Journalism: a marathon AND a sprint

I’ve been to two journalistic leaving dos in the last few days.

Both the departures were of reporters in their 20s, both of them leaving mainstream journalism.

Which might be seen as sad, particularly as I welcome 24 new students to our university journalism course.

There’s no sadness on my part, though. I know both are heading off to futures that they are going to embrace and enjoy.  And I know that in many ways they wouldn’t be on that journey without the experiences, training and confidence that journalism has given them.

I write this as my friends at Gloucestershire Live come to the end of a difficult process that will see jobs lost as the Echo and Citizen titles go weekly and the departure of Matt Holmes – an editor who has inspired scores of colleagues down the years, and who it has been a pleasure to have worked with.

At both leaving dos, as indeed happens pretty much everywhere I go, I was asked the same question. One, indeed, that I was also asked when I appeared on BBC Points West to discuss the Gloucestershire papers shake-up.

What do you say to your students? Are you honest with them about the state of the industry?

The answer is that we are very honest.

That candour involves an acceptance that media and journalism now cover a multitude of sins, and that the sorts of jobs which editors now need to fill have changed.

But, as I said in a recent blog aimed at new journalism students, there remains no shortage of work for people with the right ability, determination, emotional intelligence, organisation and enthusiasm.

And I also point them towards a building that remains a potent and poignant symbol of journalism’s potential – both for good and evil.

I worried when Grenfell Tower fell out of the news agenda.

We should never allow the lessons of that watershed moment to be forgotten, or eclipsed by new concerns.

I will be spending a lot of time talking about the implications of Grenfell Tower with our students this year.

Because every challenge that currently faces journalism is writ large here.

From the trade-off between speed and accuracy to the balance between wall-to-wall coverage and intrusion, along with the recognition that most journalists do not reflect the demographics of the areas they cover.

And above all else, the failure of media organisations across the capital to be in touch with their communities – to see and hear the writing on the wall of residents’ association blogs and cynical council cost-cutting.

It’s been hugely refreshing to see Newsnight’s incredible storytelling this week, focussing on presenting the tower’s tenants as fascinating, engaging people whose lives shouldn’t be defined by tragedy.

My overarching message to our first years, to all journalism students, and all journalists everywhere is this: Get it right, and we stop Grenfell Tower happening again. Get it wrong, and such tragedies recur time and time again. It’s as simple and as serious as that.

There’s a hint of this in a hard-hitting valedictory piece by an editor whose paper is being shut, Sarah Cox.

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It includes a wonderful description from literature of what journalism should do:

‘The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’

We talked at those leaving dos of how knackering journalism is. It’s relentless, it’s exhausting. But it’s also deeply exhilarating, and addictive.

I now like to think of journalism as a little like one of my other loves: running.

There are parts that have to be a sprint: the reaction to breaking news, of course, but also the content that gets written to meet search criteria, and for short-term web target gains.

And there should be no reason to fear software such as Chartbeat, which gives us more information than we have ever had before about our readers’ habits and behaviour.

Why would we not want to write stuff that people want to read?

But there must be some marathon journalism as well.

I was immensely cheered when those friends at Gloucestershire Live found the time and space to tell the story of the devastating floods of 2007 ten years on recently.

It was superbly executed, with stories beautifully told.

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When I spent a week with them in the summer, I also heard a phrase that brought joy to my heart: ‘Let’s play the long game.’

That was a decision not to use a social media picture of a crash victim to avoid upsetting a bereaved community, and to build up goodwill for the future.

As long as phrases such as long game are still being used, there will be a long term for journalism.

And there will be a bright future for journalism students trained for both the marathon and the sprint.

PS: That picture is me, by the way. I’m not proud of myself.

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Eight tips for new journalism students

I’m looking forward to Monday.

I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks, if the truth be told.

I’m hoping 25 other people share my sense of anticipation and excitement.

Because at around 10am, they will officially become first year journalism students with us.

Over the next couple of weeks, at other journalism courses around the country, a few hundred more students will join them on similar adventures.

So what will we be saying to our new friends? What advice is there for all these folk setting their sights on an industry facing such massive challenges?

1. Make the most of every opportunity

Our course mantra is Say Yes To Everything. You will be offered all manner of chances to go on trips, get involved in event coverage, help with projects, hear from expert speakers and complete work placements.

