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New blog series: Am I too old to become a journalist?

October 2nd, 2008Posted by in Journalism, Training

“So you want to be a journalist,” declares the college leaflet or job advice site.

Yes, of course you do but what if you think you might be too old, have no proper training, did not go to Cambridge or Oxford, have no relatives in the industry and all the other clichés people like to trot out? What if you have all of the above but still don’t seem to be able to get a job?

I have just started a fast-track NCTJ course at Lambeth College in London at the grand old age of 28 and before that I was freelancing without any proper training.

When I finally decided to become a journalist I had loads of questions. Everything from whether to do a course, what ‘off the record’ really means and whether my hoovering to working ratio was slightly unbalanced as a freelancer.

Everyday the Journalism.co.uk forum is peppered with similar questions – well, maybe not the hoovering one – from would-be journalists.

This blog series isn’t designed to tell you what to do to become a journalist. Instead it will chart my progress through the 18-weeks of what is turning out to be utter boot camp – 2 hours per night shorthand practice anyone?

Any work experience I do will also be covered as will networking events with views and opinions from seasoned hacks and the gruelling task of actually getting a job at the end of it.

Hopefully it will dispel some of the myths surrounding the NCTJ and whether you truly need it to succeed – the industry from a rookie’s point of view – and be an agony aunt of sorts to questions like ‘help, I want to be a journalist, but don’t know where to start’.

Amy Oliver has been meaning to become a journalist from about the age of 5, but got slightly sidetracked by the possibility of earning money. She has been freelancing since 2007 and in that time has written for The Times, The Guardian, You magazine, Vogue, Vague Paper as well as local newspaper Bridport News in her hometown of Bridport, Dorset.

She has just started a fast-track NCTJ course at Lambeth College and blogs about her experiences as a slightly mature trainee and not going down the conventional route into journalism. She lives and works in London.

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  • http://brain.queenkv.org Kris

    Hey, I started the graduate program at the Medill School of Journalism when I was 26. I was one of the oldest people in my class. I survived 14-months of class work, a residency at Reuters, a quarter at the D.C. bureau of the Medill wire service and more. Where do you plan on going after the fast track program?

  • john bagnall

    “Am I too old to become a journalist?” Of course not. There are no age limits or social exclusions to telling the truth.

    The issue is getting published. Good luck sharing your experiences.

  • http://none Alun Phillips

    I’m one of those poor saps who always wanted to be a journalist – but now at the age of 69 – I still haven’t made it properly. I blame Mid Wales – during the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s – my allegedly “formative” years – there wasn’t anything here – apart from two very local newspapers. I got to work for those and also the BBC in Wales would accept the odd contribution and for one week in the late Eighties I got to review the newspspers for BBC Radio Cymru. The week went fine but the logistics were dreadful – persuading the local Newsagent to get up at five to let me have a copy of all the dailies,doing the review and then rushing to the
    unmanned studio in Newtown to deliver my deathless prose down the line. I gave up too easily. In “reality” I spent 22 years teaching in Primary and Special Schools in Mid Wales.
    Eventually my mid-life crisis took care of that in 1984. I went into financial services working for Allied Dunbar to begin with. Afrer six months I formed my own brokerage but when all of that came to an end due to the vagaries of legislation – when the Thatcher Government moved the goalposts for freelance brokers in order to clean up the industry. It worked well didn’t it?
    Anyway – to cut a very long story short – here I am -still trying to “make it” in the worled of journalism. I’m pretty busy – mostly covering local events in the Welsh and English languages. The internet is marvellous. In the Sixties I used to cover football matches on a Saturday and deliver my copy by hand on the Monday.
    Now I can feed all the media at any time of the day or night
    – and send photographs – and I haven’t even started looking into the possibilities of sending “speech” and video down the line. I now have more time to be positive about being a journalist. Because of blogs and other technological wonders
    there are more opportunities than ever to get your work in something. There is more competition too – but then – that is when “survival of the fittest” comes into play. The sad thing is that media organisations expect candidates to be formally trained before they can be considered – but on the other hand they very generously run training schools of their own for hopefuls. My advice is to go for it. Never give up your dream – and if its really what you want to do you’ll have to make a few sacrifices along the way.

