Ask a Mentor is a collaboration between J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists. The goal of the section is to provide advice to journalists and journalism students who may not have direct access to a mentor or subject matter expert on a particular topic.Question:
Ellin Bessner is a journalist, professor at Centennial College, in Toronto, and membership chair of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
Journalists are among the most generous professionals I know in terms of “giving back” to their industry. I haven’t met anyone who has adamantly refused a student’s request for networking or for a chat. However, it’s not a process that you should embark on if you have a short deadline, such as an assignment due the next day.
In my long career as a reporter, anchor and producer, I personally have been asked to speak at schools, give career advice to young journos and respond to requests for quotable quotes on course assignments ranging from ethics projects to being a foreign correspondent. I’ve fit in a chat with a young journalist who agreed to ride with me in my minivan while I picked up my kids from elementary school, and I’ve had numerous career advice sessions over coffees and by email with interns, grads and current students. I even dispensed advice at a hockey rink to the Grade 11 son of my kid’s hockey coach who likes entertainment writing (I told him to start a blog now and to write music reviews for his high school newspaper).
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So for anyone who wants to network and contact journalists for career advice, the main suggestion I have is: all you have to do is ask. Really. It’s that simple.
For cold calls, just email them. And you can also just send them a tweet. If all else fails and you don’t get a response, just telephone them and leave a short, clear message. Do it in that order. Then wait. Don’t panic if they don’t answer you right away. You can try again a few days later, but don’t harass them by emailing 20 times a day. They may be on deadline or on an assignment out of the city.
And name drop like crazy. If you have a mutual friend or someone recommended that you contact them, say so. It opens doors. If you liked a particular piece they wrote, say why. Or why not. Then say you’d like some advice on how to do this.
If you want to make things happen, try to be proactive. Go to meet them at an event, like at a news conference. If you are at city hall for your school paper, don’t be shy to ask them (not in the middle of a Rob Ford scrum!) if they could meet with you at another time about career advice. And hand them a business card. (Get some made, if you don’t already have one.) Put your photo on the business card and put your resume on the back of the card. Then, follow it up immediately with an email and ask when might be convenient for a follow-up meeting.
One of my students wanted to interview Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC. She attended a speech that he gave at the University of Toronto, waited in line and buttonholed him at the end of the event. He told her to contact his producer. She did. She kept at it. Three months later, she and her fellow students were sitting in the Q studio at CBC headquarters for an hour in an exclusive interview with Ghomeshi. Oh, and as a gift of thanks, she brought him his favourite pistachio nuts and a scarf of his favourite English soccer team. He loved it.
If you want to meet journalists in a more informal setting, where deadlines aren’t stressing everyone out, attend journalism events in your community put on by the CAJ and by the other Canadian journalism associations like Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Journalists for Human Rights, the Canadian Journalism Foundation, RTNDA and others. Conference workshops and gala dinners are usually free for students if you volunteer, and many have of these organizations have student memberships that are a worthy investment and affordable. Attend events that you are really interested in and approach journalists there. Volunteer for committees. You will work side by side with other more senior journalists. Jobs happen that way.
The Ontario Association of Broadcasters holds an annual Career Day in March in Toronto, held at the Rogers building, where hundreds of students do a kind of “speed-dating” session with hiring managers and newsroom personnel from dozens of Ontario media outlets. This is truly networking on a massive scale with journalists and others who are really open and approachable. Dress nicely. Bring a resume and business card. Follow up the next day. Say thank you.
One Ryerson student of mine started her career working as a TV reporter in a small town in Ontario. She would contact the news director at a television station in the bigger city where she wanted to end up, and every few months, she would get in touch with him and ask him to look at her work. Eventually, she was hired in the bigger market.
One final tip: if you ask a journalist for 15 minutes, they will like it better than if you ask them for an hour. Also, journalists are very busy. So they might want to reply right away. Don’t be surprised if they say, “Why not come now? Or “Want to chat now?” Be prepared.
Good luck. And to start off, you can always contact me at email@example.com.
Got a question? The Canadian Association of Journalists will consult its members across the country to find the appropriate expert to craft a response to your question, which will then be posted on J-Source. Tweet @jsource your question with the hashtag #AskMentor or email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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