Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Back to School: advice for student journalists

It’s time to go back to college, and for student journalists, that means readying yourself for a tough industry.

Wed, Sep 11, 2013, 17:18


I’m consistently confused as to why journalism courses don’t offer more practical advice and experience-based education. These are the two things that aside from a capacity for the gig, talent and stamina, are crucial in the industry.

So, because I’m always offering my opinion to people who didn’t ask for it, instead I asked some friends and colleagues who are all experienced journalists and/or broadcasters what piece of advice they would give a journalism student right now.

After removing many opening remarks from replies that said “DON’T DO IT”, and one email subject line that read “Move to Switzerland”, this is what they said:

Jim Carroll
Irish Times writer, On The Record blogger, founder of Banter, the Choice Music Prize, Music 3.0, etc.
Diversify. Don’t think “newspapers”. “Newspapers” won’t be around in five years. OK, eight years. Maybe 10. But not more than 10. By the way, if you are thinking “newspapers”, it’s always an idea to actually buy one and read it, as strange and exotic as that may sound.

Ask your lecturers about their experience and what qualifies them to teach you. Ask them why they’re teaching instead of actually working in the industry. Ask them to spell a word like “omphaloskepsis”. Ask them what it means. Ask them to demonstrate this for you.

You’re probably not going to get a staff job when you leave college. In fairness, the way things are going, you probably don’t want to get a staff job. Sinking ships and all of that. Be prepared for the joys of freelancing. Ask your lecturers about this. If they don’t a clue what you’re on about, feel free to skip their lectures for the term.

Remember that newspaper and magazine commissioning editors are human too. It might not seem like that when they don’t return your emails or phone calls or tweets, but they are. Some, of course, never return anyones emails or calls, but you’ll soon find out about them. By the way, tweeting anyone with a pitch is a sign of desperation.

Speaking of which… Twitter is NOT how to get stories. Twitter is NOT how to get quotes. Twitter is NOT a substitite for getting off your bum and going out into the real world and finding stuff out for yourself. Twitter is NOT essential or even necessary. Twitter is NOT your friend. The same also applies to Facebook and LinkedIn.

Learn how to do something other than journalism. It’s good for you. It also gives you firsthand experience of something you can then write about.

If you’re lucky, you’ll end up writing stuff for The Farmers’ Journal. If you’re unlucky, you’ll end up compiling lists about biscuits for The Journal. Either way, hey, you’ll get paid.

Enjoy yourself. Journalism is better than a million things – working in the bank, being a grumpy underemployed legal professional, getting pawed over in a Robin Thicke video etc.

Sharon Tobin
Journalist and reporter with RTE News.
Work for free at the start. That’s not what you want to hear. But get in somewhere – somewhere small, and get the people there to know you. If they know you and something comes up, you’re in. Start doing that when you’re in college, so you’re not starting off from nothing when you’re out. It’s not only about getting to know people, but as a way to learn through experience. You can make the mistakes then and learn from them, instead of getting paid and getting stick when you make the mistakes. That’s how most people I know started out in broadcasting. I was working in East Coast radio and there were loads of people I know who started in there working for nothing, moving up to getting a few quid for the Saturday shift, and are now working in RTE.  

Ger Siggins
Former Sunday Tribune assistant editor, now a gun-for-hire sub, ghost writer, childrens novelist and cricket reporter.
Simple stuff: write write write, and not just articles. Practice writing your own headlines – harried subs don’t mind that sort of thing and it will often be just right. And if you have a knack for it, it may open more doors. Package your work, and think visually. When you have a feature idea, try to gather art or photos, or suggest them. Even a smartphone photo can help a commissioning editor to visualise how the piece might look.

Grow a hard neck. And don’t forget the sunscreen.

Anthea McTiernan
Editor of The Ticket at the Irish Times.
I always advise people to stay away from undergraduate journalism courses completely, to study what they love – or to find out what they love – first. Do a Master’s if you will feel more confident about being a journalist after it, or if you need some decent work experience and the Master’s course you choose sorts that out for you.