  • James

    Hello there mate – I am 27 and doing the part-time NCTJ at noSWeat in Clarkenwell. I feel wretchedly old compared to all the gleaming, bright graduates on the course. I don’t think we are too old, though. A good journalist is a good journalist, no matter what age – and editors will be good at spotting them.

    Here’s hoping you do well, and I will re-visit your blog regularly!

  • Joanna

    Hi,

    I did a post-grad journo course at the London School of Journalism a couple of years ago when I was 28. In contrast to other people’s comments I found that most people on my course were around my age (or above) and looking for a career change.

    In my experience a little bit of career experience outside journo-land can be an enormous advantage when demonstrating you’re the right person for a particular commission and can give you the added advantage over those straight out of college.

    So the question shouldn’t be ‘are we too old?’, rather it should be ‘are they too young?’!

  • Amy

    Hi,

    Thanks for reading and leaving your posts. The next post will be up at some point early next week – shorthand permitting of course!

    Kris, just to answer your question I have two weeks work experience at the Independent in February. I’m looking to line up some more and have been told by my tutor that we’re overhauling CV’s and applying for jobs from next week! There’s no messing at Lambeth College, let me tell you.

    Alun, I totally understand what you mean by giving in too easily. There are a lot of cynics around – mainly in my family. I’m going to write about being formally trained in my next post so stay tuned if you’re interested!

    James, the rival from noSWeat! How you finding it?

  • Nick

    I did the Sheffield College fast-track course when I was 29. I turned 30 less than 3 weeks after the course finished and actually secured a trainee job on my birthday. There was another 29-year-old on my course and someone in their 40s (although he did drop out).
    Quite a few of the recruits at my paper turned to journalism in their mid-20s so 28 is pretty normal. I think a lot of the graduates are far too naive to be decent general news reporters and lack the life experience needed to ask the right questions so I think 28 is a great age to get into it.
    The shorthand is by far the most difficult bit but my advice is to make sure you work hard for the first four months as it’s far worse trying to pass shorthand after your course finishes and a lot of places no longer even look at the CVs of trainees who haven’t passed 100wpm.

  • http://www.sabuhimir.net Sabuhi Mir

    Hi Amy

    First of all, let me say this blog is great and a great idea! I personally think at 28-years-old you are not too old to become a journalist or return to college to do an NCTJ-accredited qualification.

    I, however, am 34 and I really think I am too old to go back to college and study journalism. What do you think? I fear most people, if I did go back to college would be in their late teens early 20s.

    Studying journalism is something I have always wanted to do but work has always got in the way. I have held several staff jobs at national newspapers and magazines and not having shorthand hasn’t really got in the way. But I am largely now a web journalist so shorthand is not really needed.

    Anyway, keep up the good blog!
    Sabuhi

  • http://www.plentyonyourplate.comandwww.plentyonyourplate.blogspot.com Chris Gaynor

    Just read your blog – and whilst it’s good, it is a little glossy on the side of just how difficult journalism is to get into.

    I graduated from noSWeat in Clerkenwell three years ago, I am now 26 and still struggling to find one.

    I have decided, rather than keep applying for endless jobs and getting no luck, why not create my own journalism.

    I have the qualifications and a tiny bit of experience…I even did work in Romania, so,I have set up my own website http://www.plentyonyourplate.com and my own blogsite http://www.plentyonyourplate.blogspot.com – You dont have to work in the mainstream media to be a journalist.

    Even though I do not have a mainstream media job, or to that matter a journalist job, I consider myself a 100% journalist through writing and editing my own website.

    To that matter I have HTML and Dreamweaver training under my belt as well….

    So, my advice to anyone is, if struggling, create your own journalism…

    And also, can I just add, you are one of the luckier ones to have got stuff published on national papers as it is extremely difficult to get stuff published on mainstream newspapers… unless its on a blog ofcourse….but dont get me ranting on blogs….As I kind of have a disdain for the mainstream media when it comes to them not crediting blogs from stories…..

