Personal touch could be the key to getting a journalism job

It’s not turning out to be the most cheerful week for news about journalism.

We’re not halfway through yet, and I’ve read dire warnings about the future of media advertising and a hard-hitting farewell blog from a reporter who clearly doesn’t mind burning his bridges.

And then there’s a report from the NCTJ about where student journalists taking its first-stage diploma exams end up.

There have been a couple of different takes on its main findings.

HoldTheFrontPage homed in on the fact that a third of diploma-holders ended up in professions other than journalism.

While UK Press Gazette preferred the slightly more complicated line that they were more likely to get a job, but would end up earning less than other graduates.

Leaving aside the idea that journalists’ starting salaries being lower than those in other professions is hardly new news, there were a couple of other findings that struck me as interesting.

The survey discovered that the second most common way into a job – after a specialist website or recruitment agency – was through personal contacts.

The next most common was on a similar theme: through work experience.

Together those two categories amounted to 41 per cent of successful job applications.

While one can be disturbed by the notion of daddy’s mates being the gateway to the world of work, I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.

I think the survey illustrates a simple life truth that is a largely innocuous combination of ‘better the devil you know’ and ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’

There are clear lessons for would-be journalists – and indeed, would-be anyones from architects to zookeepers.

Those periods of work experience really are your time to shine, with every day a potential shop window for, well, your potential.

As I have said before, the very best reporter I have ever worked with got her job on the strength of a week’s work placement.

And she is far from unusual. Another who was a regular Saturday shift intern in the days before that word was even invented is now a very familiar face on regional TV.

We are a people business which relies heavily on gut instincts.

So it is entirely logical that our recruitment processes should reflect those characteristics.

And talking of recruitment, can I just draw your attention to a couple of vacancies in my neck of the woods?

In Yeovil, there’s this one for a trainee reporter, while in Bath, there’s this temporary role going.

So get in there – even if you’re not the devil we know.

My new mantra for getting journalists to be more organised

I invented a mantra a couple of weeks ago.

It’s so good, I’ve been using it on a virtually daily basis since – sometimes twice a day.

Brace yourselves: this is it.

“Make structure your friend.”

Ok, I may have to work on it if I want it to be the title of a best-selling self-help handbook for would-be entrepreneurs or Olympians.

But the slightly counterintuitive message it encapsulates is that the boring, administrative rigidity of planning and routine can actually be incredibly liberating.

I talk to journalists every day about the challenge of keeping increasing numbers of plates spinning.

There’s no point denying that resource constraints play a part in the strain they feel under.

But taking a strategic view of our day, our week, and even our month, allows us to make the transition from victim to controller.

Most reporters, news editors and editors that I work with have to-do lists.

But we need to develop these into proper, thought-out plans which allow us to plot our priorities, our must-dos and our would-like-tos, on a rolling basis.

Because here’s the thing.

Planning ahead – putting in the tedious Outlook calendar work, for example – helps us find the times which we can ring-fence to get out of the office, to write that magazine feature, or to do those 1-2-1s.

In other words, structure can free us up to do the things we really want to do.

So, this week, don’t be like the man who can’t ever eat a meal booked in advance.

Don’t be allergic to diary.

Fast, fair and accurate – why we should learn from PA

When the horror actor Sir Christopher Lee died recently, it was a few hours before that fact was officially recorded by Britain’s premier news agency.

The Press Association’s mission statement of ‘fast, fair and accurate’ has stood it in good stead for nearly 150 years.

And it isn’t about to start compromising on it now.

Other media were reporting Sir Christopher’s death.

But PA confirmed the film star’s demise only when one of its reporters got hold of a copy of the death certificate.

That extraordinary commitment to accuracy might seem quaint – even anal – in an age of digital competition, where the pressure to get stories up can threaten the pressure to get them right.

But I find it hugely reassuring.

I was told about the PA incident at the Cardiff School of Journalism as I helped with the NCTJ’s NQJ exam earlier this month.

Which was nicely appropriate.

I ran a course for reporters the other day at which I asked for suggestions as to what constituted great writing.

I spoke about story structure, making words flow beautifully, and the importance of writing for real people.

But it was one of the reporters who reminded me that I’d overlooked that other consideration – accuracy.

As journalists, we don’t cope well with complexity and shades of grey, preferring to look for black and white situations, with goodies and baddies and clear-cut scenarios.

Which is why I’m very proud of the way my colleagues at the Bristol Post have covered the death of 92-year-old Poppy seller Olive Cooke.

