What Happened at Last Week’s Journalism EventSeptember 2, 2010 at 8:45 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
If you can’t get in through the front door, don’t give up! Try the back door instead. – Annie Shaw, Financial Agony Aunt
Thanks to everyone who came along to last week’s Journalism event. With help from our star panellists Bidisha (The Guardian / Woman’s Hour), Carly Chynoweth (The Times) and Annie Shaw (Financial Agony Aunt) we covered everything from how to become a journalist, unpaid internships, the impact of Google-journalism, social media and the digital revolution. Selected notes from the evening are reproduced below, for your viewing pleasure.
All of our panellists had very different routes into journalism. One thing that they all had in common was that they’d worked their way up, and interestingly, none had taken a journalism course. Annie started as a secretary and worked her way through a range of roles (including subbing, which she loved) and told us about the joy of being in the same building as the newspaper’s press which used to be standard. Her top tip was to find a niche early on, and to write about things that mean something to you personally – in Annie’s case, personal finance. Once Annie found her niche, it was easy to become a recognised freelancer.
Carly Chynoweth, a specialist in jobs, money and management for The Times, agreed with this;
It’s important to be an all-rounder … but everyone should start thinking about develop their specialism early on – it’s really helpful for getting work! – Carly Chynoweth
She advised that budding journalists should consider doing a degree in something other than journalism (such as economics) and cultivate interests outside of journalism.
Australian-born Carly told the group that she didn’t always want to be a journalist, and was training to be a lawyer when she realised that she was more interested in the stories behind the crimes than their resolution! She left her course and started working in a call centre to pay the bills, and started sending in ideas to newspapers in her spare time, often conducting interviews in her lunch break. Her hard graft paid off with a place on a structured, paid internship.
Carly was keen to stress that if you value what you write, you should expect to get paid for it:
Don’t do something if it’s got no end point – make sure you’re not just being taken on as cheap labour. If you can’t make it work for you financially, then it’s not a career, it’s a hobby – Carly Chynoweth
Bidisha agreed with this, and suggested that you should practice your craft by writing about things that are freely available – such as museums and art galleries. She also encouraged the group to capitalise on things that interest them, particularly if they’re involved with a specific “scene”. Bidisha herself began writing as a teenager involved with the Riot Grrl scene, producing a fanzine about the movement. She sent copies of her work to the music press, which lead to some paid work and was offered a deal for her first novel at 16 – kick-starting her career early.
The panel were keen to stress that we are living in a very difficult time for newspapers and magazines who are going through the same massive financial difficulties as everyone else. Annie warned the group that this may make paying trainees an issue, as training budgets are often the first thing to be cut. However, she continued to say that as a desirable career, some see hardships such as unpaid work experience or internships as the barrier, sorting the wheat from the chaff. To be a journalist, you have to be quite a pushy person and you HAVE to really want it.
Bidisha’s advice for the tricky job climate is to be shrewd about your employment choices and to get a job in an industry that relates. As an example, she suggested that if you’re interested in Arts journalism, try getting a job in a gallery or theatre, or in an Arts PR company. You’ll quickly find yourself immersed in that world and will be able to speak with confidence about that industry. Bidisha continued by warning the group that they have to be prepared to play a really long game, but reassured them that in time they would know everyone in that industry, and things will improve.
The discussion then moved onto pay walls (The Times has recently gone behind an online pay wall in the hope of generating income). The panel were all in support of the theory behind pay walls, and hoped that they would work for the benefit of journalists. Bidisha reminded us that although The Guardian is the most read newspaper website in the UK, writers still only get a very small fee for their articles.
A question was raised about the impact of Google journalism on the profession. Bidisha’s take on this was that the newspapers have to find ways of diversifying out into new areas, such as live events, citing the example of The Guardian’s relationship with the Hay Festival. A comparison was drawn between the print industry and the music industry where things have become more about gigs, merchandising and brands. Bidisha further this point by saying,
..the album is dead. The programme is dead. We consume media in chunks now, and it’s easy to get sections of a programme without having to watch or listen to the whole thing. The media industry needs to re-think urgently – Bidisha
Bidisha then moved on to talk about social media. In her opinion, many people misuse Twitter, seeing it as a different version of Facebook. In fact, Bidisha argues, Twitter should be used professionally for headlines and teasers. She added,
just because you can get a blog (or Twitter Account) doesn’t mean you should. Ask yourself, “have I got something interesting to say?” before you get a blog – Bidisha
Annie has found Twitter to be a very useful tool for creating rapport with people and to give advice. In contrast, Carly doesn’t use it in that way at all as she prefers email. Bidisha warned the group to be very cautious of social networking as they bring about a level of unprofessionalism and it won’t lead to work. Annie countered that she has got to know a lot more PRs through Twitter, which is hugely useful for her role, but that she’s found Gorkana and LinkedIn more useful for getting work. All the panellists agreed that everyone should lock down their Facebook privacy settings, but should keep a professional LinkedIn profile public.
The conversation then moved back round to specialisms. Bidisha said that journalists just starting out must now think of ways to make themselves unique. To illustrate, Bidisha gave us an insight into how ideas are taken for BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour;
we take maybe one idea in 60. You can get a million perspectives on someone’s latest book, but if what we’re really looking for is someone with a specialism and something interesting to say. If you submit as a specialist scientist you’ll get far more recognition – Bidisha
Think about non-sexy areas – it is fascinating if you make it fascinating. When I pitch as a freelance, my name now stands out as an expert in my area. It might not very glamorous but it is practical! – Carly Chynoweth
Continuing on the un-glamorous theme, Carly suggested that aspiring journalists consider roles working in production which involves setting out the visual structure of the newspaper or magazine – particular skills that are short are the digital production skills required for putting newspapers together for the iPad and other delivery platforms. Annie enthused that the most exciting job she ever had was working in production and would definitely recommend it as a way to get to know the industry intimately.
A question came from the floor about who inspired the panellists. Annie revealed that the person who got her in was a difficult man who used to buy coconut sweets for the office because he knew she didn’t like them. But he turned out to be quite a fan of hers after all!
Carly is particularly grateful to an editor who pushed her into areas that she wasn’t comfortable in – which included sending her to Bali on the first plane that was to land after the bomb in 2002. Carly revealed that this was probably the worst job she had ever done but taught her a lot and gave her great confidence as a journalist.
We finished the evening with some advice from the panellists about networking. Bidisha encouraged the group to get as involved as possible and to network in a subtle way. Make friends with people who you’d make friends with anyway and don’t be artificial.
People can smell desperation! – Bidisha
However, Carly recommended that we don’t undervalue “weak” contacts as someone you slightly know may be hugely useful in the future. She also said that we shouldn’t be afraid to overtly network, as that can be more honest.
Annie added that her contacts are very important to her, particularly for getting a comment or an interesting angle on the issue, and for finding out what the real problems are. And she advised,
never be rude to the people at the bottom because you were there once, and you never know where they’ll end up! – Annie Shaw
Thanks to Team Spirit PR for sponsoring the drinks, to Hollie Rendall for asking the questions (she did a fab job!), to Annie, Bidisha and Carly for their honesty, and to all our attendees who battled in through a torrential downpour! See you at the next event xx