RSS Feed

Don’t be a stranger

Posted on

If I had a pound for the amount of times I’ve heard that a journalists address book is their most important tool, I’d have at least enough for a (modest) Topshop spending spree. Want your job application considered, article pitch read or find that lead for a story? It’s not about what you know; it’s about who you know.

Before I started my journalism apprenticeship, the journalism industry felt like a member’s only club. And the only way to get in was if your dad/auntie/cousin had a fully-fledged-gold-plated-VIP membership. But as it turns out, this club isn’t as exclusive as I feared. And after months of coffee meetings, networking events and some good old tweeting I feel my membership is almost secured.

So a contact isn’t necessarily someone you’ve declared your Best Friend Forever after a few martinis. It’s actually far simpler than that. They could start off as someone you sparked up a conversation with at an event or exchanged a few tweets with over twitter.

The way my freelance boss went from being ignored to gracing the pages of national newspapers was to take the editors out for coffee who hadn’t been replying to her pitches, ask where she was going wrong and get some advice. Another journo said if he wanted to work for a specific magazine or newspaper, he’d find out where the staff go for drinks after work, go down and get talking to some of them.

From my experience, a face is always better than an email. Journalists are busy and rarely have time to reply to out of the blue emails from people they’ve never met. So meet them. Go to events and conferences and get talking to people. Join a journalism forum, interact with users and go along to drinks.

It’s not weird to meet work contacts online (although I would advise public meeting places…just in case). Generally, journalists are very sociable and meeting strangers is an everyday occurrence. Most of them came into the profession because they like talking to new people.

Work experience is another perfect opportunity to make contacts. Keep in touch with the people you worked with (this is very easily done over twitter).  Or gone for an interview and got turned down? Ask for feedback afterwards to find out how you can improve and stay in touch with the interviewer, if you’re still on their radar you’re far more likely to be considered for opportunities that may arise in the future than someone who isn’t.

Journalists rely on each other for favours whether it’s being recommended to a friend’s editor for a job, getting some legal information from an expert or even proof reading each others work so knowing other journos is really important.

But it is all about tit for tat. If a journalist has helped you out with an article, pitch or contact perhaps you could use social networking to share their work with people you know or offer to buy them lunch. And if you seem approachable and willing to give people help who ask for it, you’ll find it much easier to get.

But most importantly, remember that it is okay to ask for things, one day they might need you for something. If you don’t ask you don’t get and there really is nothing to be scared of. What’s the worst that can happen? No reply? Don’t take it personally.

The ability to network and make contacts is a journalistic skill that runs alongside being able to write and interview well, so the more you practice the easier (and less awkward) it will get. It’s what will make your potential as a journalist first class so start NOW.


The Exclusives

Posted on

Gauging the reaction around ITV2’s new reality offering The Exclusives – a show which follows six wannabe journalists competing to win a twelve month contract at Bauer Media – it’s plain to see people aren’t impressed.

Journalist and TV critic Grace Dent wept, Wannabe Hacks think all the contestants are crap and twitter said it was ‘awful, degrading and an embarrassment to journalism’.

On the contrary, I think it’s pretty good.

Here are the contestants:

Ex-glamour model Hayley Newnes has a degree in English, works in Pizza Hut and writes for her local newspaper. Her modelling past has given her heaps of confidence and she has brilliant communication skills, knows exactly how to get the best shots at a photo shoot, and as a magazine addict she knows what readers are interested in. I expect this was why she was chosen, not because she “looks like a glamour model” (Wannabe Hacks).

Ellie Henman is also brilliant. I love her. And if she doesn’t win, she’s going to make it anyway. A broadcast journalism graduate from the University of Leeds, the competitions already seen her get on her knees to beg a fit male to come to a More magazine photoshoot and told him her favourite sex position to get him to tell her his, not blushing one bit. The one to watch.

Felix Clarke is the token toff of the lot, studying journalism at a London university and while he’s probably a good writer and knowledgeable about current affairs its fairly clear celebrity journalism isn’t where his future lies.