Try to adopt a default setting of having a go at everything. You never know what doors will open, what connections you’ll make and what new insights you’ll get.

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2. Plan ahead

One of my personal gems of wisdom is Let Planning Be Your Friend. Planning sounds deadly dull – but it allows you to do the really interesting things you want to do. In most cases, there is no new information coming along about the timing of assessments; at the start of term you will know all the dates of all your hand-ins for next few months, as well as the details of your academic timetable. Put all these in whatever calendar you use, and start plotting now when you’re going to work on essays, blogs, projects and so on. Then there should be no surprises, with every piece of work having its allocated slot. Get this right and you will be developing a journalistic skill that will be invaluable in a real newsroom. Plus, you’ll be able to pinpoint the days and nights when you’re free to do your own thing.

3. Attend lectures

One of my bosses uses the analogy of gym membership when persuading students they need to squeeze every drop of value out of their £9,250 annual investment. You won’t get fit just by signing up to that standing order. The more you engage with the timetable and your lecturers, the healthier your academic life will be, and the more we’ll want to help you.

4. Consume news

Read websites. Watch TV. Listen to radio. Immerse yourself in social media. Be aware of current affairs and get used to critically evaluating content and coverage. Above all, appreciate great storytelling, brilliant writing and incisive interviewing.

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5. Think like a journalist

Your uni life isn’t just about assessments and marks. Keep your eyes and ears open. See story and content potential everywhere. Write (see below). Take a real interest in people and their lives, and make every contact and connection count. Everyone you meet potentially has a story to tell.

6. Write

Blog. And keep blogging. Make sure your writing muscles get regular exercise and that your work is seen by other people. Get involved in student newspapers and websites, like   the one run by our students.

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7. Ask for help

Don’t suffer in silence. Don’t assume. Don’t think your problem or question is silly or trivial. Don’t let feelings of anxiety overwhelm you. As in journalism in what we might call the real world, one of the most important questions you can ever ask is: Can you explain that again? There is no shame in not understanding something. The shame is in pretending you do.

8. Count your blessings.

You are on the threshold of what could be the best three years of your life, taking your first steps towards what I still believe can be the best job in the world. Whether or not you end up in what we might call traditional journalism, you are acquiring skills which are beautifully transferable. There is no shortage of work on offer for someone with the right mixture of determination, ability, emotional intelligence, organisation and enthusiasm.

The economics of journalism have never been more challenged. But the need for journalism has never been greater.

There are stories to be told, injustices to be exposed and communities to be galvanised in every corner of the earth.

Go to it – and enjoy yourselves.

 

How to smash that media job interview

They’re the sort of emails that can send you on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

Thank you for the application for the post of social media engineer. We’re delighted to offer you an interview next Tuesday. Please prepare a five-minute presentation on how you’d revitalise the Quiksnax savoury food brand’s Instagram presence in Outer Mongolia.

Or something like that.

Anyway, you’ve got a media job interview.

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Once you’ve got over your initial panic: what next? How do you prepare?

Here are some thoughts, updated from a blog I wrote nearly three years ago, as our students, and their counterparts around the country, prepare for what could be the first big interview of their lives.

 

1. Do your homework

You need to make your interviewer think you’ve ate, slept and drunk their product, business, publication, website or media outlet in the last 72 hours. Maybe not even slept. If you’re really smart, they’ll already know you through work placements or networking. But if they don’t, make them your new Mastermind specialist subject. Flatter them with the extent of your research.

2. Make a memorable first impression

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.

3. Keep making an impression

Your goal is to make them think you’re someone they want on their team. Keep smiling. Not in a weird, inappropriate way. In a way that persuades them you’re a glass half-full radiator who’ll fit in and be a joy to work with. Demonstrate the passion and enthusiasm that you’ve written about in your CV.  Bring the stuff about work placements and your own media projects to life.

4. Come armed with stories to tell

It’s election time, when politicians answer the questions they want to answer rather than the ones they’ve actually been asked. Take a leaf out of their book by finding slick ways to slip your anecdotes and examples into the conversation.