Given that you’ve patently already disobeyed my first piece of advice, may I say things are looking OK. Just do your own thing. Value your experience, value your difference and value your self – even if you don’t see that reflected back at you by the media you see around you. You are going to change this. The media needs to cop on to itself. And right here is where they start paying.

A caveat: media owners are going to try not to pay you. Unless your Mam runs KPMG, you are going to need to earn some cash. Don’t give it away for free – other people will only make the money you should be making from your hard work and talent. You will be shopping Tesco Value, they will be munching Tesco Finest.

Fight the power. And good luck. The future of journalism depends on you – if that doesn’t put fire in your belly, quit now.

Dave Sherry
Researcher, Tubridy on RTE 2fm.
Don’t be too disappointed if you didn’t get the points for a journalism course. You can do any kind of college course and always volunteer in local or college radio stations, newspapers and even TV stations. I did Politics and French in UCD and managed Belfield FM – the campus radio station. It was great experience and really stood to me when it came to applying for jobs after college. If you are doing a journalism course think long and hard about what type of journalist you want to be. Do you want to raid bins and ruin people’s lives, or try and make a difference?

Learn the difference between you’re and your. Good grammar is still important for journalism and I see so many graduates with poor spelling and grammar.

Nadine O’Regan
Books and Arts Editor at the Sunday Business Post, presenter of the Breakfast Show on Phantom (Saturdays 8am – 11am), reporter for RTE’s The Works. 
Back in the 1990s, when I was a teenager, my father had this to say when I suggested the idea of working as a freelance journalist: “Don’t. There’s no money in it and people will treat you badly.” Two decades on, his words remain accurate and the world of journalism has become even harsher and more precarious.

But there are still so many things to love about journalism – the meditative joy of putting words on a page; the thrill of meeting and interviewing people whose work you care about; the marvellous shock of seeing your own words published – that I can’t quite do the decent thing and warn you all off the notion.

What I would say, however, is that you should proceed with caution into your chosen area, always trying to learn and take the good from what you’re given. Be prepared for penury. Try to ascertain your strengths as a journalist and journey in the direction where they will be most appreciated. Pitch your articles cleverly and pay attention to the feedback you’re given. Use the drip-drop water torture effect: email people politely but consistently and eventually you’ll wear some editors down – or at least they might tell you why they’re not hiring you (advice that is extremely valuable, so pay attention to it). Be prepared to go on radio, television and Twitter, and don’t look down on any medium – you might scorn the notion of Twitter, for example, only to discover that, actually, that’s one of the best ways to get discovered by employers. Be nice; more people will want to work with you.

As a writer, you should (to paraphrase someone else’s quote) either be faster than someone better or better than someone faster. Never leave an article to the last minute; always structure long pieces before you begin; if you plan to be late with a piece, email your editor ahead of time and politely explain the situation. Learn about libel; learn about the difference between the laws in Britain and Ireland – this can trip people up when it comes to discussing court cases, for example. Be honest with your editor; don’t pretend that you know everything there is to know about a certain subject just to get commissioned for an article.

Above all, understand that you are journeying into a world full of uncertainty, so don’t take it personally if you don’t get hired or commissioned. Keep knocking on different doors and eventually one will open.

Conor Goodman
Irish Times Features Editor.
The journalist most likely to secure work in coming years is the person with multiple skills: who knows how to write both news and features, who can shoot video to a high standard, who understands data analysis. A speciality or two helps also, anything from expertise in a particular historical period to knowing your way around the Irish fashion business. In trying to get published you will experience rejections, nonreplies and dead ends. But if you believe in your stories, be persistent. Journalism is ultimately about good, original stories. Find those on a consistent basis and a journocareer is yours.

Ailbhe Malone
Writer for BuzzFeed UK, contributor to the Irish Times.
A young journalist emailed me a week or so ago asking for advice in breaking into ‘digital media’, and this is an edited version of what I emailed her back:

The big thing about working in digital media is to realise how much crossover there is. Working in digital can mean working for a brand as a strategist, or as a social media writer, or as a journalist, or as a copywriter, or as a creative, or as a researcher, or a blogger or or or… etc.

