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Tag Archives: How to be a journalist

Think before you print

Hey, you’re a journalist! You can go around saying WHATEVER you want as long as it’s the truth. Who CARES if you piss anyone off? You’re just doing your job!! Right? Wrong. Journalism is all about relationships.

Imagine this: you work for a magazine/newspaper that’s yes, funded by readers buying it (although ever decreasingly so), but primarily – your salary is paid for by advertisers. Big powerful companies who control artists you might interview, products you might review, or have news that you may report on. So you interview that artist, review that product, or report that news at whatever angle you chose to take. The angle you take happens to make a fool of the artist, criticises the product, or unveils some inside information that shows up the company for their immoral ways. And BAM, big fat £££££’s of advertising pulled, relationship severed and you can kiss goodbye to your Christmas bonus.

Here’s a couple of stories for you:

One journo was once telephoned by the UK chief of a large Swiss watch conglomerate who was threatening to withdraw several million quid of advertising – after the paper printed something that displeased him. Turns out with wristwatches, the makers have such control that they expect to be able to nominate the journalists who write about their products.

Or the local newspaper employee who considered running a story about an estate agents that was unflattering in a minor way. The paper holds the advertising for all of the local houses for sale and if the advertising was lost, the newspaper would go under. Needless to say, the story got spiked.

However, it doesn’t just stop at advertisers. Social networking has brought what previously were private conversations in the pub, or texts between friends into the public eye. And it’s very easy to forget that the tweet you just sent, can be read by anyone.

What about the throwaway comment, calling out the demise in quality of a particular publication for example – its editor happens to stumble across it. What happens if somewhere down the line, you want to pitch an article, or apply for a job at said publication? Or even another one that the same editor has now gone on to work at? If they remember your name (they will), chances are you won’t get a look in. Or fancy having an online rant about how ANGRY you are because a sub has edited your work and you don’t like it? Sub sees it: relationships in the office are strained (and they don’t do you any favours when editing your copy in future). Editor sees it: you look extremely unprofessional and immature. Managing Director sees it: you face a potential sacking for defamation.

Sometimes it’s just not worth it. Think before you print.


Headlines: how to write your icing

Witty headlines. How do editors seemingly whip them out of clean air, sprinkling the perfect words on top of a news story like icing on a cake? Everybody Was Kung Fuel Fighting. Genius! Naming Private Ryan. Amazing! Where do they come from? There are certainly none in my brain.

Well actually, there are. But only found after….a little prompt shall we say. As I’ve discovered, there are a few (sort of) cheaters ways of constructing a headline.

First of all, take a word from your story – the key word, what it is will depend on the piece. If it’s a celebrity profile feature, either their first name or surname. If it’s a news story, use the subject, i.e. fuel from above example.

Type it into here, and bingo! You should get loads of ideas.

Second way: again, take the same word and type it here. Pick a word from the list, type it in here and keep doing it with different words until you come up with the perfect headline – by replacing the rhyming word with the original word.

I did this for a recent Annie Mac (VERY cool Radio 1 DJ) interview. I typed in Mac (important word), picked Jack from the list of rhyming words, typed it into the idioms function and came up with…drum roll please…Mac Of All Trades. For an interview in which she talks about the million things she’s done throughout her career. I know, I know. Genius. Amazing. See?

One more. Consider words that are similar to the important word, but don’t rhyme: i.e. Common as Mac (muck).

Of course, use your brain and initiative first of all – because you might come up with something stellar with any contextual/historical/well-known information about the particular subject or person that the story focuses on. But if nothing springs to mind, cheat, cheat, and cheat some more. Editors: you’ve been rumbled.

Music reviewers: please don’t…

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Friday, June 29 brought some crap news for music journalism. Heavily respected music magazine The Word announced that it will release the last ever issue in August. Famed for it’s excellent writing (go and buy a copy and learn while you still can), the demise is another kick in the teeth for the future of good, quality journalism.

BUT music isn’t going to go away any time soon and we still need people to tell us if we should pay £1o for a CD or not. So to make sure this generation of journalists keep the quality alive and in tribute to it’s death, here are some suggestions of what NOT to do as a music reviewer (stolen from a forum post on the magazine’s website):

– DON’T end a feature like this: And with that, he adjusted his trademark spectacles, gave a conspiratorial wink and disappeared into the Soho night…unless for comedic value.

– You can do without obscure foreign quotes in italics and the name-dropping of impenetrable philosophical tomes you know no one else will have read (this applies to all journalism).

– Do not use the words “sonic cathedral” or Quintessential……unless you’re talking about a record by Quintessence: in which the record will, necessarily and inherently, be Quintessential. Unless they’re trying to sound like someone else, of course.

– Stating that an album that “Demands to be listened to” . How does that work then?

– Or describing something as “Wire jamming with Nick Drake while Skillrex mixes the cocktails and Brian Wilson dozes off in a chair”…nothing sounds like that.

Thou shalt not refer to something as being like something else on (insert drug here).

– The overuse of unnecessary semi-colons to create very long sentences just to prove you’re well educated (this also applies to all journalism).

– Mentioning your drug use, especially drug use with the band. Very hard to pull off without sounding like a weakling trying to appease the schoolbully by laughing along with his joke as he flushes your head down the toilet.

– Thou shalt review the album, or interview the artist, and not review how well-heeled or dirt poor their parents were. The tunes don’t sound any different as a result.

– Stop overusing (and misusing) “cerebral” and “existential”.

– A few others…’Has no right to be this good’, ‘What’s not to like?’, similes ie “Like The Stranglers have been in a car crash with Missy Elliot”.

– “….on acid” is not only lazy, it’s stupidly inaccurate because when somebody is actually on acid they very often just say nothing for six hours and dribble a bit.

– Avoid the word I (Yes. Please, please do).

DISCLAIMER: These rules are not verbatim. You might disagree. But I right like them all.

Don’t be a stranger

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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.

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.

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.