Thursday, September 27, 2007

How to be a journalism student

Briton Paul Bradshaw of Online Journalism Blog has posted a wise and witty Top 10 list or journalism majors. It's right on the mark.

1. Read the news. Amazingly, some journalism students don’t read newspapers. I don’t know why they want to write news, but chances are they won’t if they don’t read it. And, yes, that means newspapers, in print or online. For the most part, newspapers dictate the news agenda that broadcast news and magazines then follow. But, yes, watch television news and listen to radio news as well, and read magazines. And do all of this often, and do it critically.

2. Forget you have an opinion. Do you think anyone cares what you think about the condition of trains? Or Genetically Modified food? Or bullying? Unless you are writing an opinion column (which is unlikely) or a review, remain objective.* Think of yourself as a marriage counselor: Ask the questions and let your sources do the talking.

3. Know the difference between news and features. News is new information. It is succinct and to the point -- remember the inverted pyramid. Features typically come later, and tend to explore background/history, different angles, case studies/interviews, analysis, trends, and so on of a topical issue. If you’re asked to write a news story, do just that. Don’t write an essay.

4. Make contacts. Contacts are vital to your work as a journalist -- not only should they be able to tip you off to what’s happening, they will also be a quick and reliable port of call when you need a quote or verification. Contacts are what get you the stories, and flesh them out. From a local vicar to the spokesperson for the Vintage Motorcycle Club, start adding them to a little black book (and spreadsheet), and start making phonecalls now: “Anything happening?”

5. Get a life! Journalists generally report about a particular area -- politics, sport, the environment, science, health, education, communities, religion, technology, motoring, finance, etc. If you haven’t picked an area, pick one, and start getting involved -- join organizations, attend meetings, go to events, do things and talk to people. Stories don’t come with a convenient label: you need to be able to spot them -- while experiences can make for great material.

6. Don’t sit around waiting for an e-mail reply. People can ignore e-mails, and they generally do. A phone call is much harder to ignore, and you’ll get more than a one-line reply. Learn to use the phone.

7. Learn how to spell. Andrew Dubber of New Music Strategies makes this point about students generally, but for a journalist correct spelling and grammar says everything about your professionalism. Whether you intend to write for a textual medium or not, a badly spelled resume or poorly constructed script will not get you that job.

8. Be open to new experiences. So you’re interested in music. That’s nice, but if you think you’re going to land your first job on New Musical Express, you’re deluded. A journalist should be prepared to write about anything, and a good journalist should be able to do it with creativity and curiosity. One former colleague had jobs writing about technology, education and cars before she landed her dream job on a women’s magazine -- it’s par for the course. But it’s not a bad thing: It’s one of the best things about journalism! Don’t say you want to see the world but then complain when you have to go to Djibouti.

9. Read books!! Books give you two things: an understanding of the possibilities of language and storytelling; and an expansion of your knowledge of the world. Whether you’re reading an autobiography of Che Guevara or Day of The Triffids; a recent history of Africa or Tale of Two Cities; a popular science book or Hamlet, it makes you more interesting to potential employers; it gives you more ideas to play with; and it broadens your horizons.

10. Know what you want to get out of this -- and chase it. A degree alone is not going to get you a job; your ability to write and research, your knowledge, and your ability to market yourself and network will be key. You must be motivated to study hard, and in order to be motivated, you must have a motivation, i.e. you must know what the reward is -- exposing corruption? becoming editor of the Guardian? Sitting next to Paris Hilton? Then, you must be motivated to do more than study. Get work experience; start a fanzine, or a web site, or a blog. Use Facebook to network. Go to events. Send off work. Pitch ideas to editors.

* Note: don’t mistake objectivity for presenting both sides equally - particularly where science is involved. Global warming, the MMR jab, and various other stories have heavy scientific consensus on one side, so don’t fall into the trap of presenting both arguments as if they have equal weight.