Before I started writing for my alma mater’s student newspaper, Central Michigan Life, I started a newsletter in my dorm called The Kessler Chronicle, which borrowed its name from the hall’s name, Kesseler Hall. It wasn’t all that successful, but I did have a writing staff and we did put out a consistent product.
I also did the occasional piece for a publication that one of my professors ran, a monthly news-magazine based in Canada that dealt primarily with the goings-on of the African communities in North America.
Eventually I made my way into the newspaper’s office. I’m glad I did because I had some fantastic experiences there. I’m really proud of a lot of the work I did, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t help me get some of the jobs I’ve had.
But after two years I reached a point where either I needed to make a greater commitment to the paper or forge ahead on my own and see what opportunities I could find on a freelance level. I decided to go it alone.
It was a difficult decision because I had a lot of friends at the paper. Not being around meant I was no longer part of “the club.” But I quickly found that my decision was the right one.
Not long after I quit the paper, I started my first magazine. And while I was developing the magazine, I took a job as a beat reporter covering Mount Pleasant Public Schools for the city paper, The Morning Sun. Also I was filing occasional stories for Reuters’ Detroit bureau, which I had started working for during the previous summer.
As the semesters passed, I found myself writing for more and more professional publications. By the time I graduated my by-line had appeared in nine different newspapers and magazines across Michigan, in addition to work I’d done for news wires and radio. I’d also completed four internships.
Many of my classmates had a very lackadaisical approach to their journalism degree. They treated it as though they were getting a degree in a heavily-academic field: go to class, do well, get job.
And that’s so incredibly wrongheaded.
The time when you’re a student is when you should do as much freelancing as you can. Get your name in as many publications as possible. Don’t worry about not getting paid for it — if journalism is your passion, you need clips more than you need money. I’ve gotten paid writing jobs by cold-e-mailing publications offering to write for them for free. And don’t be afraid of being told no — it happens. Come back to them in a month or two and see if anything has changed.
It’s important to appear that you’re passionate about journalism and that you want to prove yourself. In those four (ok, or five) years of college, you’ve got a chance to network and build up a great portfolio — outside of the classroom.