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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.

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