Have answers to predictable questions up your sleeve. If it’s a journalism job, be ready for ‘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’. And those chestnuts about a time when you had to overcome difficulty, or how your friends would describe you.

5. Ask a killer question yourself

Try to use your questions to show your skills and your commitment, and avoid working your way through a tedious list of administrative points. The best question I’ve come across recently is a cunning one: have you any feedback for me? Do you have any concerns about my ability to do this job? And ask them why they love working there.

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

In short, show the confident humility that is the hallmark of a great media professional.

And the very best of luck.

Finding another Brenda from Bristol: Top tips for the perfect vox pop

I took to the road with my students last week.

Bath Road, in fact. A busy shopping street in Cheltenham at around 9.30 in the morning.

My mission on this local election morning: to show them how to do vox pops.

The last time I’d stalked reluctant opinion-givers down a street was at least a decade ago.

I had visions of making even more of a fool of myself in front of my students than I normally do.

But the old magic, that old Wiltshire charm was still there.

It helped that we were talking about something reasonably inoffensive: whether they were voting, and the importance of exercising one’s democratic right.

I was vague about what sort of students I was with, and may have given the impression that we were doing some kind of Mr Cholmondley-Warner public information film.

But no matter. I persuaded a steady stream of people coming in and out of the bank to share their views – and even got one woman with a tale to tell about war veteran ancestors to repeat her motivational message after the first attempt was drowned out by a passing police car.

Of course the bar has been set high recently by the BBC man’s in the West, Jon Kay, who struck vox pop gold with Brenda from Bristol.

So how do we find the Brendas? What’s the best way to get people to talk? What’s the secret of a good vox pop?

These are some of the tips from a few of my journalistic pals.

1. Choose your spot

Post offices, bus stations, bus stops, shopping centre benches. Anywhere where people are sitting, standing or slow-moving targets.

2. Break news to them

As the great Tristan Cork from the Bristol Post pointed out, the reason Brenda works, the reason she’s such animated good value, is that Jon was breaking news to her.

3. Get your opening line right

Opinions varied on this.

Tristan offered this advice:

Tell people asap what you’re talking about – like first.
So if you say ‘hi I’m xxx from xxx and I was wondering if I could ask you some questions?’ It gives them the chance to say ‘no’
But if you say ‘I’m from the xxxx and we’re talking to people about xxxx’ then they instantly think ‘ooooo I’ve got something to say about that!’ and can’t help themselves.

And turn on the charm, as my friend Sian David from the Bristol Post suggests:

Smile. And don’t be nervous. Or pushy. Make friends so they are more likely to say yes to the photo/video.

But Tom Peck of the Independent just goes for it.

4. Go for people who look different

From my friend Aled Thomas at Gloucestershire Live came this gem: If they have extravagant hair, or a hat, they’re less likely to refuse the pic

5. Target groups of people

The Bath Chronicle’s Dan Evans had this to say:

My top tip would be target small groups. a. You can get three for the price of one. b. They’ll often say: ‘he’ll do it/she’ll do it’. c. Once b has happened you can then make the others feel guilty. Downside… you’ll still need to do more if you’re after a cross section, but if it’s about a gig or sports event that doesn’t matter so much.

In the vox pop numbers game, three seems to be a very useful crowd.

A group of two never works but three or four always does

6. Keep at it

This from Jordan Bhatt of the International Business Times:

And a final one from Esther Beadle, now in PR but previously of the Oxford Mail:

 

In among all the advice was an offshoot debate about whether vox pops are still worth doing in an age when everyone lays bare their innermost thoughts on Facebook and Twitter.

I think Brenda proves they still are.

Nice work: Why the secret of landing a job could be just getting on with people

It’s a piece of advice that’s been handed down by mums through the generations.

“It’s nice to be important. But it’s more important to be nice.”

‘Yes, mum,’ you may have said, humouring her.

But she was right.

She was right all those years ago, and she’s right now, in a 2017 bristling with technology and digital know-how.

Last week was a great one for linking our students up with potential employers and industry role models.

On Monday, I took a group of our second years to a building that already feels like a bit of a second home.

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We took over the kitchen at ITV Westcountry in Bristol, making tea and helping ourselves to cake, in between seeing two regional teatime news shows go out and watching presenters Kylie Pentelow and Mark Longhurst in action.

