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My job explained: Journalist

Guardian journalist Alexandra Topping talks about breaking the news - and breaking into the newspaper industry. Read on to find out more.

Can you tell us a bit about your job?

I'm a news reporter at The Guardian. This means I can report on pretty much anything that happens in the UK, though I do have areas like music, immigration, women and children’s issues that I write about more often than others. A big part of what I do is coming up with ideas and finding stories to write about, pitching them to my news desk and hoping they like them. Sometimes they suggest projects to me and I investigate and write about those things, and sometimes there is a big breaking news story that I just get sent to report on.

Can you describe a typical working day?

There is no such thing as a typical working day – which is one reason I love my job so much. But on any given day I will be calling or meeting contacts, speaking to news editors about stories, doing interviews on the phone or in person and then writing the story before the deadline. That deadline is getting earlier all the time as there is more need to make sure the website is provided for. We are a rolling news operation these days, so on a breaking news story I will be expected to file a story early and then update it as I find out more.

Why did you choose to be a journalist?

I was always drawn to being a journalist because I love current affairs and politics. But it was only when I was living in Paris that I decided to really give it a go. Once I'd got a taste of it – as an unpaid intern – there was clearly nothing else for me to do.

What qualifications do you have?

I had a degree in English when I started. But I got on The Guardian training scheme and they sent me to Sheffield University to do an MA in Journalism, which was useful for learning shorthand and media law. I think your attitude and experience are more important than qualifications, although there are some great courses around.

What other skills do you need?

You need to be able to talk and listen to people. If you are a shy and retiring type, this may not be the job for you. An ability to process complicated information at speed is handy, as is the ability to write clearly and quickly. But these are things that come with practice. The main things are self-confidence and insatiable curiosity.

What’s the best bit of your job?

Getting to meet all sorts of people from all walks of life, and finding out about them and what they do. Many ordinary people have extraordinary tales to tell. I also love the fact that you get to learn about lots of different things. You may never be an expert in anything, but you can hold your own in a lot of different conversations.

What’s the most challenging bit of your job?

It can be exhausting, emotionally draining, and hugely competitive. You have to be quite robust sometimes. You also occasionally have to write weather stories!

Was it hard to get your first job?

I got my first break in journalism when I was in Paris, by just knocking on the doors of all the English speaking publications and saying I would work for free. I worked as an intern at The Washington Post in Paris while holding down a teaching job, and then moved back to London and started working as a researcher – my first paid job. Then I got on The Guardian's graduate scheme – which sadly doesn't run anymore – and beat 1,800 applicants to get the job. So it's not easy!

What advice would you have for people who want to follow in your footsteps?

Get as much experience as early as possible. Go to your local paper and offer to work for free, they are always so short staffed now they might take you on. Use any contacts you possibly can for an in, call people up, ask if they'll meet for a coffee. If you do get an internship, really read the publication you are going to for a while before it. Figure out what they write about and why, and then turn up with a bunch of ideas. Never wait to be told to do something – people are too busy to find you work. Be proactive and ballsy. Journalism is badly paid, it's a morphing industry and many, many jobs are being lost. It's horrendously difficult to get into, so if you want to do it – be prepared to fight for it and want to do it more than anything else.

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