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Beginner’s Guide to Political Reporting Jobs

A scrum of reporters surround Ted Cruz following his 21-hour filibuster against the Affordable Care Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
A scrum of reporters surround Ted Cruz following his 21-hour filibuster against the Affordable Care Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

So you want to be a reporter? You want to join the profession listed as among the worst jobs of 2014 , at a time when publishing industry is going through a “period of turmoil ”?  

For some of us, that answer is “yes.” It’s a reporter’s life’s for you.  

And who can blame you? You can spend your day writing. You have readers. You can break news. You can write about issues you care about. It can be incredibly rewarding. So much so, that we all keep coming back every day to do it — Hill Navigator included.  

Part of maintaining an effective advice column is knowing when someone else can provide the better answer; so when a question on cub reporting came in, Hill Navigator sought counsel from one of Roll Call’s own experts: Politics Editor Shira T. Center .  

(Fun fact: Hill Navigator and Shira were once corresponding flack-hacks on a congressional race. And now we’re co-workers. Small world.) Her wisdom is below.

Q. My name is Ben. I’m a junior at Fordham University, where I am editor-in-chief and congressional affairs correspondent for my school’s Fordham Political Review, an undergraduate publication for which I’ve established a print edition. I’ve become very interested in political journalism, and particularly coverage of Congress in my tenure as a Fordham student, and I am a daily reader of Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, etc. If I am to become a congressional correspondent, that is, a reporter who has the ability to cover the Senate, congressional elections, etc. and write my own opinion columns, how valuable is graduate journalism school and what steps should I take to get more involved with political publications should I decide to go?

A. Welcome to the biz, Ben.  

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, political journalism is a thrilling, hyper-competitive and challenging industry in the midst of massive market upheaval. I’ve covered Congress and campaigns for a decade, and I still think we have the best gigs in town. The access to lawmakers is unparalleled: There are hundreds of ticking quote time bombs — er, members of Congress — walking the marble hallways with you every day. You write news with impact, explore the country on the campaign trail and participate in Capitol Hill camaraderie.  

Some days, I still can’t believe I get paid to do this job. Let’s hope Roll Call’s Editor-in-Chief, Christina Bellantoni , never feels the same way.  

From what you’ve described, it sounds like you’re doing everything you should be during the school year to prepare for a career in political journalism. If you can snag some writing-intensive journalism internships during the summer, you will be in a solid position to enter the industry after graduation.  

That is, you and the thousands of other journalism and political science grads in the class of 2015. So what’s going to give you an advantage? This past spring, I spent a lot of time talking to college students applying for jobs in Washington, D.C., as a resident fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Here are some of my best suggestions:  

WRITE. There aren’t many things that have stayed the same about journalism since I graduated from college, except for this. You need good clips. When I hire folks for our politics desk, I examine their writing just as closely as their résumés. Spoiler alert for future applicants: I give finalists a writing test and ask them to drum up a few story pitches. Make sure you have at least five strong stories for your portfolio before you graduate, preferably from a couple different publications. Prospective employers will probably Google your byline as well to check out your less-than-stellar clips.  

NETWORK . Make a list of everyone you know in Washington, D.C., and everyone you know who knows someone connected to Congress or the press corps here. Reach out to them and say you’re seeking advice about working as a reporter on Capitol Hill. If that goes well, ask if you can take them out to coffee when you’re in town. I recommend planning a couple trips for the sole purpose of networking. Some students feel awkward about this process because it’s so transactional, but you shouldn’t. You’re just asking for job advice — not a job itself. You’re probably not the first email they have received asking for thoughts on a journalist’s career path.  

PERSIST . Journalism is probably one of the only industries where there might be no such thing as being too aggressive. Don’t call us every day until we hire you. But remember to follow up on your networking with regular updates (email is best, no more than once every other month until you graduate). Try to stay on the front of our minds in case there’s office chatter about an opening. I figure if you’re persistent and aggressive with me, you’re probably the same way with your sources.  

You asked about journalism graduate school. Every program is different, but in short, I’m not a fan unless you’re making a career transition, have minimal journalism experience, or plan to use it to acquire very specific skills. For example, coding, video editing and production are an added value for a young journalist’s résumé.  

Otherwise, if you have strong journalism experience, graduate school might not be a sound investment. Unlike your friends at business school, it’s going to be a lot harder for you to pay off those loans on your scribe’s salary.  

I went to a school with a renowned journalism program, Northwestern University. I majored in political science but benefited from having a strong journalism school on campus. My best training came from our student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, which was filled with journalism majors.  

After graduation, I used clips from The Daily Northwestern and one from my hometown Pittsburgh magazine to finagle an internship covering the state legislature in Harrisburg, Pa. At the end of the summer, I started regularly driving I-81 to Washington to interview and network in the mornings. Eventually I had three offers on the table: An entry-level gig working on a policy product for a Capitol Hill publication (not Roll Call), a $12-an-hour internship with a think tank’s reporting shop, and an $10-an-hour internship with National Journal’s The Hotline, a gig that started at 6 a.m. every day.  

I chose The Hotline and never regretted it — even when I took the 5:25 a.m. L2 bus five days a week for two years. I mention this because I want to underscore how important it is to pick a first job based on the substantial work you do, not the salary or hours — especially if you’ve never worked in Congress or Washington before. A decade later, I do not miss those extra $2 dollars or few hours of sleep. If you can afford it, get as close to action as possible on Capitol Hill in your first gig.  

Even if you don’t have a long career in journalism or in #ThisTown, the experience will prove valuable on your resume in other industries. You’ll have an insider’s understanding of how our government works forever.

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