    RANT OVER…

  • http://www.TrippingTheGlobe.com Brad

    My wife and I started submitting articles on a freelance basis to US newspapers when we were in our 40’s. She writes, I take photos. Within two years we averaged 6 million readers per submission. Even though we produce travel articles, not serious news pieces our credentials (NY Times, Boston Globe, etc.)was an open invitation to write for other sections of the newspapers. Another open door to editors would be to have a working knowledge of photography, video and editing ability of each.

    Because of vanishing budgets in the US newspaper industry we now need to get creative in monetizing our efforts. What my wife and I are starting to do is to trade our articles, photos and videos for “followed” backlinks from online newspapers to our websites. These quality links help optimize our site thereby bringing in more visitors. We make our money by these visitors clicking through to relevant merchants on our websight/blog. We still stay in print also, as there are still many benefits to being there.
    Being very cutting edge, this way of breaking into newspapers is opening many doors for us as it’s a win/win for all.

    Good luck in entering the journalism field, you’re never too old. And while being educated in traditional methods, keep one eye outside the box. This is where the future of journalism lies.

    (please forgive my writing – I am the photographer part of my team)

  • http://www.vincentzandri.com Vincent Zandri

    Hi,
    I remember entering MFA school at the ripe old age of 29, married with two little boys at home. I gave up the security of a family business to put all my efforts into writing which up until that time had been part time. I also remember thinking, Am I too old? Now at 44, with several books under my belt, two more in the works, numerous articles and editing jobs to get done, I still feel like I haven’t completely immersed myself in journalism the way I should have. And at 44 I ask myself, am I took old? Hell, I run four miles a day, train with weights five days a week, the kids are grown and I’m in a punk band. Next on my list, I’d like to become a foreign correspondent. The real question is, am I too old to be in a bunk band? (www.myspace/theblisterz.com)…In any case, you have great credits and you are definitely not too old!!!
    Cheers
    V

  • http://www.angelacorrias.blogspot.com Angela

    I have started working as a journalist in Italy in my early twenties and now I’m starting out freelancing in London at the grand old age of 29. Life is tough at any age. Good luck all!

  • http://goodnewsglobe.blogspot.com chris macrae

    Just to be cheeky, we are looking for 10000 good news journalists mainly in the under 20’s range http://goodnewsglobe.blogspot.com

    It seems to us that there is all sorts of good news and solutions to global banking crises etc that never get covered by the BBC or other mass media because real sustainability innovations are too micro. Did you know that Bangladesh now installs more solar units than the USA and openly wants to share its proof that thriving carbon negative economics is simple for any community with sunshine -why don’t we celebrate good news like this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YewyIARIaIM Gordon Brown came over to pledge support at Clinton Global last week http://www.clintonglobalinitiative.org/NETCOMMUNITY/Page.aspx?pid=2827&srcid=2392 but why is it that scandals can nag on in tabloids for 30 days but good news leadership perish within 24 hours

    We believe that the student year 08/9 is a once in a generation opportunity to ask where do we want global to go- can we network around millennium goals as realities to action not just nice sounding social images. From Oct 14, we have 10000 dvds of good news video conversation starters to give out to clusters of uni students – do say (info@worldcitizen.tv) if you know a group who would like to play good news journalism

    Of course we’d love 28 year olds to join in too if they have peers or media spaces open to give this a dialogue from every angle not just the usual 1-dimensional political poles.

  • Roz

    What is everyone going on about? I did my NCTJ at 31 and I wasn’t the oldest person there by a long chalk.
    The only bar to retraining is money. If you have a mortgage it’s pretty much impossible trying to survive on a trainee wage. I ditched all my financial commitments and went for it. I’ve never looked back.

  • Charlotte

    No, you’re not too old at all. I’m 23 and doing a postgrad broadcast journalism course but the people on the course range in age from just turned 21 to about 48. There’s quite a few people who are about the same age as you and have worked in boring things like recruitment for a few years earning decent money and then decided to pursue their dream. Good luck with your course, it sounds as if you have some good contacts, given the papers you have written for.

