From covering letters and applications to coming up with story ideas, three industry experts share advice on work experience for aspiring journalists


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Work experience is a rite of passage for many young journalists looking to build a portfolio and get contacts in the industry.

And if you’re a journalism student, around now is a good time to start thinking about work experience placements if you’re not already.

The long summer holiday might still feel like a long way off, but with April being one of the busiest times for work experience applications it’s a good idea to get your requests in early.

So when faced with so much competition, how can aspiring journalists stand out from the crowd when applying for work experience?

Here are 7 tips from industry experts to help you get ahead.

Write a killer opening line

Think of the things everybody puts on a CV, and don’t put them onDave Betts, Sky News

Sky News receives around 500 applications per round of its three-week work experience scheme, which is advertised twice a year, on top of prospective emails from students.

For Dave Betts, managing editor at Sky News and one of the co-ordinators of the scheme, a killer opening line is the secret weapon for a winning covering letter.

“What I’m looking for is something that’s just a bit different, and if the first line of their application is all about their university and great journalism course then that doesn’t stand out, because everyone says that”, explained Betts.

He encouraged work experience applicants to open their covering letters with “something that’s unique about them, something they’ve done, their ideas, their experience, something that shows that you have some unique selling point, that you stand out from the crowd.

“Think of the things everybody puts on a CV, and don’t put them on, or hide them a bit further down.”

Do your research

Daniell Morrisey, careers writer and former head of recruitment for BBC News, believes the key to nailing that all-important covering letter is to show you’ve done some research on the outlet and understand the type of stories they cover and their target audience.

“If it’s a local newspaper, for example, you want to show you’ve got some understanding of that local area and the sort of stories they might cover”, he said.

“If it’s a music magazine you obviously want to speak about music, if it’s an interior design magazine you want to talk about your knowledge of interior design… Demonstrate that you’ve done some research and you understand what they’re about.”

Check spelling and grammar – and check again

“You’d be amazed at what a high proportion of CVs we reject, just because they’ve got basic spelling or grammatical errors on them,” said Betts.

“Check, check and double-check, I would say. You’d be amazed at the proportion that fall down on that really basic thing.”

It’s a good idea to get a friend or fellow student to read your application through before you hit the ‘send’ button.

Grammarly is also a decent web app for highlighting typos and grammatical red flags.

Use your contacts

“Rather than making a cold application, is there anyone that you could contact at the newspaper or the magazine for a chat before you apply?” asked Morrisey.

Being able to call, email or even tweet a contact at the particular outlet where you want to do work experience can help you get your foot in the door and “learn a bit more about what they’re about and what they’re looking for,” he added.

More than anything this underlines the importance of networking – whether on social media or in person at university or extra-curricular events.

Get to grips with style

You really need to become a voracious reader of that title’s websiteAlison Gow, Trinity Mirror Regionals

Once you’ve been accepted to do work experience at a publication, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with its style in terms of both the stories it covers and the way they are written.

“If you’re not doing it already, you really need to become a voracious reader of that title’s website”, said Alison Gow, editor for digital innovation at Trinity Mirror Regionals.

“Be really familiar with the app, or plural apps, that they have, follow them on every element of social media that they do, [read or watch] them on every platform so you know their tone, their conversation, the type of stories that are engaging people.”

Gow also recommends that students “read the paper” if they are going to an outlet that includes a print platform because “apart from anything else, you pick up the style”.

“Even things as little as how is ‘councillor’ written, you know, there are four [ways] off the top of my head,” she said.

“If you know some of the style that the title you’re going to has, it just helps you when you’re writing it.”

Plan some stories in advance

It’s also a good idea to think about what stories might work well for that publication in advance, said Gow.

And if you’re feeling a bit stumped, she has a clever way to come up with story ideas that are almost guaranteed to get a good reader reaction.

“Stories that appear in papers or on websites are there because generally there’s been reader response to them in some way”, Gow explained.

“We are a digital first operation so everything you see in print, on a Trinity Mirror title, will generally have had some kind of online life and will be in print because there has been some audience traction around it.

“So you can know from that what is triggering people in your area to engage with content.”

Be clear about what you want

Work experience is a two-way thing. While young journalists are there to assist the newsroom, Gow noted it is also important to be clear about what you want to get out of your time there in advance to avoid a “last-minute scramble”.

This might be attending morning conference, spending time on the social media desk or joining the sports reporters at the weekly football club press briefing.

One way to do this is over email as soon as your work experience are confirmed, and it’s also a good opportunity to introduce yourself to the people you’re going to be working with.

“When I was on newsdesk at the Liverpool Echo,” said Gow, “it was always nice when they [work experience students] would drop you an email or give you a call the week before and just say, ‘I’m coming in, this is who I am… is there anything you need from me?’

“And I wouldn’t generally need or want anything from them but it just showed a bit of initiative, and they’d got that initial first contact of speaking to the newsdesk out of the way.”