Being a stellar writer, communicator and digital content creator are all principal aspects of succeeding as a journalist today—but that’s not all it takes to master your craft in this career.
What are the core skills and qualities that journalists possess that can help them tell compelling and important stories?
There are many technical skills to adopt and hone to keep up with an industry that thrives on change, especially as we’ve shifted into a digital journalism-dominated space. As you work on your technical and platform knowledge, don’t forget about the soft skills and traits of successful journalists that keep you anchored in the field without compromising value.
6 must-have skills for anyone who wants to be a journalist
Ready to pursue the fast-paced career of journalism? Here are six skills you need to be successful.
Journalism is a truth-seeking pursuit—one that requires you to keep your biases and personal views far away from the story you’re trying to tell.
And speaking of storytelling, to do it well and bias-free, you have to be humble.
In “The Elements of Journalism,” authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel describe a scientific-like approach to getting the right facts called the Discipline of Verification, and it’s based on three core concepts: transparency, humility and originality.
However, we live in a thirsty society that esteems virality and getting news ASAP, even if the information isn’t factually accurate. (#FakeNews.) This leads many modern journalists to rush through story development to break trending news first.
That’s a huge mistake.
Boston writer, teacher and writing coach Kendra Stanton Lee says, “You need humility when you ask a question and a source answers and you don’t understand the obscure reference they make, or a rather splashy pop culture reference you still need to be decoded.”
Journalists may think, “Oh, I’ll just google it later,” but Kendra thinks it’s worth leading with curiosity. “There’s nothing like the explanation you’ll get from a source who cares. Don’t let your pride get in the way of a perfectly wonderful surprise.”
Being able to tell stories that impact people and inform them of the world around them is a privilege, and approaching journalism with humility can keep you from overlooking that—not to mention the details that make the story whole.
2. Sharp listening skills
On top of humility, being a good listener can help you chase and tell stories earnestly.
For example, rather than lean on your own understanding of a story, always be open to learning more—especially since new information might change its course.
Once you’ve done the research, it can be easy to get caught up in what you think your story is and over-estimate your knowledge. “But you still have to be willing to put aside your ego and ask your sources big, open questions and pay attention to what is said—or not said,” advises Lisa.
So, how else can journalists hone this key interpersonal and professional skill?
- Listen for the emotions that paint the words of your interviewee.
- Rather than interrupt someone when they’re talking, paraphrase their thoughts when they’re done to ensure you understand them.
- Listen to body cues, not just words.
- Refrain from jumping to conclusions.
Finally, during interviews, know where your expertise begins and ends.
Lisa says, “A lot of times when I speak with subject matter experts for a story and I know it’s going to be more of a conversation than a straight Q and A, I’ll tell them, ‘I know enough about this topic to be dangerous, so if you hear me say something that’s totally off base, please stop me.’”
Maybe you call this skill tenacity; maybe you like to think of it as persistence—either way, the question remains: Can you hang tough?
Featured across publications like the New York Times, The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan and much more, full-time freelance journalist Susan Shain knows the importance of perseverance in this field.
She explains that beyond always being willing to follow up with sources about stories or with editors about pitches or edits, “You need to accept that ‘Just following up!’ will be the most common email you send.”
To be a successful journalist, you can’t hesitate to go the extra mile to fact-check stories, hone your writing skills, find ways around no’s, get creative to stay up-to-date with relevant news or push through (the many) obstacles.
Plus, be ready “to call people—on the phone!—and call back when they don’t answer,” says Susan. And you need lots of perseverance for that, too.
We don’t call it “chasing stories” for no reason, right?
While networking is important in most industries, it’s especially critical for journalists.
Building out your network both physically and digitally is useful to find the right sources or to help you land competitive stories in esteemed publications. No matter how you take advantage of it, prioritizing networking as a foundation of your career will only help you evolve as a journalist.
Kelly Anne Smith, a consumer finance reporter for Forbes Advisor, says, “One of the best tips I can give is to constantly be making connections with sources—both new and old.”
This is a task she takes seriously. Kelly Anne spends one day each week emailing and connecting with people she’s worked on stories with in the past, simply asking what they’re reading about or working on that week.
Sometimes, she explains, they share “super interesting” tidbits of information that have the potential of becoming a story. But overall, “Keeping a constant connection with them usually means it’ll be easier to utilize their insights or get a quote from them to use in a story with a tight turnaround.” Win-win!
Kelly Anne also points out that the pandemic forced many events online—but it’s still not a deterrent to effective networking.
In fact, she considers webinars a great tool to learn about new research or find new sources. “I try [to] attend at least one or two webinars a week, if possible,” she says, adding, “Definitely take advantage of these being readily available right now.”
The “curiosity killed the cat” idiom has no place in journalism — because your career will be very short-lived without this core value.
According to Susan, curiosity is the No. 1 skill any journalist must have. (And she’s right.)
“If you aren’t curious about the world, you aren’t going to want to write about it,” she poses. “You should always be asking ‘Why?’, and always pushing yourself to dig deeper.”
Curiosity is the driving force behind capturing any story well. It’s what incentivizes you to ask questions that’ll uncover new information, plus why you’ll desire to learn new methods to conduct research and deliver stories.
If you don’t have a thirst for knowledge and discovering the best ways to share it with others, add this skill to the list of ones you need to work on.
6. Time management
“Time management isn’t a sexy skill,” admits Susan, “but it’s an essential one.”
Unfortunately for many journalists seeking a work/life balance, the news cycle doesn’t come with business hours, so busyness is par for the course.
Between meetings, writing stories within deadlines, researching, staying organized and more, time management is key to navigating your many tasks without mixing up important details.
“Although staying on top of interviews, edits and deadlines can be a tough juggle,” says Susan, “it’s the only way you’ll become a reporter who editors trust.” (Pro-tip: maintaining positive relationships with editors is incredibly important to booking repeat work!)
Try out a few of these time management strategies:
- Make a master to-do list that categorizes your tasks based on level of importance.
- Keep a detailed spreadsheet that documents active stories and deadlines and progress notes, plus one to track sent pitches.
- Learn to delegate!
- Schedule time for distractions and interruptions to let your brain breathe.
- Don’t wait for the right inspiration or moment to write — just start.
In case you missed it, for those who work on the other side of the media spectrum, we also covered the top public relations skills.
Tyler Burt is the events and partnerships specialist at Muck Rack. Previously, he worked on the revenue team as a sales development representative, following a career as a publicist.