How to succeed at a journalism job interview

There have been times when I’ve come close to throwing would-be reporters out of an interview.

The tipping point usually followed the question ‘Have you read our paper?’

When the answer came back in the negative, the game was very much up for the hapless candidate.

It was then very much a case of how long could I decently leave it before bringing this waste of all our time to a halt.

One way, then, to destroy your chances of getting a job as a journalist is to show no proven interest in the product for which you allegedly want to work.

I’m old-fashioned enough to reckon that just looking at the website when you’re going for a job where there are also print products ain’t good enough.

You need to have looked at a few copies of the paper or magazine.

So what else can you do to maximise your chances of success at an interview?

* Make a memorable first impression: And in a good way. This applies to any interview in any sector. That first minute or so is crucial, however much of a cliche it sounds. Eye contact, a firm handshake, a genuine smile and a confident style all go a very long way. As do clothes which are smart but instantly forgettable. Avoid being remembered for your clashing shirt and tie combo rather than that smashing comment you made about how the website could be improved.

* Do your homework: Make sure you know what the running stories are, who the key people are, and how the paper and website tackle issues. Come armed with an idea of what you like – and some diplomatic proposals for improvements.

* Ask the right questions: Try to use your questions to show your skills and your commitment, and avoid working your way through a tedious list of administrative points.

* Be ready to show your commitment: You might need to work for a day to show your worth, particularly if you are what might be regarded as an unproven trainee.

* Be prepared for predictable questions: Have an answer to questions such as ‘what’s the best story you’ve ever written’, ‘what apps do you use’, ‘who’s your best contact’ and ‘how would you go about getting to know the area’.

* Show you love writing: Talk about the papers and websites you admire, and the columnists you read.

Above all else, be confident without showing arrogance, and enthusiastic without becoming annoying.

And the very best of luck.


The two-minute guide to time management for journalists

Time management and journalists tend to go together like babysitting and King Herod.

We’re driven by the fast-moving agenda of external events and breaking news, and the relentless need to fill pages and refresh websites, aren’t we?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, our days aren’t blank diary pages in the same way that most other people’s are.

There is a demanding rhythm to our day that rarely lets up.

And part of the joy of being a journalist is that you never entirely know what each day is going to bring.

But there are things we can do which allow us to make better use of our time.

Tackling stress can be all about maintaining greater control of our working day.

We may have pages to design, breaking news to react to, or stories to send.

But by trying to plan our days, we can stamp some semblance of our own authority on the patterns and rhythms of the workplace.

Here are some ideas:

* Make a list of the things that you need to do, ideally the night before

* Estimate timescales and set mini-deadlines, like optimistic councils sometimes do with their meeting agendas. Hopefully you will have better luck than the officials keeping verbose politicians in check. Trying to keep pace with your timetable can concentrate your mind wonderfully.

* Do things in batches – send emails in one go, set aside half an hour to return all your phone calls, lump all your admin such as expenses together

* Get calls and emails in early in the news cycle to maximise the chance of callbacks and responses in time for your deadline

* Don’t over-multitask – close down emails or web browsers occasionally, or switch off the bottom right hand corner alerts.

You should also get the balance right between quick win, easy jobs and the satisfaction of getting a really nasty task out of the way early.

And try to get better at advance planning – plan ahead, and use diaries, as I suggested in a previous blog

Anyway, I gave myself 20 minutes to write this, and I’ve already bust that by ten, so I need to get on.

Good luck with it all.



The ABC of good writing for newbie reporters

We all remember our first time.

It was a bit messy, over quite quickly, and not hugely satisfying.

Afterwards we were probably plagued by self-doubt – was everything in the right position, did we forget to do something, and have we ended up making a fool of ourselves?

Writing your first story ain’t easy.

And virtually every day I see young reporters battling with the basics of crafting compelling and creative copy.

In my first-ever blog I wrote about the general principles of good writing.

But the hours – hugely enjoyable and satisfying hours, I should say – that I’ve spent doing copy clinics with less experienced reporters in recent weeks have persuaded me that there are three key themes which specifically apply to them.

So here they are – the ABC of good writing for reporters starting out in their careers.

A is for Adventurous.

