World Youth Skills Day: Two Young Journalists on How to Break Into the Field
If you’re a hopeful looking to break into the journalism industry today, you’ll need determination, good contacts and a whole host of specialist skills. Nobody knows this better than Columbia student Mariel Padilla and journalist Beryl Munoko, who between them have landed a prestigious role at the BBC and won a Pulitzer for their work.
After speaking to media entrepreneurs Tassos Morfis and Sky Robbins for the first part of our World Youth Skills Day series, we decided to catch up with Beryl and Mariel for the second half. As supporters of quality independent journalism, we at Sourcefabric are always keen to hear the tips, tricks and advice that journalists have to offer other young people hoping to break into the industry.
For Mariel Padilla, journalism is all about the power of effecting change. ‘After interviewing community members and publishing a few stories [about the death penalty in Ohio] it clicked that I can use my writing to actually help people and make a tangible impact on a community.’ After getting her start on a local reporting course, Mariel went on to intern at The Cincinnati Enquirer, followed by graduate school at Columbia. It was in one of her classes, in fact, that Mariel first learned she’d won a Pulitzer for her work at the Enquirer on heroin addiction.
How did you secure your internship at the Enquirer - and what were the most valuable skills you gained over the length of your placement?
The Cincinnati Enquirer recruited from my school, Miami University... I submitted a resume and some clips. Prof. Newberry (senior lecturer in Journalism at Miami) wrote me a letter of recommendation. After interviewing with two editors at the Enquirer, I got the spot.
My time at the Enquirer, though only a short 10 weeks, was invaluable to me as a young journalist... On the first day, I was quickly introduced to the breaking news team and published my first article (byline and all!). On my second day, I was sent to my first crime scene, where I saw my first dead body… I don’t know if there’s anything that can really prepare you for that kind of reality shock except experience and on-the-ground reporting. I honed skills, such as writing on deadline, interviewing local officials and community members, quickly learning about complex issues, asking smart questions and always always always fact checking.
For young people like you, breaking into the journalism industry can be extremely competitive. What’s your personal advice on standing out against the crowd?
There’s so much competition in this industry that it can be disheartening to constantly compare. Personally, I try to focus more on setting goals, working hard and producing my best work instead of trying to be better than everyone else. Focus on your interests and strengths....it’s essential to be motivated by the work itself. If journalism is what you love, then you should do it. It doesn’t have to be “the best” to make a difference.
Of course, we couldn’t conduct this interview without asking about the day you won the Pulitzer; what was your first reaction when you heard the news?
At first, I withheld excitement because I wasn’t sure if it was true. I was sitting in class at Columbia (coincidentally two floors above where the prizes were being announced). I remember I was typing notes when an iMessage popped up on my screen. My friend across the room texted me to ask me if I just won a Pulitzer. I immediately looked up at her in shock because I had no idea that the Enquirer was nominated and that I would be included on the byline. Moments later I got a text from my former editor at the Enquirer, Bob Strickley. He congratulated me on being a Pulitzer winner and that’s when I knew for sure it was real. After that, I sat quietly in shock. It didn’t feel real for weeks. It still doesn’t entirely feel real.
And finally, any big plans for the future? What direction do you see your career going in?
I’m currently working with Dean Sheila Coronel (Dean of academic affairs, Columbia University) on a data investigation related to the war on drugs in the Philippines. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn from her and hone some of the data journalism skills I gained in graduate school. After that, I’m not sure yet where I’ll be headed, but I hope to continue using data to pursue investigative stories that hold the powerful accountable and shed light on injustices.
Beryl Munoko also got an early start in journalism, aged just 11. Interviewed as part of a conservation and awareness campaign for the endangered Rothschild Giraffe in Kenya, Beryl saw the campaign’s success as a testament to the power of journalism. ‘The influence of journalism on society,’ she says, ‘left me in awe. I decided that I would still contribute to positive changes in society, but this time, I would do so as the journalist and not as the interviewee or a demonstrator.’ She went on to study Information Sciences at Moi University in Kenya, becoming part of the University’s radio station during her time there. She interned at both The Kenya Times and the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) before landing a job at Nation Media Group in 2011 - the very same organisation that interviewed her all those years previously. It was, she says ‘the stepping stone I needed to then join BBC World Service where I currently work.’
What was your first real ‘break’ in the industry, and where did you go from there?
It was back in 2013 after I did a story about Daniel Owira, at the time a student at Highway Secondary school who gave an outstanding performance in the National Drama festivals and caught the eye of the President... After the story was aired, the president sponsored his High School education.
I understand that you do a lot of work in Kenya. What’s the most enjoyable thing about being a journalist there?
The richness of stories. I love telling the African story, the fact that I can give my people a voice... I want to be part of telling the Kenyan story, and telling it well. I want to shape the narrative of and about my country.
And what are the most challenging parts of being a journalist in Kenya?
Erosion of public confidence in the integrity of the fourth estate. This is twofold, politicians and the public deliberately sometimes discredit the media and good journalism for their own benefit and of course some journalists either are complicit in working with politicians and businessmen to infiltrate newsrooms.
There is also great need for constant improvement of skills. I believe there is a lack of capacity on knowing what good stories are and how to tell them. While it is not a big national problem, some regional reporters/correspondents lack in basic writing and video taking skills which are vital to be a good journalist in my country.
What would you say are the most important skills for a successful journalist to possess and why?
Good interviewing skills, as this will enable them ask the best questions that will get good information from their interviewee. It is also good for a journalist to have a strong nose for news. Being able to sniff out a good story from tons of PR or propaganda is a skill any journalist must hone. I also believe that every journalist needs perseverance because good stories often take hours of production, countless phone calls to sources and sometimes even life-threatening scenarios.
What advice would you give to young journalists seeking to follow in your footsteps? Where should they go looking for stories?
My advice would be that they have to be creative, listen and look out for stories, read between the lines because it’s the small issues that actually make the greatest stories. Secondly it is prudent to always network and make sure that always leave a good impression to allow people to communicate and get in touch with you. As a female journalist, what has worked for me has been to tap in to the invaluable female intuition, this had led me to do some of my best stories. Work hard, have patience to learn, learn, learn; starting out may be difficult as one needs to acquire the skills and contacts to get good stories, but with time, all works out. But above all, I always ask myself, ‘What if the opposite is true?’