The following day I’d invited in three people from very different areas of the world of public relations to talk about relationship-building with journalists – and the skills needed for a career in PR.

Exactly 24 hours later, our students were hanging on the every word of sports presenter Caroline Barker, who invited us into the world of the freelance journalistic globetrotter.

Then, on Thursday, the editor of Newsquest’s websites and weekly papers in Gloucestershire, Michael Purton, was guest editor at our second year news day.

Those visitors brought plenty of different insights and viewpoints with them.

Two of the PR speakers had virtually polar opposite views on the ability of journalists to become successful public relations professionals.

But they – and our friends at ITV – were all agreed on one thing: the importance of being a team player.

And a couple of them summed that up in the same, simple phrase: Be Nice.

It sounds trite. It sounds nothing like the sort of thrusting go-getter you might imagine standing out at interview, let alone like the in-your-face, up-and-at-em stereotype that TV drama-makers sometimes reach for when writing a journalist into their shows.

But, when resources are tight, the importance of that holy grail of team spirit becomes greater than ever.

Will this person fit in? Can I work with her or him? Do I like them? Do they have a smile on their face? Will they get on with our most important contacts – and will they make new ones? Will they just get on with stuff?

Being nice isn’t about rolling over, or refusing to stand up for yourself and your rights.

It’s an acknowledgement that journalism – and PR – is all about relationships.

It always was and, I like to think, always will be.

A few words of advice for anyone starting to study journalism

It’s a big day today.

For me. But more importantly, for dozens of students here at our university, and for hundreds more across the country.

As I embark on my first full academic year as a lecturer, they’re starting a new chapter of their lives: as journalism students.

So what should we tell them on their first day?

There are so many things you’d like to say, so many words of wisdom and reassurance to share, so many tips to pass on.

A tweet from Independent editor-at-large Amol Rajan aimed at all new first years took my breath away at the weekend.

 

And then I saw a brilliant, brilliant series of quotes from Professor Brian Cox – another university lecturer – on knowledge and evidence in the Observer.

The point is for one reason or another many people don’t know how to change their mind. The whole point of science is that you have to be prepared – and delighted – to change your mind in the face of new evidence. That is the message that should be taught in schools.

When it comes to quotes about journalism, a decent place to start is a new column in Press Gazette by the author of one of the best books about our profession, The Universal Journalist writer David Randall.

At the end of the last academic year, as we said goodbye to our third years, I pulled together some of my favourites in a blog that stressed the importance of getting out from behind a desk, a phone or a laptop and engaging with the real world.

Today, my advice to those at the opposite end of their uni careers won’t be too different.

Over the next three years, we’ll be teaching and training our students to use a dazzling array of technology – from mojo kits to mics and Facebook Live to faders.

But the most important pieces of equipment are the ones they were born with: two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth and a mind.

If they can use their eyes to be observant and nosy, their ears to listen with empathy and imagination, their noses to detect trouble and bullsh*t, their mouths to win trust and their minds to exude emotional intelligence, they’ll be journalists to make us very proud indeed.

My Absolutely Fabulous guide to getting the best out of PR people

Just over two years ago, we all worked together in the newspaper industry.

Now, none of our fourstrong gang who will be meeting for a regular meal and catch-up next month is employed by the regional media.

I’m the odd one out in that I’m not involved in either media relations or the creation of online marketing content.

When I did some incredibly useful crowdsourcing for this blog, I counted no fewer than 25 of my Facebook friends who had made the transition from journalism to PR since I’d first known them.

There are now said to be nearly 20,000 more people in the PR industry than there are working journalists – a situation that worries my fellow journalism lecturer, Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade.

Since Leveson and various other watershed moments, it has been harder than ever for reporters to talk directly to police officers, council officials, business managers – and even politicians.

So you can look on this supposedly growing army of spin doctors as everything from a threat to democracy to a necessary evil to an opportunity.

So, I asked my friends in PR – in-house and agency: How can journalists get the best out of you?

Before launching into those tips, here’s the reason I used the word supposedly just a few moments ago.

This was one of the quotes I got from a former colleague: “We’re quite aware today’s newsrooms afford little time and have limited resources. Join the club! In most cases in-house PRs are a one-man band working across a massive range of projects and topics. We share your frustrations, probably more than you realise!”