    All the best,

    Charlotte

  • Kizzie

    YOur situation sounds so similar to mine – without however the succesful freelance career you’ve had…
    I’ve just started the LIverpool course – I’m 29 and about and most of the people on my course are 23. The worst thing is being asked what I’ve done for the last 7 years since my degree and then saying I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was about 12 – I always assumed I’d fail as everyone banged on about how difficult the industry is.I did a BTEC in journalism last year and got a distinction so teh NCTJ seemed like a natural progression…

    I learnt abit of shorthand last year so I’m alright on the theory but 100wpm by january is pretty scary. Reporters on my placement who’ve already done the course – their advice is shorthand, shorthand. shorthand!

    The editor on my placement says the news writing exam is a load of pants and not at all representative of what you’d actually be doing on a newspaper – we are currently already going though the past exams papers – basically re writing ridiculously wordy badly written press releases ( i’ve had work experiencce on various publications and have never seen anything like it). My tutor likens it to taking your driving test in that you’ll never write like it again – when you’re an actual journalist. Worryingly though more people on the previous courses have failed the news writing exam, than the shorthand…

    Looking forward to you next post!

  • Kizzie

    oh – also how does one get it to freelancing for the indie/Guardian? I’m already looking at jobs but havn’t found anything where I wanna be – preferably london..

  • http://www.computescotland.com Gail

    Hey, I had to get a degree to get my mother satisfied, before I could move towards journalism (no degrees on the subject back then and no courses either, and without an NUJ ticket – forget it! And the NUJ despised people with degrees as not the ‘right’ hard-knocks material that would make journalists. Made it eventually, thanks to tireless help and advise on the job by early editor/mentors who taught me everything, from how not to write an essay when it was meant to be a feature, to working on and enlivening arcane subjects like industry & computers!
    Sounds like Amy’s got the drive for the job. The best thing to learn from the NCTJ course is how to make everything you have to write about capable of spinning into more than just one paid-for piece. It’s a neat trick and ensures your income. I have seen being used, but simply never mastered it myself!

  • Rola Mansour

    When I was 28 almost 9 years ago, I had the same fatal attitude: I was too old. Little did I know, I was not. For Gods sake you are only 28. when you are 58 then yes think that thought, and look at some one who is 28, then you will realize how young they are.

    Basically I was moving house and came across some old offers and letters. I realized the doors were open but my brain was under the restrain that I was too old to join the media.

    Just try and keep trying all sorts of media exist and certainly need good writers with wit and professionalism.

  • Krupa

    I have just completed the BBC’s revamped news trainee programme -now known as the BBC journalism trainee scheme where the main criteria is that you must not have a broadcast journalism qualification. The oldest trainee was 38, the youngest 22 and I, at the age of 25 decided to abandon my 3 years working in the international development sector in the hoping of returning to it one day via my journalism. I am now a freelancer with the World Service and Radio 4.

    Many editors I speak to say that too many journalists enter the industry straight after university with no other experience. Journalism needs diverse life experience and despite not having any journalistic training, my three years working in the migration sector have really been welcomed. I’ve learnt from some of the best journalists that you’re never too old.

    You blog describes exactly how I felt when I started from scratch on the trainee scheme. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and good luck with the course.

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  • Amy Oliver

    Hi,

    I just wanted to reply to Sabuhi. Sabubi, it sounds like you already are a journalist?! I don’t think you’re too old to start retraining. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of life experience that you could apply to the job and more importantly, as my journalism teacher keeps going on about, an ability to empathise with people.

    When do you know you’ve become a journalist? This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. While I’ve got quite a good portfolio together I still don’t consider myself a journalist.
    Not yet.

    Sabuhi you don’t consider yourself a journalist even though you write for web and have had several staff newspaper jobs!

    Also Chris Gaynor. In your ‘rant’ (!) you say you are still looking for a job but have set up a website and blog.

  • Gemma

    Hi Amy,

    I was delighted to see the message about your blog on Facebook as I too am 28 and have just begun my NCTJ. I’m doing it distance learning though my work though. I don’t work at a publication/newspaper and i’ve never done any kind of journalism before so it’s a whole new experience for me. I have to admit when I got my course books though I was a bit daunted. My colleagues were really reassuring though as they are in the same boat. I’m finding the text book intersting so far though and i’ve started on teeline. I’m just wondering how I will ever get a chance to build a portfolio though when I work full time. One of my colleagues suggested that you can write articles in the style of different publications as you only have to prove you understand how to? Any advice would be much appreciated. How did you get started freelancing? Thanks! Gemma

  • Amy Oliver

    Hi Gemma,

    I think it’s really admirable that you are doing your NCTJ as a distance course and while working! Keep us posted on how you’re getting on especially with shorthand.

