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8 Nov 2016

How I Got My First Job As A Digital Journalist

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By Shane Donnelly, staff writer on Startups.co.uk

If you’ll allow me to paraphrase the late Frank McCourt, ‘Worse than the ordinary unemployed graduate is the Irish unemployed graduate, and worse yet is the Irish unemployed journalism graduate.’

Or so I thought as I received a Masters in Journalism from the University of Limerick in January 2015. Having handed in my 15,000-word dissertation the previous September, I had worked full time hours in my weekend job as a sales assistant in a busy petrol station, where the closest I got to creating content was writing out vouchers or filling in stocking sheets.

With only unpaid work experience at my disposal in my hometown, I took the decision to move to London in August 2015 in the hope of finding something a bit more like a career.

Arriving with a few bags of clothes, a laptop and what I’d managed to save from working on the forecourt – I had heard so much about what London had to offer that I envisioned landing a suitable job within the first two weeks. The reality proved much different.

With the pound’s strong value against the euro, my savings began wearing thin and with every flat-out rejection or unanswered application I began wondering whether I should put my career ambitions on the back-burner and just get something to tide me over. People often tell you about the opportunities that moving to a big city can bring, what they equally often fail to mention is how saturated with like-minded graduates big cities really are.

Sometimes when applying for jobs, all you are really asking for is an interview – a chance to prove yourself face-to-face and to feel like the process is a bit more in your control. Rejected countless times for supposed ‘internship’ roles, I began to wonder could I really have done anything more?

I thought my CV looked good, or at the very least consistent. I had held a part-time job throughout University, I had written for the University newspaper and I had real world experience from my time on work placement. But, sometimes as a bright eyed and bushy tailed graduate, you need to understand that the world doesn’t owe you a living. You must adapt your skills to the job market, not the other way round.

It was with this new mentality that I applied for a 12-month editorial internship role at Startups.co.uk, having previously deemed it’s remit outside my comfort zone. The last time I’d had anything to do with business was in my school exams (I got a D), but I felt that if my writing was good enough I’d pick up the more technical aspects ‘on the job’.

Luckily for me, it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life, and I was incredibly lucky and eternally grateful to be offered the position.

The interview process had evolved two stages – a first round and a second round. Both about a week apart and both including a grilling of my CV, and written assessments.

I think spending an hour the night before each round actually just reading the Startups site helped me immensely. For previous interviews, I’d normally just take a quick glance of a particular site on my phone or laptop on the train in – it’s only in hindsight I realise this was to my peril.

In terms of my job description or general duties, I was mainly required to write daily news and weekly/monthly features – the staple diet of any aspiring writer, albeit with a focus on start-ups and small businesses. Something, as I mentioned, I wasn’t overly familiar with to say the least.

What had almost seemed a mere pipe dream just weeks earlier was becoming a daily reality as article after article saw my name become more pronounced on the site, with each by-line making me giddy with the prospect that I was actually a journalist, actually working.

With my new job came new challenges also, and it’s fair to say I was initially better suited to some aspects more than others.

Whether it was to satisfy a commercial sponsor or to retrieve extra content for the site, I was regularly sent to evening events which could consist of anything between a product launch, panel discussion or exhibition.

With my grand uncle’s advice of “When you move to London, don’t talk to anyone” firmly in my ear, I found myself struggling early on with networking. To me, it seemed a complete contrast to what every day London life was like. You don’t talk to people on the street, on the tube or on the bus, but now people wander over to you almost premeditatedly and with a quick glance of the badge they’re instantaneously heavily invested in who are and what you do.

While you might only officially work nine to half five, I soon realised that you’re representing your company’s brand, image and ethos almost 24/7.

This wasn’t something I’d particularly anticipated, but it was something I was going to have to get to grips with, and while I’d always been relatively familiar with the idea of creating content, even from my work experience days, the world of digital content proved I still had much to learn.

And as any online publication will tell you, it really is all about the clicks, with huge thought and consideration placed on SEO and how you use social media – certainly far more than I had ever envisioned.

Working for a print publication can sometimes give you a certain amount of anonymity, but with analytics repeatedly analysed, there’s no hiding in the digital world. And while there’s nothing quite like the feeling of a ‘quick win’ piece (a piece of content easily and quickly put together on a very current or immediate topic that generates huge traction), spending days or weeks on a feature that performs poorly can be incredibly frustrating and very disheartening.

To compound matters when things didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, an excel spreadsheet of individual page-views (projected on a 40” TV) was present at every monthly meeting!

The old adage that time is of the essence certainly rings true also, and I often spent my time simultaneously scanning social media looking for breaking news we (or I) could cover –  albeit with a business angle of course.

Although I must admit, 2016 has been a quiet news year. Hasn’t it?

However, while it was sometimes easy to get carried away attending events and flashing people my press pass, the truth is that an internship role really is a rite of passage.

As you’re effectively starting at the bottom, you will get the most monotonous jobs on earth – and I spent many hours with my head buried in an excel spreadsheet updating company admin.

Your confidence might even take a bit of a knock too, and I found many of my earlier articles and news stories came back from my editor so re-written that they bore almost no resemblance to what I’d originally submitted.

It almost goes without saying, but internship roles are all about learning as much as you can.

And working within a very small, albeit experienced, team gave me a real hands-on feel for what working in digital content was really like.

From day one, I was given responsibilities I’d probably have to wait months for at a larger a company – a possible consideration for those failing to land an internship with the heavyweights.

Ultimately, my internship ended prematurely just 8 months in – but for two very happy reasons.

My Editor took maternity leave, and with the company choosing to delegate more responsibility among the remaining team members, I was promoted to a permanent position and became a fully-fledged staff writer.

Now approaching my first full year with Startups, I’ve found I’ve gradually developed a good understanding of the start-up space (I’m still learning!) and couldn’t be happier in my role.

If I’ve one piece of advice for people in my position 12 months ago, it’d be to explore all possible angles and job opportunities in your field.

Don’t dismiss a possible internship just because it’s specifications don’t entirely match what you want or even what you know – because you don’t know what you could be missing out on!

And, if you’ll allow me another butchered rendition of Angela’s Ashes, ‘When I look back on my days in the forecourt, I wonder how I survived at all’.

With thanks to Shane Donnelly, staff writer at Startups.co.uk for sharing his graduate job-hunting experience. If you’re interested in working in a content role online, why not register your interest on our content marketing course, or try our search engine marketing course.

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