Most people I know who work in digital media will have experience of doing several things – it’s a bit of a nixer culture. So you might do a research report on upcoming food bloggers for an agency, while also blogging for Comment is Free, and doing an artist biography for a label, for example. The good thing about this flexibilty is that it means there’s loads of scope to try out what you might like to do. The bad thing is that it can make you come across as a jack of all trades.

Personally, I was always interested in creating an emotion-lead narrative, and how that played out in a digital setting. This reflects in the work I do for BuzzFeed, but also the way I approach music writing (more emotive, less technical) and how I approached the work I did for ad agencies in the past.

I think the advice I can give to you, is to try and figure out the core element of where your interests lie, and then see how you can apply that to different settings. Branch out – don’t think that because you do a researching gig on social networks that you’ll be less of a ‘writer’. Experiencing different ways of getting information across, and helping people to understand, will only help you to improve.

Quickly, in terms of writing and experience: Write every day. Make a list of who you want to work for and contact them once a week, once a fortnight, once a month and repeat with a month break in between. Do work experience. If you can’t afford it, see if you can do a project for them in your free time. Meet up with writers you admire for a coffee, and ask them how they got started. Always ask questions.

1. Spellcheck.

2. No really, spellcheck. Maybe even read back on what you wrote.

3. Don’t pitch blind to a publication/editor – make sure the piece is relevant and fits with the tone/word count etc of the publication/pages (ads can be a good indicator of readership).

4. Be succinct. You should be able to pitch a story in a couple of pars. Editors lose interest/don’t bother reading long emails (did I say that out loud?).

5. Stay broke and doing what you love for as long as you can, rather than having money and being a Page Monkey. Your cost of living expands to fit your pay cheque, and it’s hard to go back. There are worse things than being broke.

6. Write write write write write.

7. Figure out the skills you need and acquire them, even if you don’t get paid. But don’t work for nothing when you’ve nothing to learn.

8. Go digital or radio or both. Print is not a nice place to work these days. Older employees clinging on for dear life, younger contract/freelancers scrambling for jobs that don’t exist and picking up the slack. Get involved with younger, new-media enterprises while the newspaper industry figures out what the fuck it’s at. Who knows, from a distance you might figure it out for them.

9. Pick a journalist you think you want to be like. Email them and ask them about their job and how to go about getting yourself some of that action.

10. Spellcheck.

Shane Coleman
Political Editor, Newstalk 
For what it’s worth, to me it is hugely competitive and not very good out there at the moment. I think it is ultimately about putting yourself out there and not being embarrassed or awkward about getting your name out and pestering people – within reason, of course. You need to force yourself into consideration. I really believe that if you’re hungry enough, you’ll get there. Hunger and enthusiasm are the two things you need at the start, the rest you’ll pick up on the job.

Lauren Murphy
Freelance music journalist.
It’s an obvious one, but you don’t have a blog, start one – or volunteer to write for a webzine/amateur music site. You probably won’t get paid (and that’s fine in the early days!), but you’ll gain experience of deadlines and adapting to the house style. Use it to write reviews of every album you listen to and every film you see; even if no one reads them, you’re developing your own style and learning how to structure articles. Read other journalists’ reviews and features for the same reason. This is something you don’t need to go to college in order to learn. And perhaps most importantly, get your name out there. Email editors and make sure they’re aware of you and your availability: this is where a blog with samples of your work comes in handy, too. The chances of someone coming and knocking on your door to offer you a job are extremely slim-to-non-existent, so it’s up to you to go out and make opportunities happen for yourself.

The best piece of advice I was given when I went freelance is three words: reliability, reliability, reliability. In my experience, an editor is ten times more likely to commission the journo that turns up, does the job and files it on time, every time, rather than someone who spends days perfecting their opus (and a multitude of crap excuses about why it’s late). An editor’s job is already stressful enough without having to waste time chasing down copy, no matter how good it might be. Be reliable, be consistent, and you’ll be OK.

