Your Complete Guide to Learning How to Become a Journalist

Journalist in underground train stop

Journalism is at a crossroads today.

An ocean of facts and data is available to build and support stories on … The overwhelming sea of information can swamp and hide important facts … New technological breakthroughs like drones offer unprecedented data gathering techniques … More sophisticated corporate manipulation of information makes it harder to gather information for stories …The internet spreads stories quickly, bypassing censors worldwide … The internet publishing model is killing corporate journalist jobs.

It’s an exciting time to become a journalist, that’s for sure. And it’s more important than ever to society that our journalists be good at what they do.

In an era where fake news has come to dominate headlines, division rocks our society, and threats like disease and climate change stalk the globe, people need hard facts and important context for those facts. These are things that every one us needs every day, and we rely on journalists to provide them.

If you’re the kind of person who burns to find facts, figure out what is really going on, and let other people know about it, then becoming a journalist may be your life goal. But it’s not an easy target to hit in an industry that is going through big changes. You need to know exactly what a journalist does, and what kind of journalist you want to be. You will need every edge you can find to get there.

Becoming a Journalist

The Job Description of a Journalist Fits Right in With The Strengths of a Liberal Arts Education

War journalist in streetsAs you will see, journalism is a huge field. Jobs range from conflict reporters who spend their days out dodging bullets and filing reports by sat phone from remote, dangerous places, to data journalists, who do all their work in the glow of multiple monitors in a cozy office space as they plow through terabytes of information to search for the story.

Journalism - The activity or profession of writing for newspapers, magazines, or news websites or preparing news to be broadcast

~ The Oxford New English Dictionary

These are all jobs for journalists, though, and they all have a few things in common:

Finding facts – The core part of reporting is putting together the facts of the matter. Whether through eye-witness interviews, long days sifting through court transcripts, or analyzing satellite data, journalists have to pull out key pieces of information to support their story.

Making connections – With the facts in hand, journalists make connections between them that make them newsworthy. A single traffic stop of a Black driver in a city is just a piece of information. A series of stops out of proportion to those conducted for white drivers is something that people might need to hear about.

Establishing relevance – A journalist has to have a nose for what is important to their audience, or a knack for finding ways to make the story important to their audience. The set of facts and connections that go into a story have to have an impact of some kind on the people you hope will read it. Journalists need to understand their lives and concerns in order to make stories relevant.

Reporting the news – All of the above is worthless without the ability to reach your audience. Journalists have to find ways to get their story across, whether it’s a stunningly written article or a clever infographic. And not only does it have to have the facts and put together all the pieces, but it has to be accessible and interesting.

The ways that journalists actually go about performing those basic tasks can vary a lot. Journalist jobs are evolving all the time as new techniques and new concerns emerge in society.

Learning How To Become a Journalist Starts with the Right Education

When you are in college, journalism jobs can seem easy to come by. You will spend time soaking up diverse reporting from across the spectrum, and it will seem like there is no end to news and stories.

That much is true, but the economics of the industry are a different story. The journalism job outlook hasn’t been very rosy ever since the internet came onto the scene.

How to become a journalist in the field you want to enter means picking realistic goals. With an industry that is either in decline or upheaval, depending on who you ask, traditional journalism jobs have become pretty thin on the ground. So, the question, say, of how to become a journalist for the New York Times has become very complicated and unlikely. Entry-level journalism jobs have been swamped by layoffs and closures.

Some college is definitely in your future. There’s no real path to become a journalist without a degree. If you’re wondering how many years of school it takes to become a journalist, you should know that almost all journalism jobs require at least a four-year bachelor’s degree.

But you have a lot of great choices when it comes to actually getting that degree. While a bachelor’s in journalism seems like the most obvious selection, there are plenty of journalists who come to the profession from other angles. Popular majors for future journalists include:

If there’s one thing that almost all these degrees have in common, it’s that they are considered to be liberal arts degrees.

A Liberal Studies Degree is a Great Fit for Journalist Training Today

If you’re interested in becoming a journalist, you already have some ideas of what kind of skills you need to develop. You need to talk to people from all walks of life, in every kind of emotional state. You need to have a pretty good BS detector and a mind that constantly pokes holes in explanations and excuses. You need to know how to conduct research, to uncover facts to support or suppress stories. And you need to be able to put those stories together, to write and express yourself in a way that both engages and informs your audience.

Is that a job for a liberal arts graduate, or what?