    How long do you get to do it or is it at your own pace?

    My second post details how I got my first piece out so take a look at that if you like.

    http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/2008/10/09/too-old-to-become-a-journalist-how-i-started-freelancing/

    A

  • http://jezhemmingjn2053.blogspot.com Jez Hemming

    Hi there Amy.

    I’m 42 years-old and in year two of my BA Hons in Journalism at UCLan, Preston.

    After a morning’s infusion of ginseng, donning my support pants and affixing my dentures to my rapidly shrinking palate, I consider myself eminently qualified to comment, report and enthuse on the world at large.

    I’ve got a little bit of local newspaper experience and a shedload of life experience and salute anyone who changes path and has a go at their dream.

    So far my young and fragrant colleagues are keeping up with me reasonably well, which is possibly due to me being reluctant to drink myself into unconsciousness most weeknights.

    Good luck to you and I’m bookmarking your blog to see how you get on.

    All the best

    Jez.

  • Bob Bonnington

    Children please!

    As one poster said: “Life is tough at any age.” This is so true. I know because I’ve been there.

    I’m about half way through NCTJ Fast Track Magazines course at Harlow School of Journalism and from what I’ve seen ability, confidence, and commitment are the keys to success. Age doesn’t really come into it a great deal. (OK I concede maybe it does when it comes to shorthand as the speed of mental processing declines with age.)

    To my joy my job ‘disappeared’ last year and the severance pay has allowed me to strike-out to pastures new. I’ve been freelancing since then doing copy editing, newsletter articles, and graphics. All modest stuff, all paid, all published.

    I wanted to improve my writing skills and knowledge of the magazine industry. I passed the NCTJ test and signed-up for the September fast track programme and have never regretted a day since.

    Best wishes

    Bob

    PS I’m 58—do I win a prize?

  • Natalie Wall

    Hi Amy,

    Loving your blog and have found it very inspiring as I am also 28 and (cue X-Factor style Westlife key-change music) attempting to avoid a lifetime of meaningless drudgery and follow my dream of becoming a writer. Unfortunately, my tale is more woeful than most: I haven’t got a degree (through choice, might I add – I was all set to study English Lit at Liverpool Uni but decided not to take up my place there, then ended up building a career as a fashion buyer, but it wasn’t really flicking my switch…). I’m finding this lack of a higher qualification really frustrating as I’m not having much joy in getting onto an NCTJ course without one. Tis a shame, as I left the world of fashion at the start of the year to work as a copywriter; have submitted pieces to online magazines and have got a 2-week work experience placement at a local rag next month. But I really know I need to get the skills that the NCTJ course provides under my belt in order to be taken seriously as a writer. So Amy, I just wanted to know if you have a degree and if anyone else has had simlar experiences? I strongly feel that ability and passion, coupled with important “life-skills” gained through not going to university should be equally as attractive when applying for NCTJ courses – any thoughts anyone?!

    All the best,
    Natalie

  • Amy Oliver

    Hi Natalie,

    First of all, congratulations – you have no student debt! I however have a degree, an overdraft and a student loan that Mr Brown continues to add interest too.

    The degree is in creative advertising on the copywriting side.

    You don’t say what kind of journalism you hope to specialise in if at all – is it fashion related or are you interested in news?

    What were you doing in fashion before? Could you use it to muscle in somewhere i.e. a fashion mag?

    I hear you about the degree but I don’t see why it should stop you in your tracks. The course I’m on at Lambeth specifies that you must have a degree to get on it. They do run a foundation degree which I believe is two years.

    Have you looked on the NCTJ website? They have all the courses listed – I think I read that Darlington took people without degrees. Darlington has an amazing reputation as well. Why not give the NCTJ a call and ask for advice.

    Great on the work experience for the local publication and also the writing for online magazines. One of my posts on this blog details how I started freelancing from scratch so check it out if you like.

