Tips for a student journalist’s blog

It’s amazing what WordPress’s fairies can uncover at the bottom of their digital analytics garden.

I discovered the other day that my blog – this little thing – has been read by 13 people in Russia.

I like to think it’s Putin’s media henchmen, checking up on the latest revolutionary thinking in the evil world of democratic journalism.

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Rather than Cheboksary (the capital of Chuvashia – do you know nothing?), I’m mostly  either in Cheltenham or Chippenham.

But I’ve been doing my bit to boost my students’ audience figures of late as I assess their blogs for a multimedia module assignment.

And so, what is the key to a successful student journalism blog?

Perhaps the most important point to make is that you need something to say.

It sounds obvious.

But a blog should evoke – or provoke – a response.

It should be interesting, useful, challenging, surprising, thought-provoking, moving, amusing, enlightening or inspiring. Preferably all at the same time, but for the moment any one of these will do.

And what else? What other advice do I have to make this particular blog that I’m writing now really useful?

  • Work on that intro. Spend some time carving out a really engaging, really intriguing or really surprising way to hook in your readers. If you’re reviewing a film or a show, don’t start with its name. If you’re reviewing a club or restaurant, don’t start with a boring description of where it is. Paint pictures with your words.
  • At the other end, make sure you have a great last line. Round it off neatly and nicely.
  • Don’t be vague. If you’re attacking media coverage, be specific about the stories or tweets, and link to them. Bland and sweeping generalisations don’t cut it, I’m afraid.
  • Have an authentic and natural voice.  Be yourself and develop some stylistic idiosyncrasies that help move your writing along, keeping it fresh and original.
  • Read other blogs and columns. The best way to improve your writing is to read other people’s.
  • Master grammar and be your own fiercest critic. Don’t let horrible typos or clunky phraseology get in the way. Check and check again. Read your stuff aloud. Get friends to sub it for you. Use spellcheck. Make sure you’ve used apostrophes correctly, that you’ve got the right its or it’s, and that you’ve followed the conventional style on numbers. Do this everywhere, but particularly do this in your About Me section. This is your shop window – make sure it says ‘come in and buy.’
  • Oh, by the way, have an About Me section. And have it where you would expect to see it. Include a picture and your full name. Be smart – funny but also professional. Make sure those words sing your talents from the rooftops.
  • Showcase news stories too. And then blog about them.
  • Show you’re a multimedia journalist. Make sure your home page looks attractive, use plenty of (copyright-safe) pictures, embed videos and tweets, hyperlink, deploy bullet points and pull-out quotes, and organise your posts. And then use Facebook and Twitter to get people to read them.
  • Keep it up to date. A ‘tombstone’ blog that hasn’t been updated for months is worse than no blog at all.

At its best, your blog should show potential employers or content commissioners that you’re a versatile writer with flair and commitment to the journalistic cause.

So go on then, blog off.

 

 

 

Small is beautiful

I went to a lovely leaving do last night.

It was a heart-warming send-off for a couple of long-serving former colleagues who have – with good grace – become two of the human faces of Trinity Mirror’s latest restructuring.

They were both approaching the new chapters in their lives with optimism and a degree of excitement.

They were, perhaps, more positive than some of the ‘survivor’ journalists now getting to grips with a brave new digital world all over again.

Across all the four biggest regional media companies, there can be little sense of certainty, or stability.

To Trinity Mirror’s credit, new roles are being created which mean some of the most talented folk can remain in the business.

But this week’s profit warning from Daily Mail and Mail Online owner DMGT shows how damaging the advertising recession has become.

The regional media always used to be able to point to major brands such as Tesco and car manufacturers for evidence of the value and effectiveness of print advertising.

Now it’s not so clear-cut, with supermarkets and car makers cutting back on their print marketing budgets.

The double whammy that constitutes what former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger called a force 12 digital hurricane comes from a gloomier than expected picture on the digital revenue that we hoped would be coming over the horizon.

One of the conclusions of some fascinating analysis – in the Guardian – of that storm is that the most sustainable businesses in future might well be the smallest.

I have long felt that the publishers – online and in print – with the brightest future are either the very local, or the very independent. Or, ideally, the very both.

Very much in the glass half full camp at last night’s gathering was an old friend who runs a very successful hyperlocal news business.

The enterprise that he coordinates from home produces free monthly magazines that serve 100,000 people, backed by websites and underpinned by PR and marketing services.

My brother no longer buys his regional daily. But he and all his friends devour a community weekly newspaper that covers their nearest town and surrounding villages.

It looks like a dog’s dinner. But it’s packed with recognisable names, sea-of-faces pictures, and really useful local info.

A few years ago, the regional media’s mantra was that ‘life is local.’

That simple truth hasn’t changed – and that’s something journalism educators like me need to recognise. If only by thinking about whether we need to better prepare students for what might be called entrepreneurial journalism.

We are still parochial people who struggle to see life beyond our immediate neighbourhood.

That’s why small really can be beautiful.

 

 

 

Keep on keeping on: the best advice for journalism graduates

It was a lovely day.

At the end of a week which saw our final year students producing their own version of the One Show, we gathered in the sun to say our farewells.