Twenty eight year old Stuart Roberts hasn’t really had the chance to shine yet either, out of his depth with a Made in Chelsea photoshoot he says he’d be more at home at Kerrang! Which incidentally, is the place he nailed an interview with Charlie Simpson (Fightstar) in last weeks episode. Watch this space…

Blackpool born Chris Goddard grew up in care and has heaps of confidence but is again, one of the weakest ones so far. I’m saving my judgement on this one but warning signs have already started to appear (complains a lot). University drop out Sunny also seems like a bit of a wet rag at the moment, doesn’t have a good attitude and is quite quiet, however, she’s apparently a keen writer so only time will tell if it’s the right thing for her.

But the great thing is, is that they are from all walks of life. There couldn’t really be a more diverse group. So the one who wins the year’s contract at the end is the one with the most talent and hopefully – the one who’s learnt the most after the six weeks. Not the one whose dad works at The Independent, or whose parent’s money could pay for them to slog it out on countless unpaid internships for as long as it takes.

The tasks they’ve been given are pretty much what you should expect when you take your first job (admin, transcribing, being the general dogsbody) and are a test of one of the vital things needed to succeed as a journo: a good attitude. The hands on learning they are all getting is also a very important part of a journalists career, because it’s the only way you learn from mistakes and improve. The only difference is that their mistakes are all being filmed and watched on national television. Cut them some slack.

Journalism takes balls and that’s something they’ve all got for applying for the show in the first place. May the best hack win!

Pitching – timing is of essence

When it comes to pitching articles timing is very important.

Thanks to the internet we now expect our news to be up-to-the-second and the same goes for comment pieces and timely features. So as a journalist, you have to be constantly on the ball.

Spotted something in the news you’ve got something to say about? Draft a pitch and send it off straight away. Don’t sit on it, someone else might get there first or by the time you get round to putting words on the page it’s old news.

The same goes for timely features. Got an idea for a Christmas related piece, Mother’s Day or interesting charity story? Plan ahead and pitch your idea well in advance.

Someone approached me with their sob story of how they’d been trying to adopt for years but because of a complicated adoption process system they hadn’t been able to. It was a good real life story and she told me about it slap bang in the middle of National Adoption Week. Perfect right? Wrong. Too late.

Two weeks before and it might have been great but by the time I’d found out, all adoption coverage has already been sorted and the magazines and newspapers are finalising what they are going to fill their pages with next week.

Here is a list of all the themed days/weeks in the year.

You could write a feature on:

–        Being Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Trans. It could be your experience, someone else’s or even better – three people with an interesting and themed story to tell for LGBT History Month in February

–        A story about…being a cat on October 29

–        A great grandmother, grandmother and mother story for Women’s History Month in March

–        Or something about towels on May 25

You might have some better ideas.

Press Gazette sometimes have a list of the big diary stories of the week ahead, read this – it might give you some news hooks for comment pieces that you can pitch in advance or straight after, getting you well ahead of the game.

The Guardians open newslist is also very useful for this. It lists the stories they are working on based on events coming up – again you can get ahead of the news.

The TV guide is another great tool. Take a look at what documentaries are going to be shown, perhaps there is going to be a big expose that you have an insider’s take on or know someone who does? Or maybe there’s a new reality TV show starting and you have a strong opinion about the concept (e.g. there has been some negative feelings around ‘The Undateables’ – this opinion could be a comment piece about why you disagree with it, think about the media backlash on the ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ series).

Sometimes it’s the news hook, or theme that could make that article idea that usually wouldn’t fit within a publication perfect as a one off. So all these dates/themes/occasions are just more opportunities to get something published. The more pitches you send the greater your chance that one of them will get a yes.

If you’ve just missed it, don’t panic. There is always next year so keep a diary of ideas.

One of the most frustrating kick yourself no’s you can get to an article idea is: ‘good idea but too late’.

Don’t miss the boat.

So you want to be a journalist?

On April the 25th I am helping to put on a daylong event for aspiring journalists. It’s called ‘So you want to be a journalist?’ and it’s your chance to hear how you can make it from top industry professionals.

Tickets cost £40, and yes I’m biased but I’m going to tell you why it’s worth it.

