So you’re hoping to become a journalist?
The bad news is that you’re a generation too late – in terms of clear-cut entry points, that is. A generation of cutbacks has hit local newspapers, one of the primary traditional starting points for trainees. And after years of uncertainty, along came the recession…
The good news is that there has never been a more diverse range of opportunities for trainee journalists. They are certainly thin on the ground, but the following should provide some pointers.
The list is certainly not definitive, neither is it prescriptive, but a journalist needs to be able to sift through data for what applies to his or her needs. My specific experience, I confess, is limited to print and websites.
And the last two entries are from two experts who have had experience across the lean, mean years of recruitment and ever more diverse training. Add your own comments and thoughts; I’ll be happy to respond where I can.
Read the first autobiography from radio presenter Chris Evans (“It’s Not What You Think“).
This man put up with no pay, low pay, no sleep, long hours, endless hanging around just in case there was half a chance, and a social life diluted vastly by lack of free time and money – all of which are the fate of wannabe journalists in 2010. Through the book, however, shine the lessons in determination, patience, networking, blinding self-confidence and the sort of luck you make for yourself.
The Evans role is a media job rather than a journalism one, but this is the best forewarning I know of just how hard your life will be. And the potential financial rewards are far, far from likely to be as high as his!
SKILLS No. 1: SPELLING & GRAMMAR
Don’t think spell-checks will compensate for poor spelling. We all know it doesn’t cover practice when you should have written practise. Journalism will be a shock if you think there will be time to cross-check everything in Microsoft Word. And your editor will receive a disturbing number of mails if you use apostrophes wrongly. In fact, a combination of good spelling, grammar and punctuation is more critical than ever in the online age (likely to be an aspect of your work even if you’re primarily in a broadcast role); no longer can you rely on desks of sub-editors to stop you (and your employer) looking an idiot. Bear in mind that many websites often work on a “one person deep” basis; what you write goes straight to “live”.
* Click HERE for one take on this.
SKILLS No. 2: TOUCH-TYPING & SHORTHAND
It is immensely harder to learn touch-typing once you have built up speed with two fingers. Yet true touch-typing means far cleaner copy (you’re looking at the screen as you clack away, spotting errors) but also faster (especially when it comes to copying quotes from your notebook). This is a skill that should be learned as early as possible, and which is worth the immense effort it will take to overcome bad two-fingered habits. When it comes to shorthand, many would-be journalists are surprised it still matters. But there are places where a small digital recorder won’t help, such as in a courtroom or when you’re at the back of the pack for an impromptu press conference. If you’re still angling for that first step into classes, shorthand classes are a clear sign of your commitment.
SKILLS No. 3: TECHNICAL
Take it as a given that you will be expected to be capable of running advanced searches on Google – and ideally a professional media search like LexisNexis if you pick up some knowledge on work experience spells. Photoshop work is also a frequently requested skill (even if just basic cropping and sizing). Facebook and Twitter are used increasingly as an adjunct to other media, ranging from information-gathering to additional dissemination of news – so study the more formal uses of social media. And an increasing number of editors won’t even look at you unless you can prove experience of blogs – which are a good way of proving some reporting skills, especially if you can develop a blog around a niche topic that interests you. Lastly, try to elevate your Tweeting to something that could support your quest.
Oh for the good old days when local papers provided the core of trainee journalist positions. Regional groups even ran their own trainee development schemes that went well beyond the NCTJ basics. If only, some of you will think, you had the 300 to 1 odds that I was lucky enough to overcome for a trainee job on the Coventry Evening Telegraph. But local paper revenues and circulation have crashed in just a generation, and the number of training slots has tumbled too. They’re still there, but think of the Chris Evans approach (see above) to maximise your chances.
* See Peter Sands on the demise of the local press
If a local newspaper centred on a city or town, a hyperlocal site looks at maybe just a suburb. The best tend to cover more than just news, and are rich in information ranging from bus timetables to local night classes and even local craftsmen. They come in a variety of forms and their evolution is still in progress; this could appeal to entrepreneurial wannabe journalists who have the skills to balance editorial and commercial needs.
* HyperlocalBlogger is a good aggregator and tries to be realistic.
* Here’s hyperlocal.co.uk’s map of UK sites.
ONE VISION OF THE FUTURE
Ian Burrell, The Independent’s Media Editor, asks: Is this the future of media? Following is an excerpt from his blogs:
“Get used to it. The big publishers of the future may no longer be the news organisations of old but companies that want to sell you stuff: shoes, gadgets, holidays. Companies that have a story to tell and the money to get it told. For many journalists this could be their future. Just take a look at what’s happening.”
* Click HERE for his full blog.
Here are a few quotes (occasionally contradictory) from desk editors giving their advice: Be omnipresent; Always ask questions; Don’t ask too many questions; Don’t pretend you have skills that you don’t have; Do homework about your host; Don’t be a mouse; Don’t be too loud; Be thorough; Put yourself under pressure to produce a good turn-round on any given task; Take notes so you don’t keep asking the same questions; Don’t be too chummy too soon; Try to integrate well; Ask for formal feedback towards the end of your spell. Above all, do it over and again, and try to find somewhere you like that will have you back.
THE NCTJ – A RANGE OF TRAINING AND A RANGE OF ROLES
The National Council for the Training of Journalists is a charity delivering the key UK training scheme. As well as explaining the varying qualifications covering a range of courses, including distance learning, this is also somewhere to go to begin to understand the range of roles. More wannabe journalists working on the fringes of the media are paying for training themselves, which can help in the job search, but is no guarantee of work.
One grouchy desk editor on a daily paper told me: “The only night off you can guarantee is Christmas eve… unless you’re working.” Facetious maybe, but don’t underestimate the effect of journalism on your social life. And one of the best ways to get return shifts is to make it clear you’re willing to do nights, weekends or whatever helps to get your foot in the door. And once you start doing shifts, be organised! You only have to mess someone about once to be history.
THE PCC CODE OF CONDUCT
As well as legal knowledge covering libel, contempt, the Children and Young Persons Act, journalists are also encountering ever more issues that require highly tuned sensitivities as ever higher standards are expected. Increased expectations mean increased pressure, while the editor will expect you to be sufficiently robust to avoid being bullied out of a justifiable story. Can you handle the pressure?
* Click HERE for the PCC’s Editors’ Code of Practice
* University of Central Lancashire: The challenges facing journalism
EXPERT VIEW No. 1
Peter Sands, of the training and design consultancy Sands Media Services , has overseen the training of scores of journalists and confronts these issues daily. He says:
“I have just recruited for the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph and almost all of the successful candidates came from City, Cardiff, Goldsmiths and the Press Association. We sometimes also recruit from Sheffield, which also has a good reputation.”
EXPERT VIEW No. 2
Bill Carmichael, a lecturer at the Department of Journalism Studies at The University of Sheffield , is another blogger with snippets for prospective journalists, such as “Ten Tweetable signs that you’re a journalist“. He says:
“We are recruiting pretty strongly on all our courses (BA and MA) and our record of placing graduates in jobs is good. We also regularly come top in the student satisfaction surveys, so we must be doing something right.
“We are realistic with students and right from the beginning stress the difficulties of finding work that pays reasonably.
“But no matter how hard you push these things there are always people who want to give it a go, and many of them end up with very good jobs.
“In terms of job hunting they throw their nets more widely than ever before.
“By that I mean that although some will go through the traditional newspaper or local radio route, others are becoming entrepreneurs launching hyperlocal websites, and many decide to work for charities, NGOs, companies, govt departments etc – anything that requires communications skills.”
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