There were speeches, awards, photos, hugs – and some food and drink to kick off their own night of celebrations.

Some of them have jobs to go to, others are continuing with their studies, while some are still looking for work.

These are tricky times for the media industry.

Both the broadcasting sector and the traditional print businesses are looking to cut costs – and staff are their biggest outlay.

In the last few days, we have heard about the Telegraph shedding jobs, Vice making 20 people redundant, and the Guardian disbanding its investigations unit.

There are jobs out there – there’s one with my old colleagues in Bath, and another with my friends further down into Somerset.

But life in the newsroom of today is full-on – a relentless rollercoaster which will take you to huge highs but also some frustrating and exhausting lows.

So it’s important that we sent the soon-to-be-graduates that we have lovingly nurtured over the last three years out with the very best advice we could muster.

Which is what we did.

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One by one, my colleagues and I came up with words of wisdom for our departing students.

These were some of them:

  • Say yes to everything – make the most of every opportunity that comes your way, and try everything
  • Ask for feedback if you get rejected for jobs – it should tell you where you need to improve, but it could also open new doors
  • Make the most of every contact you come across. You’re likely to find work by being in the right place at the right time, and by making the right personal connections
  • Keep picking your lecturers’ and support staff’s brains and talents
  • Keep on keeping on. Be resilient. Pick yourself up after rejection and know that people who want to make it always do.
  • Break the rules and take risks. Within reason.
  • Remember everything you’ve learned and how good you are
  • Aim high. Tell yourself you can always do better, whether that be in finding the right interviewee, or in pushing a story to the limit. Don’t settle for that’ll do.

That last one was mine.

It wasn’t my most profound thought.

But it is a mantra of mine, one that I always tried to drum into reporters in my previous job.

I always told them that I realised compromises had to be made in their stressful lives, when time was at a premium.

But I also told them I wanted them to remember me as a sort of nagging parrot on their shoulders, encouraging them to look to the skies rather than the gutters, and – now and again – to push themselves towards perfection.

It’s a point made by the wonderful Gareth Davies, the multi-award-winning chief reporter of the Croydon Advertiser, in an interview with Press Gazette.

Speaking generally, the difference between a good journalist and an ok journalist is the good journalist is the person who’s willing to put in the time and effort. Sometimes the really good stories take time and effort and you’ve got to commit yourself to going the extra mile. You’ve got to ask that extra question, you’ve got to not let something go when you might otherwise think maybe the story’s dead or I’m not getting where I need to go with it. Just keep asking, that’s the difference I guess.

Often conversations about the gulf between the ideal world and the real one would focus on the difficulty of getting out of the office to talk to real people.

One of the joys of our students’ end-of-course show was the sheer number of interesting people they managed to interview.

I’ve just finished arguably the best guide to being a journalist ever written – Tony Harcup’s Journalism: Principles and Practice.

It’s a superbly-written book, packed with wisdom of the sort we were trying to impart, gleaned from dozens of interviews.

Some of the wisest words come from onetime Guardian reporter Martin Wainwright, once a journalist on my beloved Bath Chronicle.

I love this one: “As a journalist, you spend most of your life rushing, but it’s still worth spending as long as you can with people.”

Political interviewer Andrew Marr once said that his prescription for better journalism was simple: “Get out more.”

And the Guardian’s Jemima Kiss has another beauty for Tony Harcup: “Meet as many people as possible, always.”

In the end, these are the best pieces of advice of all for people about to start a media job, or looking to find one.

You won’t do either hiding behind a keyboard or a phone.

Get out, meet people – in the real world and the media one, keep looking for stories, keep writing, and don’t give up.

To everyone graduating this summer, the very best of luck.

Journalism is a team sport

I’m developing a man crush.

Correction.

I’m developing two man crushes.

(Or should that be men crushes? Where is someone who works with words for a living when you need him?)

And the targets of my bromantic affection have a couple of other things in common.

Firstly, they both wear specs – as I do.

More importantly, though, they are both experts in the analysis and development of team spirit.

My first hero is the man whose mission is to teach the world to sing, choirmaster Gareth Malone.

I have so much admiration for his ability to get people who have never met before to bond beautifully, and for his extraordinary skill in using music to transform self-esteem.

His latest work, with wounded servicemen and women, was – as always – hugely moving, and hugely positive.

My other inspiration is writer and leadership expert Simon Sinek.

He has more wisdom in his little finger than many FTSE 100 bosses have in their entire bodies.

Essentially his messages are about the long-term financial benefits of putting people before profits, and about the need for company purpose and integrity.

Interestingly, both Gareth and Simon have worked closely with the military in recent years, absorbing and reinforcing key lessons about sacrifice, camaraderie and teamwork.

I’ll be drawing on some Sinek wisdom tomorrow, when I pick up the threads of an editorial management training programme with some senior journalists.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan revived the phrase ‘politics is a team game’ at the weekend. But it’s a sentiment that could equally well be applied to journalism.

So tomorrow, we’ll be exploring what makes a great newsroom team, and putting some of my obsessions – from tea-making to early morning watercooler moments – under the spotlight.