  • How many times have you heard how competitive the job market is in media? How it’s only the really amazingly clever and talented people that make it? It’s this attitude that makes journalism seem like a member’s only club. The people inside don’t want to share their trade secrets in case of competition and those on the outside often feel like they are blindly following a dream they don’t know too much about. You think you want to be a journalist….but you’re not sure. This is your chance to be sure. Hear how some of the top people made it and how you can too. Straight from the horse’s mouth; no myths, no hidden agenda and no scare tactics.
  • Contacts. This is the only time you will be in the same room as so many top journalists. Meet them, say hello, ask some questions – if they remember you they will be much more likely to respond to any future emails. Heard about how so many people get jobs because they’ve got contacts? Start making yours.
  • Stand out from the crowd. Yes there are lots of young people who want to work in media and not enough jobs but by coming to this conference you’ve got the upper hand. You’ll find out how to make your job application stand out and what kind of things you should be doing NOW.
  • Meet each other. I am VERY excited about this. How fun is it to meet people you’ve got loads in common with? You can meet fellow aspiring journos, share tips and get loads more twitter followers. I am very keen to organise a pub party afterwards. Who’s in?
  • Find out the things you really need to know. I have been told by countless people with journalism qualifications that to be a journalist you need skills and the only way to acquire these is to train on-the-job. So what are they? And do you really need that MA, NCTJ qualification and degree? Find out what the best way in to the trade is for you.

A couple of people have questioned the price of this conference.

But putting on an event to this scale costs thousands and it’s not being put on by a charity. It’s been pulled together by two freelance journalists who rely on themselves to make a living and while they are spending time organising a conference like this, they are missing out on paid work.

Most importantly when it comes down to it, it’s a great conference with an amazing line up of speakers.

Still sweating about the £40? Here are forty ways to save/make it.

  1. Instead of buying a sandwich/pasty/burger/coffee at lunch make some sandwiches at home. If you swapped spending £4 a day on lunch, five days a week for a month with homemade lunch you’d save £40
  2. Swap red bull for instant coffee. Saving £23ish
  3. Give up online shopping for lent. Saving ££££££££££’s
  4. Before a night out, instead of having your first drink at the club/pub have a mighty pre drinking session at home, by the time you’re out all you’ll want to do is dance. Saving at least £20 a week
  5. If you do insist on buying drinks when out, take only the set amount of cash you’re happy to spend and no plastic cards
  6. And swap: Jaeger for Corkys (sorry…), Vodka for Archers, Bottles of beer/lager/cider for pints and WKD for VK
  7. Stop buying take away. How much does this cost every time? £5? £10? Cook double the amount of dinner before going out and  save half for when you get back. Frozen pizzas are also very cheap
  8. Get a job
  9. Sell old clothes/books on eBay. You’ll be surprised at what people will buy…
  10. Don’t buy new clothes for every night out, you’ll just throw up on it anyway
  11. Don’t buy ready meals; buy rice, pasta & potatoes
  12. Do a sponsored run. You are a charity, right?
  13. Swap the cinema for movie night
  14. Give up buying coffee/tea out for a month
  15. Swap public transport for walking or cycling
  16. If you do need a lift don’t get a taxi, get a bus
  17. Cancel your gym membership and exercise in the park instead
  18. Buy multipacks of crisps from the supermarket instead of buying single packets every day
  19. Stop buying Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Just for a month
  20. Use your overdraft – that’s what it’s there for. The bank don’t care, they have customers who have millions invested. They won’t come and find you
  21. But do keep account of what you’re spending so you don’t go over any overdraft limits and get charged by the bank
  22. Borrow £40 off mum/dad/granny/sibling
  23. Stop buying cans/bottled water when out, take drinks from home instead
  24. Ditch brands when shopping
  25. Nick toilet rolls from university loos
  26. Shave your head
  27. Girls, stop buying Benefit make up. It’s not good and you are effectively paying for nice boxes and packaging. Max Factor all the way, plus they always have 2 for 3
  28. Cut your own hair. Messy is in
  29. You don’t need the latest iphone/ipad/blackberry, you just want it
  30. Stop going to the shops because you’re bored
  31. Eat roadkill
  32. Nice looking stationary: you don’t need it
  33. Grow your own asparagus
  34. De friend all your friends on Facebook for a month so you don’t spend on social gatherings
  35. Buy in bulk
  36. Write a shopping list and stick to it
  37. Make your own laundry detergent
  38. Shop with a friend and take advantage of 2 for 1 deals
  39. Ask for money instead of Easter eggs
  40. Get a job

See you there.

Why haven’t you got a blog?

The amount of twitter handles for wannabe journos I’ve seen recently without links to a website/blog has sparked off this post.

Why don’t you have a blog? Why don’t you have a website?

