay
Going to a fairly large magazine, you’re going to be spending a couple of weeks in an office of well-established journalists and editors who are all good friends, have their particular remits, and know exactly how things work. It’s therefore best not to go into a placement with the mindset that this is going to the making of your career.
More often than not, you’ll be assisting the features assistant or intern with their research, or transcribing interviews for other journalists to craft into pieces. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Depending on the publication, this could be quite interesting. I transcribed interviews with figures I love, such as Stacey Dooley and David Nicholls, and even spent an afternoon researching the Queen’s passions and interests (which I personally really enjoyed). It doesn’t sound like much but you’re establishing the foundation of someone’s work, so while it might not feel like it, you’re still an important part of the machine.
Also, use this to your advantage. When you’re given quite small tasks like that, it’s easy to become disheartened and feel a dip in your enthusiasm for even being in the office. However, if you apply yourself and complete things efficiently, quickly, and to a high standard, people will be far more impressed and may even trust you with more important things to do around the office!
#2. Make yourself known to everyone, and don’t be scared to ask if there’s anything else you can help with
You’re going to be meeting a lot of people while on placement, but make sure that you speak to everyone and get to know them and definitely don’t be afraid to ask questions. You’re there to learn more about the industry, after all.
If you’re not sure of something, or you’ve finished a task and have nothing else to do, rather than sit at your desk and keep quiet out of fear of talking to people you don’t know, force yourself to speak to a writer or editor, or even send out a mass email saying you’re free to help. I was told at the end of one placement that one of the things they liked most about me was my willingness to offer help and keep asking for work rather than cower behind my computer screen – it pays to talk to people!
#3. You’re not going to make friends with everyone, so don’t take it to heart
While you’re incredibly excited about going to somewhere you’ve always dreamed of working, be aware that you are not the first or last person to do work experience there, and I mean that sincerely. At one placement, I was asked to sit at the designated work experience desk; at the other, I was the latest user of the designated work experience laptop. I booked both of my placements for April back in November, and most of the major magazines are booked up several months in advance. In short, don’t expect them to roll out the red carpet for you.
While I spoke to some lovely people on placement, not everyone will think your arrival is the most important thing that week. Both of my experiences were quite different in this respect. At one, I made friends with and spoke to everyone each day, including the editor-in-chief, writers I love, and editors I look up to as inspirations; I went for lunch with the intern; and by the end of the week I felt like part of the team. At the other, I spoke to the features assistant and lifestyle editor regularly, with the occasional chat to one of the beauty writers – mainly as they were the ones sitting closest to me. Apart from that, the rest of the team were quite cold, clearly used to having a stream of students on placement. While at first this upset me, I realised it didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. If anything, it taught me about the true nature of the office, and so I took it with a pinch of salt and had to remind myself it wasn’t personal. You can’t please everyone, especially in journalism!
#4. Take every opportunity you can, even if it’s not something you’d initially jump at
Work experience is all about immersing yourself in the world of journalism as much as you can. So if you’re offered the chance to shadow a planning meeting, attend a cover shoot, or even write an article on something you have no idea about – GO FOR IT! While I’m not as in tune with magazine craft as I am writing or editing, being able to sit in on meetings that discussed new feature pitches, cover stars and the structure of several upcoming issues was so interesting, and a really good opportunity to understand those particular magazines in new ways.
I was also invited to attend a cover shoot. Albeit, this particular cover star was not someone I necessarily liked or knew much about, and the experience was incredibly fraught after a late start and spending far too much time in hair and make up. I arrived at a very cold studio in North London at 13:30 and the shoot didn’t start until 17:30! However, at risk of sounding like a stuck record, it was really interesting to see the not-so-glamorous side of things involving celebrities and on-shoot interviews, and to see it on the cover of the magazine a few weeks later was incredibly cool.
In regards to writing, don’t get your hopes up you’ll leave after a couple of weeks with a glittering portfolio full of features, bylines and a cover story. Depending on the publication, you may get more writing opportunities (and I know several people who did), but don’t be disappointed if this is scarce. If an editor asks you to write something, unless it makes you incredibly uncomfortable, always say yes. Whether you know a little or a lot about the subject, this could well be your only chance. At least, that was what it was like for me.
At one of my placements, I only contributed some ideas for celebrity double-page spreads and spent most of my time researching fluffy pieces about celebrities who have been engaged multiple times or went blonde once in their career… I know, thrilling stuff. Essentially, I was only really doing the bulk of the research but none of the writing. However, at the other I was able to write a small piece for an established treatment that will go to print in July which I am so excited about!