As I’ve said before, one of the biggest sins in journalism is to be boring and predictable.

Your aim should be to keep your writing as fresh and original as possible, and to surprise the reader on a regular basis.

The dropped intro is a great way of breathing new and different life into your writing, particularly for human interest stories.

Resist the temptation to shop for words in the oven-ready cliche aisle – there is no law that says gardeners have to be green-fingered, awards prestigious, ceremonies glittering or restoration painstaking. In fact there ought to be one banning such autopilot phraseology.

B is for Brave.

Perhaps the most important of this holy trinity of wordsmithery.

I understand that it’s hard for newbie reporters to think they know best when confronted by authority in all its cack-handed glory.

But every week I come across journalists overriding their instincts to fall in line with the nonsense of others.

And every week, I encourage them to remember that most police officers and police press teams would fail any kind of basic spelling and local geography tests, let alone any exam which tested their ability to communicate in everyday English.

If I ever see the word female used as a noun in a crash report again, it’ll be too soon.

One of the most fundamental lessons for young reporters to learn is to trust those instincts, and to develop the courage to assess and summarise complex situations without clinging to the handrail words of police-speak and councilese.

What is really going on here, and how can I explain that in the simplest way possible?

That’s the challenge.

 C is for Clear.

Picking up on that theme of keeping things simple, another tough lesson for many graduates is that they have to unlearn some habits absorbed at university.

I have spent some time this summer helping one of my son’s uni friends to improve his dissertation-writing.

Part of that process has been to encourage him to widen his vocabulary, and to use more grown-up language.

At no point, however, have I advised him to over-complicate, or to use flowery and ornate phraseology for the sake of it.

But too many people emerge from university thinking that they have to write like a combination of Jane Austen and a thesaurus compiler to get on in the world.

Words are like tools.

We need to pick the right ones to help with the journalist’s job of crafting a story which will engage people, pulling them in, and beautifully flow until the final, satisfying sentence.

So, keep sentences relatively short, and avoid packing them with ugly-looking upper and lower case proper names.

Resist the temptation to rifle through that online thesaurus looking for variations on ‘said’.  I don’t want to see people declaring, continuing – or musing, David Brent magazine interview-style.

This isn’t about dumbing down, or inverse snobbery.

It’s about making sure those word tools serve us well, and that nothing gets in the way of flowing, engaging and at times surprising writing.

Good luck.

How journalists can be better at Facebook

What’s the first website most of us reach for in the morning?

It’s probably the same in the evening, too.

I wouldn’t mind betting that the site the majority of us spend the most time on (other, perhaps, than our own beloved newspaper’s) is Facebook.

On Facebook, we’re all experts: breaking our news, posting our pictures, banging out the witty one-liners, and sharing our good and bad times.

No one’s trained us to do it, and there’s no manual.

We just get on with it in a very natural, spontaneous and human way.

So why is it so tricky when we use it at work?

Of course we’re wearing a slightly more formal and corporate hat, and of course we need to watch our Ps and Qs a little more carefully.

But often we just seem to leave all our human warmth, humour and character at the office door.

So how can we get better at social media – and particularly at being human?

Let’s look at one of the best social media operators in the Local World stable.

The South Wales Evening Post in Swansea has more than 27,000 likes on Facebook, with stories shared up to 80 times.

One of its most popular features is a picture of the day.

sw post fbook

It doesn’t lead anyone to the website, but it keeps people on the Facebook page in the hope that something else will, and creates the sort of positive experience that makes you want to return every day.

So what other lessons can we learn from the folks over the bridge?

* Don’t just repeat the intro in the blurb – find new words to entice people to read the story

* Talk like a human, not an autopilot newsdesk – with the Post using slangy expressions such as ‘lad’, and emoticons, and occasionally taking the mick out of criminals. They use the word ‘we’ a lot and remember the Facebook audience is likely to contain more women than men.

swales sandra


* Use pull-out quotes to tease human interest stories – employed sparingly, they work well


* Be unashamed about non-local content – they fess up and offer up cute dogs, and the odd national story

* Ask questions – and not just the lame ‘What do you think?’

It’s clear that Facebook can play a big role in driving audience growth.

