How do I build a portfolio?

QUESTION: I am currently a 3rd year undergrad student at the University of Toronto. I was looking into applying into a master program in journalism at Concordia, UBC or even in the States. I realize I have to build a portfolio. Can you suggest where I can go to gain experience in journalism other than university newspapers? Most media outlets in Canada seem to only have internship positions available for graduate students. I would really appreciate any advice I can get.

ANSWER by Technovica editor Saleem Khan.

Getting that first reporting gig can be tough on anyone starting out. Despite the falling fortunes of the Fourth Estate in recent years, applications to journalism programs remain high and graduates enter a job market that is competitive to say the least.

Student papers are a good place to start but many publish slimmer editions on a reduced schedule if they run at all in the summer, which can limit opportunities to see your work in print or in the online editions. You can find some of the country’s student papers at Canadian University Press.

Community papers may welcome the help that an intern can offer and are a great place to learn the basics of the business. They are often run by a handful of individuals who do double and triple duty as reporters, photographers, editors and more. Call your local publication and talk to the editor about the possibility of volunteering. If you have trouble finding a community paper near you, look one up at the Canadian Community Newspaper Association.

City media typically includes alternative weekly newspapers, which tend to focus on urban municipal affairs and entertainment that may be more accessible and familiar to a university student. The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies keeps a list of member papers in Canada and the U.S.

Magazines can offer experiences and opportunities to exercise your writing skills unlike those you might get at a newspaper. Contact them and ask to speak with the person responsible for staffing, That person will often be the editor. Trade group Magazines Canada has a list of its members on its site.

While creating and reading ink on a page is an experience unto itself, journalism is more than just print.  Community and campus radio and TV stations can offer an opportunity to go beyond the written word to develop your broadcast skills. They often have newscasts or may present a chance to create a regular segment or a show, especially at a campus broadcaster. Contact your local station or look some up at the National Campus and Community Radio Association.

Be creative in your search

Don’t be afraid to contact larger outlets, too. Most hire their summer interns before school ends, but there may be other opportunities that arise, and showing the kind of initiative that is indispensible in journalism may yield a pleasant surprise. For example, the Toronto Star’s New Kids on the Blog sometimes accepts contributions from student journalists other than the paper’s own interns.

Volunteering for print and broadcast operations (and their online arms and counterparts) isn’t the only route to take when building a portfolio. If you think you have a nose for news and can find good stories, pitch them as freelance assignments. You may end up earning some cash to pay for school.

Those are a few starting points but as you’ve likely discovered, finding opportunities to show what you can do — even unpaid ones — can be a daunting task. This is a prime chance to demonstrate how resourceful you can be, a quality that will serve you well in any career, especially journalism.

Be creative in your search for places to publish or broadcast. Charities, non-profits, community centres and other local institutions, as well as industry associations, often produce newsletters in print, e-mail or on the Web in the form of a blog or podcast to which you can contribute. The former in particular might welcome a keen volunteer who can lend a journalistic approach to news and issues in the sectors they serve. Imagine Canada has a list of Canadian charities but start by asking around your own community.

While building your portfolio, keep in mind that the role of the journalist is changing. The days when a reporter could file one story a day (or every few days) are effectively gone. Journalists are now increasingly expected to use Twitter, write blog posts, host live Web chats, snap photos, record podcasts and shoot video as part of their daily or weekly routine.

The future of journalism is integrated (and the present is, too)

Along with core reporting and editing skills, developing a  solid foundation in an integrated media approach to journalism should always be in the back of your mind. Like many areas of human endeavour, the best way to learn is by doing.

Start by registering your name as an Internet domain. Get the .com version if it’s available. That will make it easy to point people to the site you will eventually want to use as a portfolio or blog.

Open an account on Twitter, subscribe to the streams of people who interest you — including other journalists — and engage with them. I maintain a Twitter list of journalists I follow and another list of accounts that focus on the evolving craft and business of journalism. I update both regularly.

You’ll also want to get into the habit of multimedia blogging, which you can do easily by posting text, photos, audio and video clips on your own short-form blog such as those offered by Tumblr or Posterous. Both are designed to make it as simple as possible to get started and offer a variety of templates so you can customize the look of your blog. You can point your domain name here, if you wish.

If you’re after a more traditional blog that offers a greater range of functions, features and the ability to customize more finely, try the service that helped start it all, Blogger or the more advanced WordPress. In addition to being an online repository for your work, a blog can also be a place to discover your writing voice by posting some considered op-ed and softer items such as movie or music reviews.

Photos, audio and video are better with strong news skills

For photos, open an account on Flickr exclusively for your portfolio work or create a Flickr photo set in your existing account to keep your professional and personal images separate. You can then use the photo service’s widgets or one by a third party to link or display your photos on your own blog or site.
Creating an audio podcast can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it. One online option that has the added bonus of enabling others to participate and stream the discussion live is BlogTalkRadio. If you’re more ambitious, you can download Audacity and use the free audio recording and editing software to create your podcast before publishing it online. If you own an iPhone or iPod Touch and expect to produce audio on the go, VeriCorder VC Audio Pro — designed by journalists for journalists — is an option with a small fee.

Similarly, video blogging and podcasting comes in many forms but the easiest is to record video direct to the Web from your computer’s camera. You can do this on YouTube,  (a sort of video version of Twitter that lets you record 12-second video clips) or to name a few. Pocket video recorders such as the Flip make it easy to shoot on the go then edit and share later. For iPhone and iPod Touch owners, VeriCorder 1st Video is a low-cost option that puts recording, editing and distribution right in your pocket.
Whatever you do, remember that developing your core newsgathering and reporting skills is your main goal. Writing or recording reviews and opinion pieces may be fun but they are always better when built on a solid foundation of good reporting.

Saleem Khan is principal editor at the journalism strategy and services practice Technovica, which focuses on next-generation news, and is founder of Innovate News. He is chairman of the Canadian Association of Journalists and a director of the journalism education charity CAJEF.