Alissa Walker tackles the questions of a student journalist

In Design, Journalism on February 10, 2011 at 10:30 pm

In my search for footholds of advice in the upward climb of building a career in journalism, I reached out to to one of my favorite journalists Alissa Walker, an L.A.-based writer with passions for design and gelato.

She replied with speed and friendliness and allowed me to ply her with the nuts-and-bolts questions wracking my soon-to-be-graduated mind. Not to be greedy, I’m sharing her answers with you.

Thanks Alissa!

Alissa Walker (Photo by Cicilia Teng)

Q: Many of us students don’t get paid for the pieces we write when we are building up our portfolios. How do you transition to getting paid to write, and how do you figure out how much to charge?

Alissa Walker: That’s a great question, especially since I can’t really remember how I made the transition. I think at first I just wrote for whatever the publication said they would pay me. Every publication is different so you really have to figure out what each piece means to you. Are you going to meet your hero, report on something close to your heart, be exposed to an audience drastically different than your own? Are you going to have fun? These are all the things to consider. Now, of course, I know the exact dollar amounts attached to each of those things and I’ve been able to make my own rules. But back then it was all about experimenting, and sometimes, really messing up!

Q: How do you feel about blogs and social media? What have you found to be the most important or effective practices when it comes to these types of media tools?

AW: Blogs and social media are my best friends. I think that getting the word out about my stories through various outlets is part of the job of being a journalist now. I also think there’s an art to it and it’s just as important as honing your voice. I also like the short-form nature of social media: Twitter and Flickr are two of my favorite ways to tell stories because doesn’t take very long to “publish” something you’re proud of. I also like the ability to be very, very personal in my writing so I look forward to writing on my blog—if that could be my only job I think I’d be really happy. Next I’m launching a Tumblr, just for fun!

Q: What do you do to alleviate the “Holy shit, I need a job RIGHT NOW!” anxiety?

AW: Well, I have regular gigs now with publications so that feeling has largely gone away (only to be replaced by different anxieties!). But I’ve been there and that feeling is pretty awful. I think writing helps, quite honestly, doing a fun essay on your blog that you can share with the world and feel like you’re contributing to society. The other thing to do is just get away from the computer since staring at it will only remind you of money. Take a long walk and you’ll come up with new story ideas that you can pitch.

Q: The temptation to write about everything is strong, but it seems that many employers are seeking someone with a specialty. Sometimes specializing in journalism doesn’t seem to be enough. How do you brand yourself as an expert in certain areas while still remaining able to write about so many different topics?

AW: I think specialization is both very important and a bit overrated. I very early on became “branded” as a design writer which was great for people to remember me for jobs. But now, I think people are more likely to remember you, as a person, and all of your interests, since it’s so easy to get a picture of you from looking at your blog, or Twitter, or Facebook page. A focus is great, but many focuses, or passions, is really smart.

Q: How do you become an expert at something you have an interest in covering but may not have formal training within that field?

AW: Enthusiasm! I am in no way a design expert, or a transit expert, or really even a gelato expert. But I am a highly-qualified nerd in all those areas. Go to every conference and event, ask lots of questions, meet everyone you can. Write about your topic as if its the most important thing to you in the world, and you’re instantly an expert.

Q: How can I can get an internship/job at GOOD magazine? What are skills or qualities do you feel editors are looking for that they may not often find?

AW: We’re currently looking for staff writers and we look for interns at different times during the year. When you apply for any edit job, I’d recommend first and foremost reading the publication—you have no idea how many people just don’t take the time to get to know it. The other piece of advice I’d have is to come to the table with ideas. Have ideas for new columns and areas of coverage that shows you’ve thought critically about the publication. And finally, if you have other strengths like photography or party planning, mention that. We don’t need more writers who cower behind computers. We need people who can get out there and pitch in on any project.

Q: I read in another interview you say you’ve “only” been in L.A. for nine years. Where did you move from? What advice do you have for a brand new transplant to the city? When do you feel you will drop that “only” from your explanation of your time in Los Angeles?

AW: I went to journalism school at the University of Colorado in Boulder, then to an advertising school called Portfolio Center in Atlanta. After school I was desperate for a job during the burst of the dot-com bubble, and then took a freelance gig in Sacramento. It was there that I realized I should actually move to a city I liked, and worry about the job later. So I ended up in LA. My advice for transplants (to any city, really) is the same advice I have for myself: Move to a very dense, diverse neighborhood where there are people who are different than yourself, and try ditching the car and walking as many places as you can. As for the “only” nine years, ha! I always joke that when I hit my 10th anniversary I’m going to make buttons that say LAX. Maybe then!

Q: Anything else you would like to say to almost-graduated students embarking on their careers?

AW: Don’t worry too much about job titles or even jobs for that matter. Work on building your own brand, meeting a mentor, and creating a body of work that you’re proud of. The money, and the work, will follow.


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