And Telegraph editor in chief Jason Seiken says journalists have neglected Facebook in favour of Twitter.

It’s true that many journalists, including me, have been far more comfortable using Twitter for work purposes than Facebook.

So what else can we do to maximise our chances on Facebook?

Change your cover photo every week to keep your pages fresh

* Tag groups, businesses, people, clubs etc

* Get better at social media at weekends – when people spend the most time on Facebook, but when your resources may be at their most stretched

* Think about a social media content management strategy, so that postings are planned more carefully

* Post from 7am, but know that 9pm is likely to be the peak time for Facebook use, and schedule accordingly

* Don’t bombard people with repeat messages, or speak-your-weight scheduled posts

* Like the occasional comments of people – and respond to them where appropriate

Social media offers us a real chance to get to new people, to expand the footprint of our stories, and boost those all-important web audience figures.

So let’s try to remember that it’s real people we’re talking to on Facebook – people like you and I. 

People like the ones we talk to in the rest of our Facebook lives.

The ten best things about being a journalist

You may have noticed that my Twitter bio says that one of my aims is to help journalists love their jobs.

You may also have noticed that my last couple of blogs have been a potent cocktail of preachy and downbeat, focusing on issues such as mistakes and suicide.

Things need to change.

And so, on one of my many journeys around the countryside of the south west, I began to compile my Top Ten Best Things About Being a Journalist.

I have been helped to crystallise my thinking by my good friends at the Wells Journal, where I am working today.

So here goes:

1. No day is the same: Theoretically at least. You never know entirely what a day is going to throw at you. Dramas from coaches plunging down ravines to shopping centres exploding helped keep life interesting on the newsdesk where I last worked, in Bath. 

2. Meeting fascinating and lovely people: You get to know some of the bravest, most generous and most dedicated people in your community. If nothing else, their challenges and predicaments can put your own in healthy perspective. And then there’s all the celebs – from actors to politicians, and singers to writers.

3. You get invited into people’s lives: There is no greater privilege than being trusted to tell the story of someone’s life, particularly when that life has been cut short by tragedy. And there are plenty of other situations where people open up to journalists at sensitive and emotionally-charged times in their lives.

4. You get a ringside seat in history: A grand way of saying that we write the first draft of history, with privileged access at events from election counts to the Olympics.

5. Writing: The job involves one of the most satisfying things you can do sitting down. Shaping words to boil complex situations down into understandable and accessible English, or to paint a picture of a person ought to be a joy – and a source of pride.

6. Seeing your work in print or online: Following on from that, the sense of satisfaction from a job well done – whether as a writer, designer or photographer, or as a whole team – is hard to beat.

7. Being on the inside track: Despite the growth of social media, we are still often the first to find out about all kinds of activities, developments and issues. Plus there’s all that gossip and off-the-record intrigue which we’ve never quite been able to legally use.

8. Telling people things someone doesn’t want them to know: There’s nothing quite like the stony silence at the other end when you’ve bowled an unwelcome but legitimate curveball at a press officer, or the pointless pleading of some other form of officialdom. As Lord Northcliffe said: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

9. Making a difference: We still do. Whether it’s simply helping someone to raise money for a good cause, or playing a part in the overthrow of a crooked councillor or dictatorial headteacher, what we write can change things for the better for an awful lot of people.

10. People and perks: As I have said before in a blog, when journalists try to string two words together at leaving dos, they almost always say they will miss ‘the people’ the most. There is a cruel camaraderie and an imaginative gallows humour that binds us to our colleagues through good times and bad. People who go into civvy street end up missing this the most, however much they gain in pay and work-life balance. And let us not deny the perks, whether they be festival tickets or free samples. 

So there you have it. If I’ve missed any out, tweet me @paulwiltshire.

And may you enjoy being a journalist for many more years to come.

Reporting Robin: How to cover suicides responsibly

The death of Robin Williams is rightly a huge – and very, very sad – story.

But it raises important questions about how we report suicide.

I think we’re all a great deal wiser, more sensitive and more sensible about this issue.

But the coverage of Williams’s death reminds us that we have a real responsibility to get our tone, information and copytasting spot-on.