A day later, I will hopefully be watching the seeds of teamwork come to fruition, as our third year students stage their own version of The One Show.

Students will admit that the dynamics of news days and news weeks can be a real challenge – particularly coping with roles that require leadership and decision-making.

They can be frustrated over their colleagues’ commitment and attendance, sensitive over criticism and feedback, and worried over divisions of labour.

All of which is brilliant preparation for life in a real newsroom.

A strong and supportive team spirit goes a long way in the teeth of what former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger memorably called a ‘force 12 digital hurricane’ as he stepped down from the paper’s Scott Trust this week.

When I ask journalists when they experienced team spirit at its best, the answer usually involves overcoming adversity together.

There may be no I in team.

But there’s one in pride and passion, satisfaction and sensitivity, and craic and creativity.

And it’s those qualities that I’ll be keeping my eye out for this week.

 

I’m a grammar pedant – but these tests for primary kids are a nonsensical waste of time

I like to think of myself as a fairly unreconstructed grammar pedant.

Ok, so I’m learning to let some stuff go. I no longer visibly bristle when I hear the phrase train station and I’ve even been known to turn a blind eye to an over which should be a more than.

But I make no apologies for ensuring that any journalists I train and any students I teach know their theres from their they’res, their compliments from their complements, their everydays from their every days – and the right way to use an apostrophe.

It’s all part of presenting a confident and professional face to the world, as well as learning to love a wonderful language.

So you’d think I’d be all in favour of children learning the way that words work at primary school.

And so I am, up to a point.

And that point is some way before any mention of the phrase subordinating conjunction.

conjunc That was when I lost it with the Government’s new English grammar, punctuation and spelling tests for Year Six children.

 

On one paper I attempted down the pub overseen by a teacher friend, there were around 35 questions.

I, as someone with an English degree who teaches writing now, and who has spent 30 years slinging together well-honed sentences, had not a clue about two of them.

In the end, I highlighted eight questions that I regarded as essential if we’re preparing 11-year-olds for the outside world.

That’s less than a quarter of the nonsense that busy teachers are being forced to cram into the heads of confused children.

What a complete waste of everyone’s time, effort and emotion.

What a perfect example of Conservative ministers’ skewed, soulless, Gradgrind approach to the education and encouragement of young minds.

One of the questions asks pupils to identify a command.

Well, here’s one. Stop. Stop this nonsense now.

The reporter of the future: Full Monty or just a wordsmith?

I wonder what David Montgomery is up to these days.

He once loomed large in my life – and those of my many colleagues – as the leader of Local World, with a reputation as a stern, demanding taskmaster.

That image fuelled a very clever spoof Twitter account that painted him as a cross between Mr Burns, Hannibal Lecter and Harry J Waternoose from Monsters Inc.

I like to think it secretly amused him. I hope it did.

But that’s not important right now.

What Monty also did was outline – albeit not in a form intended for public consumption – a very precise vision of how he saw the reporter of the future.

To say this person would be a multitasker was an understatement.

One of the main reasons for that multitasking was the fact that many of his or her colleagues would have lost their jobs.

Meet the specialist segment journalist: someone who is king or queen of their geographic patch or specialist brief. Someone who finds their own stories, writes them, networks at key events as a brand ambassador, persuades others to write for free and then curates that UGC to find cracking tales, is all over social media, and who is au fait with video, photography and other digital storytelling techniques. Oh and can knock up a page or two.

Plus there would be accountability – with targets for UGC development, and overall content creation.

It was exhausting just reading that job description.

Monty’s vision may have been an extreme one, but the idea that the modern journalist needs to master a fairly dazzling array of skills is now at the very heart of media education, recruitment, professional testing, and development training.

And so it should be.

And yet, here’s the thing.

In many newsrooms, a model of working is now being rolled out that could mean reporters will be using those digital bells and whistles rather less often.

In very simplistic terms, as far as I can see, they will be asked to do two things: to find stories and to write them.

The fact that they will be no longer spending time filling shapes for their print products is a major and positive breakthrough, both from a practical point of view and a psychological one.

Confronting journalists with a series of boxes to fill is not the best way to encourage creative thinking and writing.

And I am very much in favour of freeing reporters to report. By that I mean getting compelling, challenging stories – and telling them well.

Ultimately that’s as it should be. Anything that gets in the way of that is at best distracting, and at worse ballache and faff, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

Where does the story end and the telling begin? Are pictures part of the story? Is video? Are embedded tweets?

And, now there are new teams of news editors, web editors, and digital subs to look after the enhancement of online stories, will reporters lose the skills and instincts drummed into them in recent years?

All these are questions that editors will be wrestling with.

And they are big ones for journalism educators, too.

Ultimately, perhaps, I’m portraying a false dichotomy.

At weekends, evenings and other times when the chips are down, reporters will undoubtedly still be those digital all-rounders.

And so, colleges and universities can only keep doing what we’re doing now – turning out new generations of multimedia storytellers.

Those journalists need to be ready for the full range of employer expectations.

But let’s hope they never need to do The Full Monty – in any interpretation of that phrase.