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Top 10 lessons after 18 months in journalism

I’m now a year and a half into my first proper journalism job. After graduating from the school of Janet Murray as a journalist’s apprentice in April last year, Music Week – the most rock and roll trade magazine out there – took me on. Now staff writer, it’s about time I reveal what a job in journalism today is really like and the integral lessons learnt along the way. Is it all it’s cracked up to be? Read on…

1). Multi-skilled really is multi-skilled

I don’t just mean all the fun stuff like being an expert interviewer, feature writer, news reporter and reviewer. Try sub-editor, designer, website updater, photographer and administration assistant too. It’s not glamorous but you need to prove you can do all the boring stuff too if you want to progress.

A year ago I’d never understood the appeal of sub-editing. Where’s the fun in editing someone else’s words? I’m a journalist and I will spend my time writing my own thank you very much. Well, it turns out that the majority of editors/deputy editors/senior people at magazines/newspapers climbed the greasy pole through sub-editing roles, rather than traditional journalism roles. So if you want to get promoted, you need to have A* sub-editing skills – grab any chance you can to start building them now. Revel in being an integral cog in the team that gets your publication out the door.

2). Be meticulous

Don’t brush anything under the carpet, it will only come back and make more work for you later on. Triple check every single name, date, fact and make sure every word makes complete sense – just because it sounds good, doesn’t mean it is good. Be the best editor of you own work you can be.

After deciding I was 99% sure all the names were correct in a recent feature it was pointed out that I’d mis-spelt Chaka Khan as Cakra Khan. The difference between a 10-time Grammy Award winning soul singer and an Indonesian singer who, according to his Wikipedia page, “is a career in the music world since 2012. With music and lyrics that are easy to digest”. Check, check and check again.

3). Research

If you don’t listen to the album before interviewing the artist, find out as much about the interviewee’s life as Google allows or discover what that company executive actually does you’re likely to get a pretty boring interview. Proper research throws up the best questions and you might end up getting an exclusive headline grabbing comment.

I used to be terrified of reading past articles on future subjects in case my brain somehow plagiarised all the information and wrote it into my article without my knowing. This has never happened. Instead, that interesting fact (that would have been missing from an intro) or excellent out of the box question has been discovered – not to mention me sounding fairly knowledgeable and intelligent during the interview by being able to understand references and add in my own. Don’t be afraid of asking colleagues for question ideas either. As long as you’ve got a few first there’s no harm in collaboration.

4). Accept your niche

After reading ex Heat magazine editor Mark Frith’s Celeb Diaries I was convinced I wanted to work for a celebrity gossip magazine. Then I read Piers Morgan’s The Insider and wanted to work for News Of The World. The Guardian was the dream after studying sociology, during the phone hacking scandal it was The Times (infiltrate from the inside) and Cosmopolitan, Glamour and many more have also featured at some point. Instead I ended up at a B2B (business to business) music industry magazine.

It’s not as nonsensical as it sounds –  I studied music at college and Amy Winehouse, No Doubt and Paramore are my heroes – and it works. Some interviews have made headlines in the Mirror, The Independent, The Times, Metro, NME and more. Glamorous award ceremonies, trips abroad and celebrity meetings are also fairly frequent.

Since journalism is SO BLOODY COMPETITIVE (yawn), the sooner you start carving out your niche and stand out from the rest, the better. Plus, if you join a title that serves a small industry, you have a much better chance of being the star of it. You’ll find all the things that should make you want to be a journalist in the first place (love of writing, interviewing and news) anywhere. George Berridge wrote an excellent piece for Wannabe Hacks here on why you shouldn’t dismiss the trade press.

5). You can’t change the world

There are lots of things I don’t like about the UK: our education system, homophobia, racism, ignorance, sexism, out of touch politicians and greed. So my initial plan was to write things that will change them all. Well, I can’t. And neither can you. But, you can do your small part. Interview a pop star who’s down with the kids and ask them about misogyny, explain why a rock magazine talking about male depression is cool and do your best to get more women commentators and interviewees in your publication. Make just one person think about something in a different way and you’ve made your mark.

6). Be nice and fair

There will be days when you never want to see or speak to anyone who works in PR ever again. ARTIST RELEASES BRAND NEW SINGLE!!! SMALL AND UNKNOWN MEDIA COMPANY LAUNCHES INNOVATIVE APP!!! STARTUP SEEKS INVESTMENT!!!  – all of these are often pitched as interesting stories. It’s very easy to get frustrated, ignore calls or angrily slam the phone down while juggling transcription, an exploding email inbox and a pile of pages to sub-edit. If it’s a crap story and there is genuinely nothing you can do with it it’s fine to say no, give an explanation as to why but always thank them for calling. What happens if that PR person one day has a client that has a huge exclusive story but they remember your rudeness and take it elsewhere? Plus, you represent your publication at all times – if you are thought of as a bastard, that reflects badly on the people you work for. Relationships in journalism are very important (see why here) and a bit of courtesy goes a long way.

7). You make the news

No, not your personally (providing the Christmas party doesn’t get too out of hand), but it’s up to you to create a story. This might involve something said during an interview, the results of a press conference or the accumulation of a few opinions. It’s very rare that a fully formed lead lands in your lap so always be on the look out. Think about things from all angles, you’d be surprised at what could be relevant. It’s also your job to make something interesting. This is more relevant for trade publications, but sometimes you might have to write an ad-supported feature that has every reason to be achingly inane. Don’t switch off straight away just because money is involved. We all need to get paid so make the best of it that you can – you never know what you might discover.

8). Many mistakes are inevitable

Despite the mass of emphasis placed on the value of journalism degrees, the real learning starts on the job and never really stops. So expect to make mistakes. Lots of them. You’ll have many moments of realising that you know nothing, but don’t let it get you down. Don’t compare yourself to those who are ten years more advanced than you – whether they admit it or not – they were you once. If you’ve got someone who is willing to take the time to teach you, rinse that for all it’s worth and take note of every bit of feedback. It’s also far better to have an opinion that you regret later on than write a boring piece full of fact and only facts.

Don’t be afraid of publishing something that might ruffle a few feathers. As long it’s the truth and your editor is happy, what’s the worst that can happen? You get a pissy email from some communications person? Who cares! They can’t do anything.

9). Try and write things ASAP

This is where a portable mac/laptop comes in handy. Try and type speeches as they happen (as well as recording) – even if you only get half of it that saves a hell of a lot of transcribing and you’ll be surprised at how much of that information goes into your brain. It makes it far easier when writing up and take a note of the times on your recording when someone says something important/interesting so you can quickly find a quote later on. There’s nothing more demotivating than writing a feature/interview weeks after it’s happened and you’ve forgotten what was great about it.

10). Party like a journalist

Go to events, conferences, ceremonies and launches. Yes, they are going to be outside of working hours but they are also likely to involve free drinks. Don’t be afraid of going on your own, you are highly likely to meet someone new and in a few years when you’re telling of your rise to the top you’ll recall all those lonely drinks while being surrounded by people you know because you put the work in. Being drunk at a party is also usually where the best stories are found.

Finally: work hard, say yes to everything and have fun. It is, as expected, the best job in the world.

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.

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.

The Exclusives

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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!