So, there you go. We’re all in it together.

Here’s the best advice that my PR pals can provide:

  • Get your queries in as early as you can. Be clear and precise, and give a reasonable deadline. Provide as much information as possible. Remember the PR person may struggle to get hold of the right contact, particularly in sectors such as the police.
  • Don’t always rely on emails: “It can take more time than email, but a phone call and politely inquiring nature makes me more inclined to seek out that extra something.”
  • Remember the person on the other end of your email or call doesn’t work for you – even if they’re employed by the public sector and you’re a taxpayer: “The PR person is not employed to serve you/the media; he or she is employed to serve the organisation they represent.”
  • Check facts, and make sure you’ve got the right end of the stick: “Press offices which routinely handle complex matters, such as mine, have no problem with taking the time to ensure a reporter properly understands either the subject or the response. We know reporters have to be jacks and masters of all trades and subjects, from finance to human nature, from science to high art.”   And: “Most PRs are keen to take the time to explain the background and help you understand what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s worth it, you’ll be more informed and your article a whole lot more accurate and informative.”
  • Answer email queries, and give feedback if a well-pitched story isn’t going to work. And tell PR folk if that story that was life-or-death a few hours ago has now been spiked.
  • Don’t patronise – or try to kid a kidder. Most PR people have been journalists in another life, doing what you’re now trying to do.
  • Play the long game: “Be patient – if you push for a quick story to fill a gap on a slow day when the PR’s asked you to hold off for something better soon, don’t expect to be given the exclusive the next week.” And: “Bide your time. The best stories are often years in the making.”

The most important set of advice – by a country mile, and in line with all the best journalistic contact-making – is to build relationships.

“Invest time to get out from behind your desk to meet PR people. Probe them about all their clients, not just the ones they want to pitch to you, often you will find an angle and nugget between you when you least expect it.”

And be polite. Both of these quotes come from the public sector PR world:

  • “In terms of getting the best out of me – or making me go the extra mile for you – my one tip would be politeness. If you’re rude, condescending or obstructive in handing over information then my back is up straightaway and I’m less likely to hurry.”
  • “Don’t waste time being bullish. There’s a difference between holding people to account and demanding answers because of who you are. It’s worth remembering you’re trying to extract information and it’s likely you’ll have more luck with a polite inquiring manner than a head-down plough-on manner.”

Trust is key, as it is with all the best journalistic relationships.

“Above all build trust – trust allows us to talk more openly, it builds loyalty, it establishes a partnership through which we both get what we want or need for our respective audiences.”

As one of my closest ex-colleagues said, like Joni Mitchell, most PR folk have looked at life from both sides.

Another added: “As a “poacher turned gamekeeper,” journos and PRs work best when they touch base with each other frequently, and form strong relationships.”

These are, after all, people who might just be able to get you out of trouble when the content cupboard is looking bare.

“Don’t take the attitude that the PR person is a nuisance who is trying to peddle a non-story. If you spend time getting to know your PR contacts, you’ll realise which ones have the genuine news stories, which ones can get you a quote for a story quickly, and which ones are the best contacts.”

And there’s the thing. I’ve called them PR people because – believe it or not – they really are people, with full lives. They have clients, children, parents, groups, friends – and most still have a slightly frustrated nose for news.

  • “Yes, PRs are after your column inches and have something to promote, but they can give you good stories on slow news days. They usually have a great network too, go for a coffee with them, get to know them, work with them not against them.”
  • “Remember that most PR people have a life outside work. They may be more useful to you in a different guise.”

I think you’re getting the message.

I’ll leave the last word to someone who was once my deputy on a daily paper newsdesk. She was then, and remains now, a great source of wisdom.

“As a journalist, never assume that the PR has no experience of what you want. A good PR has generally learnt, as a journalist, about the pitfalls of bad PR. We’ve learnt to do our job from others’ mistakes. We want to get out a good story – it’s in our best interests. We do want to work with you, we do want to build relationships, we do want to build trust. We want journalists to challenge, to demand. I don’t believe PR is there to spoon-feed – that’s lazy on both sides. We are there to work WITH journalists not for them. Build a good relationship and the stories will evolve.”