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“Make yourself indispensable” – invaluable tips for aspiring journalists

We caught up with our former intern-turned Economics reporter at The Telegraph, Lizzy Burden, to learn about her journey into newspaper journalism and hear her top tips for getting started in the industry.

Filipina-English by birth, Lizzy has lived all over the world, having worked as a fashion model for eight years before becoming a journalist, including walking the fashion weeks of New York, London, Milan and Paris. She’s now economics reporter at The Telegraph, with a focus on international trade. She covers protectionism in the Covid-19 crisis, developments in the post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ project and trade wars between the world’s biggest economies.

Head to our YouTube channel to listen to Lizzy’s top tips or read them below…

“Be open minded – because you don’t know what could suit you until you try it”

Hello, I’m Lizzy Burden, Economics reporter at The Telegraph. I started my career as a Creative Access intern at The Times, so I wanted to share with you a few things that I’ve learned along the way.

When I did The Times internship on the home and foreign news desks, I had no experience in journalism except on my student paper, so it was during those six weeks that I learned to write a news story. I started off turning copy from wires like Reuters into Times-style stories, and then graduated onto writing my own stories that editors would ask me to write, maybe following up on something another paper had written to find a new angle, or turning a press release into a story. Then I was sent out to cover stories like the Salisbury poisoning and Notting Hill carnival, and finally I started pitching my own news to editors. I loved feeling like I was at the helm of what was happening in the world and being around all the savagely witty characters of the newsroom, and I decided that I didn’t want to leave.

“Pick your battles, but never let anyone walk all over you, because people will push you as far as you’ll let them. Work hard, but learn to say no.”

I applied for funding from the journalism diversity fund to complete a fast-track NCTJ which is where I learned short-hand media law and more about writing journalistically. Not spending a whole year on a masters meant I could get back to the newsroom faster, which I found much more beneficial than sitting in a classroom, and during the course I was constantly keeping an eye on the next step. As soon as I finished, I did another two internships at Reuters and Bloomberg, then worked as a producer at the BBC on the daily politics programme, and at the same time I would do night shifts as a reporter with The Times. I was knackered. Then I joined The Times as a grad trainee, where I rotated through the Glasgow office on the Scottish edition of the paper, the business desk and the sub editing team.

I then moved to The Telegraph, where I am an economics reporter specialising in trade, which I love, because my beat sits at the intersection of business, foreign and politics. When I arrived, the biggest issues of the day were Brexit and the US-China trade war, and now I’m covering the biggest economic crisis in centuries, so I really do feel hugely privileged to do what I do.

Applying my experiences to you, here are my six tips on starting your career as a newspaper journalist:

  1. Read widely. Even the papers you don’t agree with, even the sections you find boring, and even the news in brief.
  2. Be open minded – because you don’t know what could suit you until you try it. I didn’t realise how much I’d love financial journalism at first, but what I discovered at Bloomberg was that I really like how it has a quantifiable impact.
  3. Constantly push to level up. If you’re doing work experience, try to turn it into an internship. And if you’re doing an internship, try to turn it into shifts or a grad scheme. Never sit twiddling your thumbs. Come armed with ideas for stories, ask how to improve them if they get rejected, volunteer to help other reporters, ask them where they get stories, look at the news to see if you can follow up on anything. Just always find ways to add value so that you’re remembered. Then at the end, ask what other opportunities are available and ask specifically what you need to do to get onto that next step. Then when you leave, keep in touch.
  4. Break news. Getting scoops seems like luck, but you need to make your own luck to be in the right place at the right time for a tip off. For instance, ring a source quoted by a rival paper and go for a coffee. Find out what’s going on with them and check in regularly. You might wonder where to start if you don’t have a beat yet. When I was on the business desk at The Times as part of the grad scheme, I wasn’t assigned a specific patch to cover, so I made myself one. The retail editor had just left, so I targeted retail stories until they found a replacement for her. And when the new retail editor arrived, the market reporter job was empty, so I volunteered to do that. And if all the beats are taken, look at a rival newspaper and pick a beat your paper doesn’t have covered yet. Make yourself indispensable.
  5. Breaking news is about being first, which means being organised. For example, make twitter lists and subscribe to other people’s lists so you can keep abreast of the current debates in different areas. Put your calls in early as soon as you set a story, so people have time to get back to you well before your deadline. If you’re waiting to cover a speech, write a template with as much other detail as you can beforehand, and keep a diary. And finally, perhaps the hardest lesson of all…
  6. Be okay with conflict. Newsrooms are full of strong characters who will respect you more if you stand up for yourself when you need to. Pick your battles, but never let anyone walk all over you, because people will push you as far as you’ll let them. Work hard, but learn to say no.

You can follow Lizzie on Twitter at @LizzzBurden