The microwave reporting that’s no substitute for real journalism

I had a heart-warming email from a student with only a year under her belt at our uni this week.
She was one day into a work placement at a high profile national magazine.
Her verdict: “It’s so fun, and I don’t want to leave.”

Having spent several days last week visiting newsrooms and other media contacts to discuss work experience and generally keep our industry links warm and fruitful, this was music to my ears.
Now that I’m on the other side of the work placement table, a key priority is to ensure that our students’ stints in newsrooms fan a flame rather than snuff one out.
There’s another blog in that, for another time.
But that email also delighted me because it confirmed there was still fun and satisfaction to be had in journalism.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never really doubted it.
But a wave that has been building for a few years has finally broken in the last couple of weeks.
In days gone by, the phrase ripping yarn would have been one of the highest forms of praise for a reporter, as well as a reference to a damn fine Monty Python spin-off.

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Now Ripping Yarns is more likely to be a job description.
Staff in at least two London newsrooms have complained that the joy has been sucked out of their working days by a cut and paste culture that sees them rewriting other outlets’ stories to the virtual exclusion of original journalism.
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Of course, newsrooms have always given fresh life to their rivals’ revelations, and there will always be a place for getting extra angles on other folks’ stories. But we have now moved into a whole new ball game.
The issue was given a decent airing on Radio 4’s excellent The Media Show, where Press Gazette editor Dom Ponsford hinted that more revelations were to come. Now his website has pointed the finger at International Business Times, where it is claimed a change in Google algorithms which punished the IBT has led to a new derivative and target-driven regime.
The granddaddy of industrial-scale news story production is, of course, Mail Online.
I know enough people who’ve worked there to be in no doubt how soul-destroying following up – if that’s not too generous a phrase for it – other titles’ work can be in that sort of factory farm environment.
Journalism professor Roy Greenslade has also weighed in recently, with tales of woe from his City University graduates about life on the online frontline.

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As he so rightly says, to see young journalists at the start of their careers have creativity purged and dreams shattered as they’re broken on the ripping newsroom wheel is nothing short of heart-breaking.
It’s microwave reporting – bunging something someone else has slaved over into your formulaic machine, giving it a stir and then serving it up four minutes later.
And it’s the sort of writing that NCTJ examiners are beginning to wring their hands about in their feedback over the latest NQJ exam today, with concerns that reporters are getting out of the habit of detailed reporting.
I have spent my life talking to journalists about why they came into this fantastic profession – and about why they decided to leave.
The answers to the first question can vary. They might want to make a difference. They might want to hold power to account. They might love writing, and telling other people’s fascinating stories. But at the heart of it will be a desire to open the world’s eyes to something new.
And when that desire becomes unfulfilled, the love affair with journalism ends.
In too many newsrooms, there is a disconnect between the needs of the employer and the needs of the employee. The business model is in direct conflict with the instincts of the people being asked to make it work.
There may be a way to make money from secondhand storytelling.
But the people doing it won’t feel like journalists. And we shouldn’t call it journalism.

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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.

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.

My September resolution: to make amends for my ‘scary’ past

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions.

But I do like the idea – floated by Sara Cox while sitting in for Chris Evans on Radio 2 last Thursday – of the new month resolution.

These are eminently doable, short-term goals for the next 30 days.

And for those of us in education (get me….), September ain’t a bad time to start.

It just so happened that the day after the concept of the new month resolution entered my psyche, I was at the Wiltshire Times in lovely Trowbridge.

After a really useful meeting with my old friend Gary Lawrence and his news editor Alison Phillips, I stepped into the newsroom.

It had all been going so well. And then came the slap in the face with a wet haddock.

“She reckons you used to be really scary,” a former colleague now working on the sportsdesk announced, pointing to a young reporter.

The reporter confirmed this, with her views echoed by a second reporter who looked vaguely familiar.

It turns out that both had had work experience stints at The Bath Chronicle while I was running the newsdesk there.

Now, my memory can be elephantine when it comes to stories, contacts and pub quiz trivia.

But that elephant’s giant achilles heel seems to be workies.