Journalism is a job that engages all the skillsets you develop in a bachelor of liberal studies program:

Empathy – A background in the humanities teaches you to put yourself in the shoes of the people you interview or write about, giving you a perspective on their opinions and attitudes. That training both helps you connect with them and build trust, and allows you to craft well-rounded reporting that looks at every side of a story.

Communication – You also have to be able to communicate both with those sources and with your audience. A liberal arts education teaches you the art of writing by drawing on centuries of the best literature ever written. It gives you examples of rhetoric and storytelling to model your own style on, to hold your viewers as rapt as Euripides did.

Analysis – Sifting through facts and opinions and getting to the heart of the matter is a key skill for journalist. Liberal arts training offers a rigorous approach to analyzing arguments and information, pitting you against new ideas and philosophies constantly. You’re trained how to break them apart and evaluate them with the rules of logic and support, which is exactly what you need when you’re trying to decide whether or not to trust a sketchy source.

Creativity – Journalists are also challenged to be creative every day. If you want to break a story, you have to have an angle. And fresh angles come from people who can make unexpected connections, who can take a background in finance and economics and apply it to, say, baseball, as journalist John Lewis did in Moneyball, explaining how statistical analysis and economic drivers had revolutionized America’s favorite pastime.

Ethics – Journalism rests on a bedrock of trust and verification. Journalists have to adhere to strong standards of evidence for stories that they publish, ensuring that their audience is not deceived through them. They also have strong obligations to sources, agreeing to hold certain conversations in confidence, and protecting the identity of those who provide information confidentially. The philosophy of ethical obligations isn’t just theoretical in the world of journalism. In 2005, New York Times journalist Judith Miller was jailed for 85 days for refusing to name a source behind an article about a CIA agent.

Journalists have to know how to tell stories. More than that, they have to tell true stories… the luxury of invention isn’t open to them. And those stories have to be good. Unless they resonate with their audience, no one will read them.

What better way to learn how to tell stories, how to investigate them, than studying some of the greatest stories ever told? The classics of Western literature and the canon of plays covered in a liberal arts program are great training in weaving stories that hold audiences rapt… while educating and informing them with facts and context.

How to Become a Journalist Without a Degree

Photographer with camera at sideOkay, yes, you just heard that you need a college degree to become a journalist. But journalism is changing, and maybe you’ve been inspired by citizen journalists. Maybe you are excited to start up a micro-local news sites covering a single neighborhood in-depth, like Seattle’s West Seattle Blog, or diving into expansive publicly-sourced investigations like Bellingcat.

You don’t need any credentials for those kinds of new media journalist roles, it’s true. But if you think you can just jump in and be successful without a degree, you might be surprised. In many ways, that kind of journalism requires an even greater commitment to a well-rounded education than traditional journalist jobs.

Forging your own path in journalism means having a well-rounded set of skills and knowledge. It’s hard to imagine how you get all that without a liberal arts degree. When you have to do full-stack journalism, everything from doing your own fundraising to developing sources to running a content management system, it all requires the sort of balanced and diverse education a liberal arts program will offer.

Are There Journalism Jobs That Require a Master’s Degree?

A liberal arts graduate degree is one path to learning how to become a better journalist. It may even qualify you for journalism faculty jobs, teaching the trade to others who want to get into news media. But in general, high-level journalism jobs require on-the-job training rather than extra formal education.

If you’re curious about how to become a journalist later in life, you might explore an advanced degree. A master of liberal studies (MALS) degree can be just the ticket here, as these programs offer a lot of flexibility in building your core curriculum around the type of subjects you are most interested in. Broadcast journalism graduate jobs aren’t common, but a MALS is a good way to polish your credentials at any stage of your career.

Similarly, a lot of people come in to journalism after careers in other fields. In fact, the kind of subject matter expertise—not to mention a wealth of contacts and sources—you get as, say, a police officer or scientist can give you a huge edge in reporting. But you still need those critical liberal arts skills in communication and analysis. A MALS can help you develop those talents while building on your existing strengths.

The Right Degree Can Open the Door to Jobs in Every Field of Journalism

Journalism degree jobs are available in pretty much every kind of area that readers or viewers might be interested in. If you don’t see a field where someone is already reporting, that’s an opportunity, not an obstacle. Journalists pretty much have to have an entrepreneurial mindset. You want to be breaking first, whether it’s a new story or a new kind of reporting.