While some of the nationals have painted her tragic suicide as entirely the fault of heartless charity cold callers, the Post has been crystal clear that it wasn’t as simple as that.

Her inquest this week has confirmed that Olive suffered from depression for some time, and that while the charity approaches may have been an annoyance, they were not what drove her to her very sad death.

These inconvenient truths need to be told.

One person helping to tell them is the so-called People’s Pedant, Jonathan Portes, who has notched up several IPSO victories over nationals using statistics to suit their political ends.

As an editor or news editor, professional nitpickers like him are a right old pain.

But they’re actually doing us a favour.

As I have said before, the day people stop complaining about our stories is the day we really should be worried.

Like PA’s reputation, the credibility and integrity of many of our titles have been gained over more than 100 years of journalism.

Once lost, they can never really be restored.

It was 30 years ago today……..

If you believe my friends on the nationals, the 30th anniversary we should all be celebrating right now is that of Live Aid.

Okay, it was an extraordinary piece of international entertainment history which raised around £150 million. I’ll give Sir Bob Geldof that.

But for me, it was the warm-up for a more personal milestone.

Thirty years ago today, a slightly awkward 21-year-old who still had hair put on a very naff jacket and tie and – with Quo and Queen still ringing in his ears – set off for his first day as a professional journalist.

As I have said before, it was a funny old job, and one free of many of the pressures faced by today’s reporters.

For nearly two years, I happily filled my scrapbook with cuttings charting demands for the Crediton Bypass – a road that three decades on has yet to be fully built – and the other minutiae of life in rural mid-Devon.

In the years since then, I’ve worked for three other papers, getting involved in running their various newsdesks, and toiling alongside what must be around 200 different reporters.

IT systems, approaches to news coverage, ethical boundaries, technology, public expectations and the demands of the job have all changed over those 30 years. In some cases beyond recognition, in others through what turned out to be 360-degree arcs.

There’s no doubt that life as a journalist is more difficult today, with a level of accountability, multitasking, number-crunching and complexity undreamed of in 1985.

But the job remains an enthralling one.

The craic, the privileges, the satisfaction and the sheer boisterousness of a good newsroom have no match in any other industry – apart perhaps from the performing arts.

And for all that working life has been transformed, the basic principles remain the same.

The most important thing I want from a reporter is the same now as it has ever been.

I want someone who can get stories that people don’t know about – and which others may not want them to know about – and to tell those stories well.

Yes, you also need to be able to sell those stories through social media. Yes, you need to be fluent in digital techniques. And yes, you need to be organised and flexible.

But without decent stories, we are nothing.

And I firmly believe that in 30 years’ time, an ability to get people to talk and words to sing will still be what really matters.

Words for journalists to avoid: the banned list

A daily email pops into the inboxes of colleagues in the newsroom where I am today.

Its subject line is ‘Word (or phrase) of the day’.

The purpose of the round robin from the newsroom’s head of production is not to encourage the use of said word or phrase. Au contraire.

My supersub friend’s mission is to steer his fellow journalists away from the sort of language that kills story flow stone dead.

It’s a noble aim.

So, to add wind to his wings, here’s my own banned list.

  • state-of-the-art: is there ever a new building that isn’t?
  • brand new: new
  • however: one of the ugliest, most pedestrian, and long-winded words in the English language. What’s wrong with but?
  • during: see above. What’s wrong with while (never whilst) or at?
  • police-speak: my current favourite is ‘police were called to reports of a crash‘ They weren’t. They were called to a crash. And the crash injured a man, not a male. Later they dealt with a doorstep conman – not, as the cops like to call it, a distraction burglary. And cut out the lacerations.
  • night-time economy: a particularly objectionable form of police speak, which acts as a clumsy catch-all for pubs and clubs but which means whatever you want or need it to mean. It needs clubbing to death.
  • headquartered: hanging really is too good for any business reporter who uses this horrific non-word. Based is the real, actual, word you’re searching for.
  • other business-speak: I’m just popping down the retail units – do you want anything? It’s shops (yelled at 96 decibels). And don’t get me started on retail offer or offering.
  • council-speak: My all-time favourite is The Secretary of State (always with extra capitals). It’s Communities Secretary Greg Clark. Remember that name. Even if it is instantly forgettable.
  • iconic: Unless of course, you are talking about one of the Seven Wonders of the World, a London bus or the Sgt Pepper album cover. Ditto for special, and probably also for tragic. Here’s another word: superfluous.
  • purchase: has anyone ever used this word in a proper conversation? Buy, buy, buy.
  • outside of: Lose the of – and any other Americanism horrors.
  • issues around: No. Nor stakeholders, or any other phrase which involves nailing vague jelly to a wall.
  • declared, commented, claimed: Or any other unnecessary variant on the only word that should ever be used: said.

