Erin writes: "Hi Rachel, I read your blog often and I really like it. It gives me a good insight into the world of journalism and especially freelancing, which I’m quite interested in.
I was wondering if you could give me some advice - I have been offered work experience at a major women’s magazine. It’s only for a week and it’ll be next year.
I was wondering if there is anything I should do while I’m there (other than just be diligent, respectful, etc.) For instance, should I get clips together? Should I start work on an article and give it to someone while I’m there? Is work experience actually a big deal in journalism (this magazine is only accepting people who are students in related degrees, so I assume it will actually be somewhat career related), or will I only get better at preparing coffee?”
First up, congratulations on scoring the work experience gig. As you’ve probably guessed from the number of workies credited on magazine mastheads each issue, it’s far from a guaranteed job, but if you play your cards right (and have luck on your side), it could be the first step on the road to getting one. At the very least, you should have a fun week that will give you an insight into how the industry operates, and whether you want to work in it.
The bad news: requisite media degrees aside, unless you’re at a small magazine (which, as your email indicates, you won’t be), don’t expect to spend your week picking out covers, editing the copy or writing features. And even if you were at a small magazine, you wouldn’t be picking out the cover - you just might have the good fortune of being in the same room as the editor and art director while they’re doing it.
When I did work experience at ACP back at the beginning of 2005, I spent my week fetching coffee, picking up items from the mail room, dropping off garments that had been used in fashion shoots, photocopying, searching gossip magazines for celebrity fashion trends to feature, fetching the editor’s lunch, transcribing stories, rearranging the marketing cupboard and doing the odd bit of fact checking. Not exactly glamorous work, but I was buzzed just to be in the building: and as work experience girls go, I was a pretty experienced one (I was already freelancing for the Sydney Morning Herald at the time).
So, how do you stand out from the literally hundreds of other students who go through these programs each year? Better yet, how do you translate a week in the office into a job?
Like you said, there’s the obvious stuff: be friendly, enthusiastic, demonstrate a good understanding of the magazine, don’t chuck tantrums, don’t tweet (or Facebook, for that matter) about what a %&$@ that one annoying staffer is. But beyond that?
Having never worked as a staffer at a large magazine company myself, I decided to take your question to some ladies who have. Their responses were remarkably consistent.
- It’s all about relationships. There are some very talented people working in the magazine industry, but who gets their foot in that initial door is less a matter of raw ability (this isn’t just a mag thing - the same can be said of a lot of famous writers/journalists/”public intellectual” types) than it is about being a familiar, likeable face. This is your chance to get your face known and to make people like it. You want them to think you’re talented and committed, yes, but you also want them to like you.
"A lot of it is also down to attitude. You need to make people want to work with you!" says Tania Gomez, Deputy Editor of Cleo. ”If you’re friendly and enthusiastic, you’re much more likely to win people over and be offered future work either on staff or as a contributor.”
- Get to know the magazine’s staff. This goes for both before you turn up and while you’re there. “Look at the masthead before you go and try to remember the names and positions of the people that work there,” says Sarah Oakes, Editor of Sunday Life and former editor of Cleo and Girlfriend. ”I’ve been asked by many workies ‘what do you do here?’ which is totally cool, but if you want to work at that particular magazine I think you should do your homework and know the names of the Editor, Deputy Editor, Art Director and Features Editor.”
Sarah also suggests sending an email to the staffer whose job you most covet and asking if you can spend 10 minutes with them. “Come with questions prepared and know their work. For example, if it’s writer ask some questions about their recent work, same with the designers and layouts/covers,” she says.
- Know the line between enthusiastic and pushy. All the staffers I spoke to advised against bringing in your portfolio or pre-prepared pitches. “This is often seen as an annoying distraction that editors don’t have time for,” said one staffer who asked to remain anonymous. “Look out for the fine line between being ambitious and being pushy. Sure, you want to work in magazines – but being aggressive (and potentially annoying) generally doesn’t work.”
If you want to dip a toe in the writing waters while you’re there, it’s better to start with smaller, simpler stuff: book reviews, quizzes, ideas for the magazine’s regular sections, and so on.
"When I’m in the office, I’m busy - I can’t babysit work experience girls," says Zoe Foster, Editor-at-Large of Primped and former Beauty Director at Harpers Bazaar and Cosmopolitan. ”But! If you send me a little email with some ideas for jobs you see or think need doing (for example, sourcing current celebrity beauty-based quotes) or would be of help, or some writing you can do so I can give you feedback, I’m so happy to oblige. That brand of quiet, valuable initiative impresses me.”
- Follow up. Probably the most important tip of all. When you’ve got 50-150+ work experience students going through the office each year, even the most enthusiastic, charming and talented workie is going to find it hard to turn the experience into something more substantial if they don’t follow up afterwards.
The easiest and most effective way to do this is to enquire about applying for an internship. “At the end of the week, ask to speak to the head of the department you want to work in - for example, the fashion editor, features editor, etc, NOT the magazine’s editor - about doing a more formal internship,” advises one staffer who asked not to be named. ”Internships are mostly unpaid, and generally you’ll have to come into the office at least one day a week. But they offer an invaluable experience and they’re the best way to get into the industry. You’ll develop better relationships with the staff, and in time you’ll be given more responsibility. This is your best chance of actually getting a magazine gig.”
Obviously, this can be a bit tricky if you live interstate. In that case, I’d suggest making it clear that you’d like to do more work experience at the mag, and keeping in contact with the editorial coordinator to see if any spaces open up in the coming months (workies can often drop out with little notice, which is why some magazines take on several each week).
And if freelancing is your interest, try to get your 10 minutes of face time with the deputy editor or features editor, and ask them what they look for in pitches. While it can be tricky to break into, freelancing can be a great way to build a relationship with a magazine, which can eventually lead to job opportunities in and of itself.
- And if all else fails, try bribing them with sugar. It might sound cheap, but who doesn’t like cookies?
Over to you. What’s your experience of work experience been? Ever managed to turn an internship into a job? And I know quite a few newspaper and magazine staffers read this blog - what makes an intern or workie stand out in your opinion? (Feel free to respond anonymously if you like.)