Roisin Ingle
Columnist and more at the Irish Times.
If you know you have a talent, just because the landscape has changed doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for it. Do your research. Find out which editors are interested in which subjects. Send them strong, original ideas that will stand out from the crowd. Send short samples of your writing to show you can deliver. Resist using exclamation marks. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get a response straight away. Keep trying. Be polite. Be available and enthusiastic. Make yourself indispensable to a news editor by offering stories they aren’t getting. Do what you’re good at. Know what you’re good at. Good luck!*

*Rare occasion when use of exclamation mark is permitted.

Conor Wilson
Senior researcher, Prime Time and RTE current affairs. 
Whatever you’re doing in college is not enough. You have to go out and do something else while you’re in college. Controversially, I think you should go out and do that even if you’re doing it for free – be it a community radio station or a local newspaper. It shows a prospective employer that ‘I did something other than go to college for the last three or four years.’ And those things are easy enough to get into. The obvious benefits are that you get to work in an environment that is not too dissimilar from a professional working environment. You’re building your contacts, so build them up properly.

Lose any sort of notions or attitude you have when you walk out of college. Being willing to do things goes a long way. You’re not going to walk out of college and be Walter Cronkite on day one. You’re going to have to take shit from people, swallow your pride, you’re going to have to make a few cups of coffee. But if you do something while you’re in college that is of a decent standard that will open doors.

Another thing – if you’re working in a local paper or in a radio station or wherever, try and get somebody to say something that could provide a line for any sort of national news. Always try to get a news line out of your interviews, make it current.

Michael Clifford
Journalist with the Sunday Times, the Irish Examiner, author.
Always use sunblock, even in the Irish weather. Read, read read. Read newspapers and magazines, and read scripts for radio and TV. Learn to read how they are written. Read to see how different markets – or media consumers as they are known – require different writing. And always apply sunblock.

Don’t take anybody’s word for anything. Check everything. Learn that adjectives are to be used sparingly, if at all. Remember that your chief aim is to communicate with others. Take nobody’s level of knowledge for granted.

Eliminate your opinions. A time might come when your opinion will be something to disseminate, but that time is so far into the future you’re better off without one for now. Don’t worry, your opinion won’t disappear.

And always but always use sunblock. Unless an umbrella is more appropriate for the occasion.

Sinead Gleeson
Freelance journalist and presenter of The Book Show on RTE
1. Don’t steal other people’s ideas. Ever. If you want to be a working journalist, you should be full of ideas all the time.

2. Always think of the angle – there will be 100 samey articles on Syria/The Mercury Prize/the new Ireland manager – but think about you can do it differently.

3. If you establish a relationship with an editor and start to get repeat commissions, NEVER turn down work (unless you really aren’t able to do it) when you’re trying to establish a new working relationship. If an editor asks you do something last minute and they’re really stuck, always say yes. Some editors (but not all, let’s face it) will remember that you dug them out of a hole, and will be more receptive to future pitches.

4. Never do email interviews in place of a phoner/interview in person. They are the opposite of interactive. It’s fine to lay out a chat you did in person or on the phone as a Q&A, if there is back and forth exchanges – but email interviews look and sound stale.

5. Read your work a couple of times. Don’t just spellcheck it once. You may notice words the spellcheck didn’t pick up, but crucially you’ll spot the bumps and ways to make things sound more fluid.

6. The Internet is an essential tool for a journalist, but don’t rely on it 100%. Get an interviewee’s biog from them – don’t trust Wikipedia; pick up the phone and call people; get away from your desk; Go to a scene/place you’re writing about – don’t just write something passed on other reports, photos or livestreams. Be present.

7. Ditto Twitter – useful for news, but don’t pilfer other people’s tweets for stories, and don’t lazily crowdsource sources: “Hey, I need to talk to five people who love tiddlywinks by 5pm! Thanks!”. Source your interviewees the old-fashioned way – it’s good training and you might get another lead.