Take every opportunity you can, whether that’s being able to take home some free books before publication, take part in an almond milk taste-testing focus group, or write an article about mindfulness apps – you should definitely say yes to it all if you can, just like I did.
#5. Take advantage of the talent around you, and don’t be afraid to ask for career advice
I was incredibly lucky that at one of my placements, I was working on the features desk of an editor I’ve admired for a very long time. And even more lucky, she was willing to talk to me over coffee about my career aims and aspirations.
However, even if this opportunity isn’t presented to you as easily as it was for me, don’t be afraid to ask someone on the team for this same opportunity. Most journalists are chatty people who know what it’s like to struggle to get work experience, to get a job, to get that first commission and more, and so will be more than happy to impart whatever wisdom they can with you.
A caveat to this: don’t be top bold, and instead build up to it. Don’t think you can just swan in on your first day, walk up to the editor-in-chief of the magazine and ask if they’d like to go for coffee with you. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s best to get to know the team, find out their stories and interests, and ask either a person you admire or feel would be best placed to help you for this a few days into your placement.
I went for both coffee with the features director and lunch with the features intern of one particular publication, and each occasion gave me different yet helpful insights into working at my dream publication, how to establish myself in journalism, how best to hone my craft and to just believe in myself. This was by far the highlight of my work experience, and it can make all the difference for you too.
#6. It’s okay to be tired and not sure of whether you’re enjoying yourself – it all comes with the territory
Those few days before beginning a work experience placement can be some of the most nerve-wracking, as most of the time you have absolutely no idea what you’re in for. As you’ve probably gleaned already, my month in London was not entirely plain-sailing.
In particular, I found myself battling fatigue very soon into my first week. Commuting each day from south of the river with several train delays and changes to make on the underground, I found it harder and harder to get up on time and could sense my mood shifting. Whether that’s because I’ve become a lazy MA student this year, I don’t know… but working each day after another year of studying took its toll. By my third week, I was starting to feel incredibly low. Be prepared for this, and make sure you have people you can talk to if this happens – I was very lucky to have friends like Joe and Cora who were there to meet me for a drink after work or text me until I felt a bit more positive about myself and what I was doing.
I couldn’t completely work out why I felt the way I did, especially as by this point I was working on things I was genuinely interested in. All I can really put it down to is suddenly being exposed to the world of work after essentially theorising all the skills needed for a proper job in journalism. Also, in my case I was working on one of my favourite magazines, and I think I was just a bit overwhelmed by the whole experience. I know, I know, ‘woe is me’, #firstworldproblems, blah blah blah. But ‘brain fog’ can hit anyone, at any time, and it hit me incredibly hard.
In this instance, put yourself first. I overdid it, trying to cram as many reunions with friends as I could into a month when the truth was I didn’t have much money or downtime left for myself to fully recuperate each day. Eventually I had to give myself a couple of nights off, binging a series on iPlayer while eating pasta in bed in order to feel human again. Work experience is fun, don’t get me wrong, but for most of us it’s the first step into the big wide world, and I didn’t prepare myself enough for that.
#7. Journalists love sweet treats, and they’re always a winner at the end of a placement
This one is short and simple. At the end of both placements, I made sure to thank the office for giving me the opportunity to work with them. While both times I felt a little bit bashful handing over a thank you card with a box of fancy biscuits or chocolate, the reaction goes a lot further than you’d expect – especially if you gift them to the office an hour before they’re all due to leave on a busy Friday afternoon and notice everyone suddenly flocking to your desk at the tiniest whiff of sugar.
When I was back in Wales, I was emailing an editor about a piece I’d written for them the week before, and in an email she not only thanked me for my hard work but also mentioned she was eating some of the chocolate I’d bought for the office while typing out her reply! It might sound a cheap trick, but do anything you can to get yourself remembered by these people (just not anything bad or dramatic, for the love of god).
I hope this is helpful for anyone about to embark on work experience in the journalism industry. However, keep in mind that my advice isn’t one-size-fits-all. While I went to some quite high-profile places, things may differ depending on the size of the publication you go to.
Essentially, what I hope you’ve learned from this post is that no placement is the same. It’s all complete luck of the draw. I know friends who went to magazines they loved reading but didn’t enjoy working there, and others who had never even really heard of the brand but had a far better time than expected.
Until you get there, you never really know what to expect, but whether a good or bad experience, being a ‘workie’ helps you realise exactly what kind of journalist you want to be.