    I think the key is to believe that you can do anything you want at this stage. If you have a story, pitch the idea to a national – what have you got to loose? Phone up / email all the publications you are interested in and ask them about work experience.

    The trouble with being our age and getting work experience is that old chestnut – the rent. I don’t know what your situation is but if you can comfortably work for free for a bit then my advice is to get as much as you can.

    Hope that is helpful. I’m off to do my shorthand. Sigh.

    Amy

  • Amy Oliver

    I’ve just read your comment Jez. Ha Ha and yes, while I expect you are tarring me with the childish Mason Pearson, I know what you mean about the babes drinking till dawn. Facebook never lies.

  • Nat

    I need a bit of help with working out whether to do a degree or NCTJ or both!!
    What’s it like at lambeth?

    I think I have decided to do a BA in journalism on a NCTJ accredited course so that I can have both a degree and the NCTJ qualification. It will be about a year shorter if I done them both together.

    Can anyone suggest the best universities to get a BA in journalism which is NCTJ accredited? I really need some help. There are so many to choose from on the NCTJ site.

    On the other hand i am also thinking of doing a foundation degree closer to home at lambeth college in london. I can sit my NCTJ exams there and then after my course I have the chance to study for a extra year at the metropolitan university to get my BA.
    hmm im nt sure…
    Is both a degree and the NCTJ qualification needed to gain entry into the industry or should i just do the NCTJ?!

    Natalie xxxx

  • Natalie Wall

    Hi Amy,

    Thought I’d post back on here, as this is still my favourite part of your blog thus far! Tis the entry that inspired me as many of your doubts here echo mine. And btw, the “Nat” above is not my alter-ego, although we do have similar stories.

    I just wanted to say thanks for taking the time out of your busy (short hand dominated) schedule to pacify my dramatic quandaries – and you’ve really spurred me on! I promise I’ll stop gushing-with-intent now…

    Nope, I don’t have a mountain of student debt… well, not much, anyway. I started at Uni but had to leave (and before the chorus of “drop-out!” commences, it was cos I had to have major surgery. So there!). I still managed to cash half my student loan and had a bit of a spend to cheer me up whilst I was recovering. Oops.

    Ideally, I’d l-o-v-e to specialise in fashion writing – but like my previous career, have picked possibly the most competitive area! You’re right, I have still got a reasonable black book with a few contacts worth, well, contacting – once I bag the NCTJ that is…

    I’ve moved the local paper work experience to the New Year to tie-up my copy writing commitments nicely, and have applied to do the NCTJ at (don’t hate me; but a degree isn’t a prerequisite there) leafy noSWeat in suburbia heights, ha ha. I’m also going to try and get further unpaid work experience under my waist-cinching belt (for as long as Him Indoors is willing to sub my rent…) and continue the copy writing part time.

    The short hand (and work experience woes) sound absolutely gruesome but well worth it in the long term. Right? I was a-wonderin’ is there any way I can email you directly? Do let me know, as I’m thinking there may be ways we could work together……

    Let me know what you recks

    Natalie xx

  • Alexandra

    I think that this is a really interesting blog.. with many things in life, i believe everything gets better with life experience and journalism surely would be no exception.

    Krupa- I am so interested to hear what you think the best route may be into International Development journalism?! Apart from one competition in The Guardian, i have seen nothing so i presume the only route is to go into EITHER International developmanet OR Journalism and try and infiltrate the other in later? Would you say it is better to go into the international development side of things first?

    Any advice you have would be greatly appreciated!!!

    Alex

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  • Nicki

    I am 31 and have a 9 month old daughter. I am studying my NCTJ distance learning whilst on maternity leave and will continue with it when I return to work.

    I am due to sit my PA exams in May. I am currently studying law (defamation is a nightmare) but I am getting there with support from my lecturer and it is sinking in.

    I wanted to go into journalism straight after uni but with student loans and a mortgage to pay for, I didn’t have the option of doing a one year course. Instead, I attended a fast track course but it wasn’t for me, I wish I had known about distance learning years ago.

    I sometimes worry that I am too old but when I qualify I will be 32, so hopefully my life skills and experience of working in different areas will be beneficial.

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