These things are not an option for aspiring journalists, they are a necessity.

Why you need a blog

– Writing like a journalist takes practice. A lot of practice. Your blog is the perfect way to do this: treat it as a learning project, look back on your first post in a month or two and see how you’ve improved. If people are reading it you get a bigger incentive to write, so you’re more likely to keep it up – it’s the same buzz you get when seeing your name in print

– It’s really fun. Take advantage of the fact that you are in control, you can write about whatever you want and know it’s not going to get cut to shreds by a sub-editor. Enjoy it while you can

– Remember that thing I wrote about being a PR person and creating your brand? Your blog is an essential part of that brand

Forget – ‘I’ll sort it out when I’ve finished studying’ – you need to do it now. When you are applying for jobs if you have only just started your blog, the employer will know and you’ll look far less determined and credible than that other applicant who’s blogged their way through university. No guesses for who’s going to get an interview and who isn’t.

How to start a blog

–        WordPress is a great platform as is tumblr, they are very self explanatory and easy to use. Go to the help pages if you get stuck

–        Chose a main focus. Pick one thing to write about that you enjoy and that you can get plenty of material from. Make it useful for your readers, writing about what you got up to with your friends isn’t going to be very entertaining for anyone other than you or your friends. Do you have specialist knowledge about something? Write about that. Or make it entertaining: what do you have a lot to say about? If you are going to write about people, they don’t have to be famous – is your mum funny? I really want to start a blog about my mum (she’s a character to say the least)

–        Keep at it. You don’t have to write lengthy entries every day, mix it up with videos, photos, long posts and short posts but most importantly keep it going.  You can also schedule your posts, write a few when you’ve got time and save them to be released once a day or a few times a week

–        Interact. Follow other bloggers and leave comments on their posts which link back to your own blog. Follow people on twitter who might be interested in what you are writing about. My twitter handle says this: Are you a wannabe journo? Read my blog and I spend a bit of time every night finding wannabe journos to follow on twitter, who then usually follow me back and read my blog

–        Promote your blog through Twitter, Facebook, your website (because you do have one..don’t you..?) and LinkedIn. Make sure the link is very clearly displayed on all of your online signatures. No one should ever have to ask you if you’ve got one or how to find it

I’ve come into contact with quite a few editors and journalists over the last few months, and after telling them how I’ll be looking for a job when my apprenticeship ends the one thing they all have asked me is: have you got a blog? At the time I didn’t have a proper one. So I quickly pulled my finger out and started one.

Please do the same.

How to unblock writer’s block

I’ve found my Achilles heel. When faced with the task of writing about myself I suffer from a severe case of writer’s block. All my creativity disappears, I completely forget how to string a sentence together and question whether I am supposed to be a writer at all.

My Guardian blog posts about life as a journalist apprentice are the hardest things I’ve ever had to put together. And I’m not alone. I’ve come across more than a few journalists who are brave enough to admit they have a love/hate relationship with writing – particularly when it comes to writing about themselves.

One day the words will seem to write themselves, the next it feels like trying to wade knee deep through wet sand and the longer you leave writing that first sentence, the harder it gets. But I’ve struggled on and invented many ways to deal with it and (thank god) it has got easier every time.

The first thing to do is take the pressure away. It’s the same feeling of dread I get before going for a run. I get over it by telling myself I’m going to go really slow, just jog for a little while and before I know it I’m having the time of my life running full speed. So I do the same with writing: set a small goal of a paragraph or a few sentences.

Then I find it really useful to do something that relaxes and inspires me. I’ll dig out some really cheesy pop music that I loved when I was 15 or read a favourite writer’s recent column. For you it could be reading a few pages of a book or having a chat with a friend. Just do something that makes you feel something.

When I finally get down to work, I think about what the overall theme is going to be for the piece and spend some time making a list of the paragraphs, with one main point for each and making sure they all lead onto one another. Nothing is more daunting than a blank page so having a few bullet points down immediately makes the task more achievable.

Before I start writing I’ll cover up the clock on my laptop and set the alarm on my phone for an hour’s time. I don’t edit anything, worry about the word count or the content until the hour is up. The aim is to just get words on the page.  The worst thing to do is to start of a piece of writing thinking; this is going to be brilliant, world changing, witty or hilarious. Just concentrate on writing the words; you can make it entertaining later on.