Jobs for journalism majors don’t have to revolve around traditional media. Many of these categories of journalist jobs are migrating away from print and television organizations… streaming video, web, and social media platforms are hungry for the kind of skills that journalists bring to the table.

In every case, you’re going to benefit from the kind of background and skills you find in liberal studies.

Sports Journalism Jobs

baseball batterAlmost everyone wants to know how to become a sports journalist. Covering the big money contests of skill and strength is exciting, and sports reporters get a chance to brush with celebrity regularly. Getting into this field takes luck as well as skill. There may be no kind of journalism that loves tropes more than sports journalism, though, and that’s a place where a liberal arts degree can give you a boost. Sports reporters have been honing their clichés ever since Philippides collapsed on his way back from Marathon. An education in the classics can give you an edge sports journalism that few can compete with.

Freelance Journalism Jobs

Everyone knows how to become a freelance journalist—just start writing and submitting and see where it gets you. But you better have the talent and hustle to make it stick, which means the kind of generalist education you get in a liberal studies program. You have to develop skills to line up your own sources, do your own research, and make your own breaks. On top of that, you are effectively running a small business. That means having the knowledge to do your own marketing, figure out your own finances, and negotiate your own deals. The more diverse your background and contacts, the easier this will all be.

How to Become a Data Journalist

Data journalism jobs are the hot new thing online and off as big data has started to course into news rooms across the country. Statistical analysis is a powerful tool for journalists. But data journalists have to do more than just sift data. To become a good data journalist, you have to tie that big data to individual meaning. A sociocultural context like you get out of a liberal studies program is important to making data journalism about people, not just numbers.

Video Game Journalism Jobs

How to become a video game journalist is right up there behind sports and entertainment journalists in terms of popularity. Game journalism jobs may seem like fun, but there’s more to it than sitting around playing all day. Developing connections in the labyrinthine game dev scene takes a real human touch as well as understanding the difference between platformers and rogue-likes. A liberal arts background gives you a broader canvas for exploring and interpreting the gaming impulse, as well as the communication skills to report on it.

Broadcast Journalism Jobs

Broadcast journalism jobs sometimes seem to exist in a separate universe from traditional investigative journalism jobs. Ratings are king in TV journalism, which has left the field open to sensationalism, hot takes, and a visual bias. But if you want to know how to become a TV journalist, you ignore the elephant in the room. Looks matter in this field, which sometimes leaves it looking more like a fashion journalism job than real reporting. But these are also some of the highest paying jobs in journalism, so they are hard to write off. It’s also one of the few paths for how to become a famous journalist, if that’s your goal.

How to Become a Tech Journalist

Technology is complex and it changes constantly. Technology journalism requires a considerable command of high technology, and training in that area can be important. But what makes a tech journalist successful is their ability to connect that complexity to real, human concerns. Understanding the implications of technology and reporting them to readers is something the liberal arts can help with.

Covering modern surveillance technology gets easier if you’ve read up on Bentham’s panopticon and read the generations of analysis and critiques of the concept.

Presenting the detrimental effects of doxing and social media attacks is more complete if you have studied the mob psychology of the French Revolution.

Music and Entertainment Journalism Jobs

These roles are a hot ticket for the same reason that sports journalist jobs are—people love being around and documenting the celebrity lifestyle. This is a field where contacts are king, and a liberal arts education can give you the kind of background in film, music, and media studies to make those connections easier. You want to be able to talk the language of directors and producers and understand what makes an actor a star. Examining the history of film and television gives you the context to get into the field and explain it to readers.

How to Become a Travel Journalist

Martha Gellhorn, travel journalist
Martha Gellhorn

Travel journalism jobs are easy to get into, but one that is hard to succeed in. There is all kind of competition, because the barrier to entry is so low. But if you love travel and can write about it in a way that entertains and informs, you can be one of the success stories. Liberal studies offer a comprehensive cultural background to ease your way into interpreting and connecting with people and societies in the exotic places you explore. Becoming a travel journalist is also easier if you have some knowledge of foreign languages, another liberal arts mainstay.

Martha Gellhorn was a travel journalist who befriended First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, was the only female war correspondent to land in Normandy on June 6, 1944, and was one of the first reporters to break the news of the discovery of the Dachau concentration camp. Not a bad career for a travel writer!

