How to break into the world of media, by someone who already has
Max Benwell started his own magazine at the University of Exeter before getting a job editing at The Independent. Journalism qualifications are great, he tells us, but a demonstrable interest in digital media will really help you stand out.
What kind of journalism work did you do at university?
I got into student journalism in my second year of university, while I was away doing a year abroad at the University of Toronto. I worked for two college newspapers which were both very different and completely brilliant. Doing this inspired me to set up a new magazine when I got back to finish my final year at Exeter called Exetera, which is still going to this day. I edited it for two years before going to City University London, where I did an MA in Magazine Journalism.
What did you learn from doing this?
Writing is generally regarded as a solitary act, but what I discovered with student media is how wonderfully collaborative it can be. You can create a magazine on InDesign on your own if you really want, but if you can also build an entire community from scratch, an inner circle that grows more and more inclusive the more you publish.
Practically speaking, the biggest things I learnt were around editing, dealing with writers and all the more technical aspects of publishing - which ranged all the way from bleeds and colour profiles to site architecture and sales cards.
Would you advise students to focus on digital aspects of journalism?
If you're a young journalist and keen on the idea of being employed at some point in the near future then yes, I would advise to focus on digital! What's been really interesting at The Independent in the last few weeks is working with staff who have always been on the paper, and seeing them being forced to retune their skills to digital. We may be the first newsroom where this has been happening, but the general consensus is that it's the way things are going across the industry.
How else can you demonstrate a commitment to a career in journalism?
Reading a decent range of papers and magazines can be key, as people are always impressed if you can say what you like about certain writers, or are able to reference a piece that was a talking point last year. But it should only be with stuff you enjoy and can talk about naturally and in an unforced way - there's nothing worse than someone who's trying too hard to show how much they love the journalism.
Aside from that, always being willing to learn and listen to criticism is key (no-one will take your commitment seriously otherwise), and part of this is knowing that your writing can always, always be better. You should be worried if you think something you've done can't be improved.
Do you have to have a post-grad qualification?
It's not always essential, but it helps a huge amount. I went to City because I was offered a bursary that paid for most of my fees, but if I hadn't then I probably would have done the NCTJ. I've worked with plenty of people at The Independent who did it, and it's much cheaper. Although if you can get work at a local paper then that can work too.
What are the best bits about being a journalist?
It depends what you do, but I'd say one of the best things about being a journalist is the access you can get, and all the genuinely fascinating people you're able to talk to. Having a captive audience is another really good thing. And the simple fact that you're trading in relevance. Your job is to make the world interesting and fresh and original for people, which means you're always learning new things, and discovering new information.