If I had a quid every time someone in a strange newsroom reminded me they’d done work experience in mine, I’d be able to buy them all something in Poundland.

(I’m very late to the party on that subject, by the way. What an amazing treasure trove it is of things you never knew you needed. Like car boot liners. But I digress.)

I don’t mind forgetting that people spent a week in my corporate company.

But I do mind that they found me intimidating.

Ok, I was crazily busy.

But – as the parent of a teenager and as someone now trying to pave the way for work placements for my students – I am not proud of my performance.

And I issued a public apology in that Trowbridge newsroom, there and then.

I was in another newsroom earlier this year where a student (not one of mine) cut short her placement because she felt neglected and unwelcome.

Grow a pair, you might say. Welcome to the real world, you might say.

But – as with the learner drivers who slow us down when we’re in a hurry, we’ve all been there.

So my new month resolution is to do my best to ensure that both sides of the work experience divide get the best out of it.

I can’t think of a better place to start than by highlighting two pieces I’ve already written.

There’s this advice for editors and news editors on making the most of your workie.

And there’s this list of tips for people about to go on work experience.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time this summer visiting newsrooms and offices to ask my industry friends what they want from would-be journalists.

And it’s clear that work experience remains an incredibly powerful way to get a foot in the door of this hugely competitive industry.

The devil you know is always going to trump an unknown quantity.

The more work each party puts in, the more openness that is shown on both sides, the better it is for everyone.

 

 

 

Top tips if you’ve got a journalism work trial

So, your CV has sparkled, and you’ve got yourself a work trial day – and an interview at the end of it.

Your mum’s already probably given you one crucial piece of advice.

With huge apologies to our new graduate Curtis (he’s the man in the picture), don’t underestimate the importance of looking sharp – and that includes those shoes.

But what else do you need to know as you prepare for a testing day – in both senses – in a newsroom?

Most employers looking for trainee journalists will now insist on a work trial day – and it makes sense for both sides.

Quite obviously, it gives managers a useful insight into the attitudes, character, and skills of a would-be employee.

But it also allows jobhunters to work out whether an employer is all they’re cracked up to be.

So, here are my top tips for making the most of a journalism work trial day:

  • be smart, like your mum says. If you’re a bloke, that doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a tie, but it might mean wearing a suit. At least if you’ve got a tie, you can take it off if you find yourself overdressed. You’ll find it difficult to go in the other sartorial direction.
  • be on time: plan your journey and give yourself plenty of time for train delays, roadworks, accidents etc. If you’re stuck in a traffic jam, at least tweet a picture to the newsdesk.
  • do your research: find out who’s going to be interviewing you, and make sure you remember their name and what they look like.
  • do your research again: read the website, and ideally any printed products. Be up to date and ready to talk about the latest stories, live blogs, videos etc. Know the area.
  • bring a story of your own: even if it’s just a decent and original FoI request idea
  • follow orders: if you’re asked to write 300 words, don’t write 150 or 600. Listen to the brief. Ask intelligent questions and make suggestions. Actually, ask stupid questions too, if it stops you getting the wrong end of the stick.
  • make your intros sing: today is about making a really great first impression. That’s why you got the shoe polish out. Well, polish that intro, too. That way, you’ll put your possible future bosses at ease rather than on edge when they click on your copy.
  • make the tea: it’s a horrible cliché, but like all good ones, it’s rooted in truth. Offering to make a drink shows your potential new colleagues that you’re a team player.
  • talk to people: equally important in showing your ability to get on. You can bet your bottom dollar that the people interviewing you will have taken soundings from their workmates while you were making that tea.
  • use the phone: phone rather than email. And make sure you sound brilliant.
  • cope: or at least, look like you’re coping. One of the most important qualities of the 21st century journalist is the ability to multitask as priorities change.

And when you get to that interview stage?

  • smarten yourself up – it’ll be at the end of an exhausting day
  • prepare for the obvious standard questions
  • be honest if you’ve decided the job really isn’t for you
  • get feedback – ask how you’ve done, and whether they have any concerns about gaps in your knowledge or experience.

Above all, try to be a walking, talking definition of my favourite journalistic quality, confident humility.

And good luck.

 

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.

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.