Another useful tip I picked up from an experienced freelance journalist, is to remember that you don’t have to start writing an article from the beginning. If you have a killer conclusion or particular paragraph already in mind, write that first and work around it. Another journo swears by going to the toilet first and comes up with some of their best ideas during those ‘private moments’.

If you find your mind wandering in the middle of writing, go back and re read the original pitch or brief. This should make you re-focus and that doesn’t work, take some time away and come back to it. If you’ve had enough writing for one day, finish up by printing out the copy, reading it and marking changes. Start the following morning by making the changes to the document as this will help prompt more ideas and you’ll quickly pick up where you left off.

Starting a blog is another great way to get over those uninspired days. Writing a few fun blog posts makes you realise it’s not so hard after all and when it comes to writing a real article it will be far easier.

The most important thing is: don’t ever tell yourself you’ve got writer’s block because you can’t write. Being able to write like a journalist isn’t all about talent – the people who do it well aren’t necessarily better than you – just more practised.

Finally, instead of getting stressed and overwhelmed, whenever I have to write something about myself, I’ll dig out some old work that I’m proud of, or read encouraging feedback I’ve had and my creativity, confidence and journalistic ability soon returns.

Writing features – lose the crap

One of the most common mistakes that new writers make is to take ages to get to the point. When given a big word count, it’s very tempting to write a lengthy introduction full of clever metaphors to set the scene for your feature. This is a bad idea.

Yes, it’s important to draw your reader in but you do this by letting them know what they are going to be reading about early on, don’t confuse them and leave them feeling disappointed. You’re not an author penning a 480 page novel, you’re writing as a journalist. Two very different things.

This was my first attempt at a blog entry I wrote for the Guardian. It was for the careers section and supposed to be about what I’ve been getting up to in my journalism apprenticeship:

I’ve found myself remember one of my most disappointing memories recently. Midway through year 11 my Art GCSE portfolio was underway. One of my main pieces of work was an A3 collage, a huge picture made up of tiny squares of coloured paper. It took weeks of sticking every little piece down, I had glue stuck under my nails, in my hair and on my carpet for weeks but when it was finally completed I was so proud of my efforts.

Is this an article about GCSE’s? Art lessons? Ruined carpets? (crap…)

I left it to dry on my bedroom floor and went to school with my window slightly open. The collage was on the floor and when I arrived home that day a rainstorm has swung my attic window open. My soaking work of art was lying on the floor, all the colours had merged and it was completely ruined. I was absolutely devastated. All of my concentration, time and effort had equated to nothing.

Maybe it’s about disappointment? (more crap…)

The reason this has come back to haunt me is that I had a very similar experience last week. I was a chance to write an article that would be printed….

…I don’t care what it’s about anymore, it’s boring and I’m losing the will to live…(…crap.)

Compare this with the first paragraph of the published piece (after many edits):

Before I got my current job, I found out the hard way how cut-throat the journalism industry is. I’d tried and failed to get work experience at the BBC, Time Out magazine, Pop Justice (a music website), Heat magazine, Now magazine and my local paper.

OH. The article is about how cut-throat the journalism industry is. I love this paragraph. I hate the first attempt. Lesson learnt.

A few examples of good intros for features:

Belinda White for the Telegraph on the subject of a cure for ‘camel-toe’ (I have rearranged it a bit to make my point):

The problem of camel toe – it’s the fashion no-no which reared its ugly head with the birth of the catsuit and spread like an epidemic when leggings became the height of fashion. The unsightly effect achieved when a lady’s bottoms are impinging too much on her nether regions – has been solved by ‘SmoothGroove’ the latest weird and, er, wonderful wardrobe ‘essential’.

Mark Rice-Oxley writing for the Guardian: The truth about depression: six people speak out:

Depression is not picky. Men, women, rich, poor, white, black. No one is immune. It is not just an illness for people with dark, mysterious pasts or chaotic presents. It is ubiquitous. Empirical and anecdotal evidence suggests this is fast becoming the disease du jour. Antidepressant prescriptions have soared. The World Health Organisation warns that mental illness will be second only to HIV/Aids in the burden it places on the world by the end of this decade.

And finally my favourite. Pop Justice reviewing Madonna’s latest album:

We went to listen to Madonna’s ‘MDNA’ and after one listen decided that it was – as we tweeted – fucking amazing.

Straight. To. The. Point.