How to Become a Military Journalist

Military journalist jobs are special in that you actually have to join the military to get them. On the flip side, the service will give you the training you need for the role, so you don’t have to go to college first. But a background in liberal studies can still help you understand the culture of the nation you are serving and the big-picture issues that the military is frequently deployed to deal with.

How to Become a Science Journalist

Science journalism is one of the most important and challenging jobs in the field today. There’s nothing like a global pandemic to stress the importance of clear and accurate stories grounded in hard science. Science journalism jobs benefit from the kind of background knowledge that an arts and sciences degree can give you, combining basic science literacy with the cultural context of scientific breakthroughs and a strong dose of the logic and reasoning that go into the scientific process.

Environmental Journalism Jobs

So you want to know how to become a National Geographic journalist… environmental journalism is probably your ticket in the door in this day and age. Environmental news has been on the upswing ever since the Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, and it’s unlikely to fade into the background any time soon. Major weather events, slow-motion climate change disasters, and health-related reporting all benefits from the combination of humanities and science training that liberal studies majors get in college.

How to Become a Journalism Professor

Journalism teaching jobs are a great fit for liberal arts graduates. Liberal arts is all about learning how to learn, and that can include learning how to teach. Once you master the skills in communications, investigations, and analysis, you may find yourself in a great position to pass those skills along to others. Becoming a professor usually includes earning advanced degrees, so this is one of the few journalism jobs that actually requires pursuing a master’s or a doctoral degree in either communications, liberal studies, or journalism.

Online Journalism Jobs

In one sense, reporting has always been a kind of remote job. You could never just sit behind a desk and expect stories to come to you. Reporters of yore wore out their shoe leather hunting down leads and landing big interviews. If you were hanging out in the newsroom too much, you were a has-been, or never-was.

Today, online journalism jobs are starting to change the face of remote journalism. Freelance journalism jobs, in particular, may never require you to set foot in a newsroom or even in the same city as the publications you are filing for. Research and interviews can all happen over the internet. But the same spirit of inquiry and investigation is required, even if you break that big international story without getting out of bed.

What is the difference between a journalist and a reporter?

TV journalist on location reporting

People often wonder what the difference is between a journalist and a reporter. If you want to know how to become a journalist, does that mean you also need to know how to become a reporter?

Not necessarily! Reporting is considered a role in the larger field of journalism, just as editing, production, and photography. But reporting itself doesn’t necessarily require any of the skills of writing or preparing news to be broadcast—it is the act of broadcasting itself. For newspaper reporters, that certainly does involve writing, but TV reporters may never be involved in that part of the process.

Being a journalist implies engaging in some analysis beyond the straightforward collection and reporting of facts. A journalist, in other words, needs context. And context is one of the reasons why liberal arts is important.

Journalist Salary: What Journalism Jobs Pay Coast to Coast

If you were wondering how you can make money with a liberal arts degree, becoming a journalist is one of the clearest answers out there. It’s one of those professions that is almost tailor-made for the kind of skills your learn in liberal studies, and offers clear rewards for the kind of diverse, interdisciplinary knowledge you pick up in liberal arts. And it’s a well-established and traditional profession that your parents can brag about to their friends.

According to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for news analysts, reporters, and journalists was $49,300 per year.

Don’t be discouraged, though—there are a lot of people who want to be reporters and real pressure on compensation at the lower end of the spectrum. But if you have the grit, smarts, and determination to make it to the top, you’ll find that the upper ten percent of journalists earn more than $127,370 per year.

Despite upheaval in the industry, people always need news, and so BLS estimates that the growth rate for the profession overall will be 6 percent between 2020 and 2030, which is about as fast as the national average.

Both your prospects for job openings and for salary may depend on where you are planning to get a job. Although journalism jobs are going remote, there can still be a significant difference between, say, broadcast journalism jobs in Philadelphia and broadcast journalism jobs in Dubuque.

The Average Journalist Salary Found Around the Country

If you’re looking for the biggest bucks, though, you go where the biggest news is. In the United States, that usually means Washington, D.C., where the median salary for journalists is $115,980—the highest in the nation.

Most journalists aren’t in it just for the money, though. With an industry in flux, you are going to want this job not for stability and wealth. Instead, it’s going to be about adrenaline and impact. The thrill of chasing a story, the glory of getting it first, and getting it right—those are job benefits that don’t come in any paycheck.

And they are benefits that line up well with the kind of person who pursues a liberal arts degree.

2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures and job growth projections for News Analysts, Reporters, and Journalists reflect national data not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2021.