Personally, I thought even the detail that Williams hanged himself was a step too far, when he was such a hero and role model to so many people, and particularly so many young people.

There was a good piece in the Guardian on the concern over suicide coverage:

And the Samaritans charity has issued detailed guidance to journalists:

Interestingly, those guidelines raise no fundamental objection to the use of the words hanging or hanged, so maybe I am being unduly cautious and conservative.

Part of me thinks I would rather err on the side of caution than open myself to criticism that I had inadvertently put the idea of suicide into a vulnerable reader’s mind.

What I’m certain of, though, is that any reporter or news editor dealing with a story about suicide should familiarise themselves with those Samaritans guidelines.

They, after all, are the experts on this, not us.

Why inaccuracy could be killing newspaper sales

Some friends of my parents celebrated their diamond wedding recently.
It was a joyous occasion, involving four generations of their extensive family, virtually all of whom still live in their home city.
The happy couple have lived in that city all their lives, and have a wide friendship circle focussed on their church.
So it was nice to see the landmark recognised in their local paper, in what was probably their first appearance in its pages since their original wedding photo had been published 60 years earlier.
There was a lovely picture of the two of them, and it should have been a great keepsake for future generations.
And yet, halfway down, was a sentence littered with errors.
The report stated that they had been married by a minister in a social club in a holiday resort 100 miles away.
The writer had somehow conflated the church, reception venue and honeymoon destination into one jarring location.
My mum wasn’t impressed.
And neither, I suspect, were many of her friends.
I say suspect, because it emerged that increasing numbers of my parents’ friendship circle no longer buy the paper.
These are people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s – the bedrock of local newspaper readership.
And the reason so many have given up is heartbreakingly simple.
It’s not down to time constraints, the availability of news on the internet, a lack of community attachment in a transient age, or the unappetising nature of the paper’s content.
These heartland, fourth/fifth/sixth generation local people who have spent their entire lives in this city simply no longer trust its accuracy.
And we’re not talking about twisting the truth, sensationalism or bias.
We’re talking about an inability to get place names right, dates correct or even choose the right word.
I won’t name the paper – suffice to say, it’s not in the region in which I now work.
But it is a paper that I have huge respect and affection for, one with talented, dedicated and award-winning staff.
But we are in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot by neglecting the basics of proper journalism.
There are two ironies at play here.
The first is one I have long tried to make newbie reporters aware of, particularly those who are coming to work in a town or city for the first time.
Most papers are staffed by writers who – at least initially – know very little about their community. But they find themselves writing for people who know virtually everything about that area, its geography and history.
The second is one that has dawned on me only recently.
It is, I guess, a version of that rule which applies to local council debates, and sees hours of wrangling over the grass-cutting budget for a patch of land, while multi-million pound items go through on the nod. Everyone knows how much it should cost to cut some grass, you see.
Sometimes the stories to which we attach the least importance can be the ones that really matter.
To a hard-pressed reporter with a dozen stories to get through in a day, and web targets bearing down on them, that diamond wedding is a pain in the backside that ends up getting the least attention and the lowest priority.
To that couple, and their extensive family and friends, however, it’s the only story that matters.
Sometimes we do more harm in messing them up than we do by dropping a clanger in a carefully-checked splash about a £100 million shopping redevelopment that’s two years away.
When we write about real people’s lives in the here and now, there are real people who will judge us on whether we’ve got it right.
At the moment, too many of those real people are judging that we’re getting things wrong too often.
At a time when newspaper sales are being lost because of factors that we have little or no control over, it seems criminal that we are allowing income and readers to slip through our fingers in this way.
This is something we can all address, and another reason why right first time for reporters is such a crucial mantra.
That diamond wedding report went into the paper and onto its website nearly a month ago.
Today, as I write this, the error remains for all to see online.
I suspect the couple and others around them have simply shrugged and decided – like those refuseniks who no longer buy the paper – to accept a world in which papers get things wrong.
There were times as a news editor when I breathed a cowardly sigh of relief when no one rang in to complain about a mistake that we’d spotted after publication.
Times have changed.
The day that no one bothers to complain about a newspaper’s error is the day that we really do need to start worrying.