How to make the most of a journalism work placement

As I listened to her, I knew I wanted her.

No, this isn’t the intro to some Mills and Boon bodice-ripper.

It’s the start of a story I tell about work experience.

I told it again to some journalism students in Cardiff yesterday as I passed on some tips on how to make the most of a work placement.

Over the years, I’ve taken on quite a few journalists on the basis of a work experience stint.

And The One That I Wanted was one of them.

I’d had good reports from other parts of the newsroom earlier in the week, and I had lined up some stories for her to tackle on her day with the newsdesk.

I was doing something else when I suddenly tuned into the lovely way in which she was interviewing a child about some award he had won.

Getting quotes out of monosyllabic teenagers is notoriously difficult, but she got him talking naturally within seconds.

I knew then – even on the basis of that everyday, almost banal, story – that she was going to be good.

We had a vacancy, she got the job, and she turned out to be the best reporter I have ever worked with.

So what are my tips to would-be journalists about to become ‘workies’?

Most news editors would – like I did – divide them into two groups: the helps and the hindrances.

How, then, to ensure you fall into the first category?

  • Ask about the dress code ahead of your placement. There’s a practical imperative here, but it also shows you care
  • Plan ahead for it: Put in FoI requests in good time, read the website to find current issues and work out which stories have already been done,  and learn a bit about the area and its geography. Follow the publication, site or station on Twitter.
  • Find a way of standing out and being remembered – even if it starts with making great tea. Surprise people with your ideas and knowledge, especially for web content: show off your ability to embed Google maps, mine Instagram, use Periscope or home in on tweets from key locations. Even better, come in with a story, or stories.
  • Show you can manage your time and priorities well
  • Be prepared to do vox pops – and make sure you know the drill on names, ages etc
  • Keep your eyes peeled for stories: take pictures and video if you see a bizarre busker or a police incident
  • Don’t make silly mistakes – check and double check, and make sure you show you value accuracy. Don’t be afraid to check answers and quotes with interviewees
  • Use the phone – don’t just rely on email
  • Take care to make your writing shine and sing – bring stories to life
  • Keep abreast of that day’s national news agenda
  • Ask questions – but pick your moments so you avoid tense deadline times
  • If you have nothing to do, make suggestions; ask would you like me to do x? rather than the open-ended ‘what can I do’?
  • Try to be clear from the start what you want to get from the week – do you want writing experience or to shadow staff or bit of both? Do you want to be on the features desk?
  • And tell your host what you’re good at: if you’ve made the definitive digital short, masterminded the perfect Playbuzz quiz or created an incisive infographic, shout it from the rooftops
  • Look as if you’re enjoying being there and that you respect the product/s. Flattery goes a long way, so ask for advice, and be positive – don’t roll your eyes, even if the story idea you’ve been given sounds like the worst one you’ve ever heard. Keep smiling: the ability to be cheerful is a key skill
  • Talk to and learn from the people around you – listen and observe their phone manner and interview styles. And make friends with reporters to find out how they got where they are, to see if there are stories you can help with – and generally to find out what makes the newsroom tick
  • Keep cuttings/web grabs etc
  • Keep in touch afterwards, make sure they know about your blog and Twitter account, and try to find the right time to ask for feedback
  • Buy some chocolate on your last day…and say thank you

Above all, remember to display those key journalistic skills of empathy, determination and curiosity.

Making a success of a work placement is all about an obsession of mine – confident humility.

It’s using some emotional intelligence to be assertive without being pushy, curious without being obsessive, and resourceful without being reckless.

It’s not just being willing to learn: it’s gently demanding that you actually do.

Good luck.



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