That’ll do. I’m just winding myself up now.

I’ll leave my friend – the great Jason Chare – to keep up his good daily work.

What does journalism teach you to do in Civvy Street?

When an editor I worked with suddenly lost his job several years ago, he wasn’t out of work for long.

In fact, he was pleasantly surprised at how in demand his skills turned out to be.

It was nearly a decade ago, but I remember his words clearly.

“Producing a daily newspaper is doing complicated project-managing every day.”

We don’t always realise it at the time, and I’ve often said “I’m not qualified to do anything else.”

But editors and other senior journalists can discover there are plenty of other roles for which they are unexpectedly well suited.

Former colleagues of mine are now working in senior roles at lobbying groups, running their own businesses, spearheading business partnerships and heading charities.

And then there are all the folk who end up in PR, communications consultancy or lecturing. Or politics.

Running a news organisation means you are – or should be – a heady cocktail of leader, motivator, project director, writer, lobbyist, creative thinker, salesperson, trainer, and mediator.

And you’re used to doing all of this to a very tight deadline.

It’s not a role for everyone, and it comes with intense pressures.

But it’s not surprising that some former editors miss the unique pace of life and office camaraderie of journalism when they enter civvy street.

Others will find a better work-life balance to be more than compensation, however.

To me, the message is clear.

We have hugely gifted, hard-working, clear-thinking and creative people in our midst.

Our industry needs to ensure that they are developed and supported so that their talent stays in our businesses for as long as possible.

Does it matter what journalism course you do?

Dozens of reporters all over the country will be experiencing a slightly sickening sense of dread over the next 48 hours.

The National Council for the Training of Journalists’ senior ‘gold standard’ exam looms large.

And on Friday, I’ll be crossing my fingers for the three candidates that I’ve got taking all or part of the National Qualification in Journalism.

I’ll be playing my part, acting as an assessor to ensure a journalistic colleague sticks to the script in a mock interview.

It’s the climax of the NCTJ’s training programme, the litmus test of whether a reporter can call themselves a fully-rounded, quick-thinking, legally-aware senior journalist.

And, despite a few niggles and flaws, it ticks most of the right boxes for me.

More importantly, it’s the destination on a pathway which for most has begun two or three years earlier.

Which is why I was intrigued to see the conclusion of a report into the importance of accreditation for journalism courses.

Research by Dr Lily Canter of Sheffield Hallam University’s journalism department has suggested that most employers set limited store by whether a jobseeker has completed an industry body-accredited course.

It’s worth saying that, of the 14 organisations or people she spoke to, only one was a regional media group like the one which employs me.

I have spent part of today at Cardiff University’s journalism school, which in my view turns out some of the best potential journalists in the country – and which is accredited by the NCTJ.

It’s important to acknowledge that this seal of approval isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Cardiff works because it also stresses skills not properly tested by the NCTJ – running a patch, advanced storytelling tools, juggling tasks, being a team player, and feature-writing, to name but a few.

Other accredited courses which concentrate purely on exam passes don’t seem to value these so much – and it shows when we take on their students.

One of Lily’s interviewees rightly says that qualifications aren’t everything – and that a known quantity ex-work experience student might be preferred over the devil we’ve never met before.

My colleagues and I are no strangers to that choice. In fact the last reporter I ever recruited came to us with no journalistic qualifications. But he had bags of enthusiasm and came highly recommended. And he had bothered to research the paper and the area where better qualified but less motivated candidates had not.

Whenever I am talking to journalism lecturers whose courses aren’t accredited, I always ask them why. And I don’t always get a wholly satisfactory answer.

I tell them that, when faced with someone from an accredited course and someone from another regime, I am likely to plump for the first, all things being equal.

(There’s one caveat to that. Not all editors may know which courses are accredited, and in other lives I have had to pick up the pieces when recruitment has been done without this vital detail being explored.)

There is a financial imperative behind my choice as well, although it’s not the main consideration.

If we take on that second student, we will have to fund, plan and administer their NCTJ diploma regime because we will want them to take the NQJ.

There remains disquiet among some editors over whether that regime has moved sufficiently with the times, whether it is digitally-focused enough, and whether it encourages diversity of writing.

So it’s good to see the NCTJ reviewing the content of its diploma scheme.

For now, the NCTJ system is the best I can see.

Its seal of approval still means something.

But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t make it even better.