What makes a good journalist?

It’s not often that the muse strikes in the middle of Tesco.

But I bumped into the mum of one of my son’s old school friends in our local branch last night.

She said he was doing well, studying English at university, and enjoyed writing.

“He’s wondering if he might want to be a journalist,” she said. “He really enjoyed that week he had at The Bath Chronicle, but he’s just not sure what he wants to do, and he’s not even writing for the student paper”

(Note: I don’t remember him ever spending a week at the Chronicle. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t remember a 12ft alien who gave out free money doing work experience, so fast-editing is my memory in that regard.)

I gave my number to the enquiring mum, but wasn’t hugely encouraging.

“If he isn’t 100 per cent committed to being a journalist, if it isn’t the only thing he’s ever wanted to do, and if he doesn’t want it more than anything else, it’s almost certainly not the right job for him,” was more or less my answer.

I have always said that the qualities you need to get into journalism – determination, graft, luck, charm, people skills and a degree of hunger – are also those required to make you a success in our profession.

The writing part of the job is – clearly – a huge one.

An editor that I greatly respect told me recently that he thought the only real answer to the question Why do you want to be a journalist? was: Because I love writing.

But it’s not, if you forgive the weak pun, the whole story.

To flesh out my sentence above, it strikes me that these are also key, vital qualities for a would-be journalist:

* curiosity – you need to be interested in the way life and society work, and engaged with the world around you

* empathy – you will be dealing with people all day long, and often people at extremes of human emotion. You must get on with them, have a reserve of instant charm and small talk, be a good listener, and have acute emotional intelligence. And you must be able to be a team player

* resourcefulness – you should be able to think on your feet, turn adversity around and make the most of technology and the myriad of new storygathering and storytelling mechanisms

* an open mind – one which balances healthy cynicism with belief in the human spirit, and has a positive attitude to life, leaving dogma and blind preconception at the door

* organisation – you need to manage your time well, prioritise efficiently, and be dedicated to accuracy and truth

* imagination – you have to be able to find new ways of telling familiar stories, and ask questions and make suggestions that risk both failure and ridicule

* eccentricity – some of the best journalists I have ever worked with have contributed to my follicly-challenged appearance. The wayward, the stroppy, the unpredictable…they’ve all turned in the best writing I’ve ever had the pleasure of sending to a page. But I’ve also had faith in their commitment to accuracy and to their colleagues

* bravery – not just to deal with intimidating people, but to take a complicated situation by the scruff of its neck and decide on what could be a controversial line or intro

* determination – the most important by a country mile. Robustness, resilience, a thick skin, and the ability to reject nonsense and bounce back from adversity will all stand you in good stead.

My friend the editor is also right, however.

You must want to write, and to tell stories.

You must have a desire to find out things that people don’t know – and that other people don’t want them to know. And you must want to spread the word about them.

Incidentally, that might not be just by writing that story.

It might be by crafting the very best headline, or taking the very best picture.

Being able to provide information in a way that moves people, that changes lives, is what the best journalism is all about.

As a trainer, I can improve people’s writing skills and help them develop a whole weaponry of other techniques needed for their daily working lives.

But ultimately, so much of journalism is about things that can’t be taught or trained.

It’s the thrill of the chase, certainly.

But it’s also the glint in the eye, the fire in the belly, the occasional metaphorical foot in the door and the strong but sensitive heart.

 

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2 thoughts on “What makes a good journalist?

  1. Great blog – can I add “an ability to read upside down and earwig conversations 20 feet away”

  2. I used to work for an editor who said any interview candidate who said “I want to be a journalist because I love writing” was instantly struck off the list. She said the writing part was the least important aspect of being a journalist, and the easiest to learn through practice. And I think she thought somebody who “loved writing” was more likely to be desk bound. (This was in the days when we actually used to go out and about). It was the people skills, the curiousity and the desire to champion those without a voice that she was looking for, and are intrinsic and can’t be taught. I often retell that story to parents who tell me their children are “good at English and want to be a journo”

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