8. Pitch, pitch and keep pitching. Don’t be disheartened if someone doesn’t get back to you. Keep trying and they’ll sense you’re enthusiastic. The right pitch will land at some point.

9. Pitch to one editor at a time – if three come back and say yes, you don’t want to have to let editors down.

10. DON’T write the same piece for more than one publication. It’s lazy, greedy and suggests you don’t have enough original ideas.

11. Think outside of print and online – journalism is a multi-media industry and few can survive on ink alone. Do radio, and don’t be afraid to say yes to TV (even if it’s terrifying the first time you do it.)

12. And finally – and it’s obvious – file clean copy on time and be ultra reliable – it counts for a lot with editors.

Ryan Tubridy
Presenter of Tubridy on 2fm and the Late Late Show. 
Read books, be polite, do not update your Facebook page when on work experience. Making coffee makes progress. Be curious, ask questions and volunteer. If it means writing for the Parish newsletter or broadcasting on local hospital radio, do it. Start somewhere. Read more books.

Orna Mulcahy
Managing Editor, Features at the Irish Times
It’s all about detail, isn’t it? Especially for features writers and interviewers. A good journalist notices all kinds of things from the fleeting expressions on peoples’ faces to how they are wearing their clothes and what those clothes choices suggest to how a subject reacts to others, how they articulate their ideas, how they react to their surroundings, how they behave in and out of their element. Write it all down, because you won’t necessarily remember it later. If you are left for any length of time in a subject’s office, absolutely have a good look around, at the pictures on the walls, at the books on the shelves, at the letters on the sideboard, inside the fridge, It’s all important stuff that will help you build a picture in words. A reader might skip through a 1,500 word interview or story about someone and remember nothing at the end except that the subject wears purple socks or labels the shelves of his hot press.

Roisin O’Dea
Researcher on the Ray D’Arcy Show, former researcher and producer at TV3 and Phantom, radio documentary maker.
I can’t overemphasize the importance of reading Irish publications, listening to Irish radio and watching Irish TV. It will give you a much better idea of where your skills could fit in and the stories and content covered by various outlets. International stuff is great too but if you want to work in Ireland you must be familiar with the industry.

Find out the technology used in the area you want to work in and if possible become familiar with it – online publishing programmes, radio recorders, television editing software. Make sure what you use is the same as what is currently being used in RTE, TV3, Today FM, the Irish Times etc. Sometimes in college the editing, publishing technology etc. is out of date.

Contacts. Keep a copy of every phone number, email address you ever come across. Keep them all in one place and make a back up. A councillor whose mobile you have now could be big news tomorrow. A girl you know who tried out for X Factor could be needed in a feature in the future. Or her sister, or whatever. When you are chasing stories the more contacts you have the better.

Your class in college could be the best contacts you will ever have. Don’t piss them off and get all their contact details before you go. Be nice to everyone and avoid bitching. The media is tiny and everyone knows everyone.

Laurence Mackin
Arts Editor, the Irish Times.
You currently have the greatest asset at your disposal, the one thing every writer, editor and journalist wants more of: time. When you become a professional writer or journalist, nearly every article can become a race against the clock, and articles and issues you feel very strongly about may not get the time and attention you think they deserve. Use this opportunity to have a look at an issue or three that you really care about. Spend a lot of time researching your pieces, and take the time to talk to as many people as possible about your given topic, even if a half-hour conversation turns into just one printed quote. Before long, you’ll have a strong, mature collection of substantial pieces.

You also have the space to experiment: experiment with form, with style, with opinions, and with your voice (literally and figuratively). Working on college magazines, personal blogs, podcasts and web videos provides most of the pressures associated with working on mainstream or national media. However, if you make a mistake, the punishment is much less harsh. Take the time now to try out new things and make plenty of mistakes while you can still (relatively) get away with them.

Right now, nearly every editor, particularly in the arts, wants to know what the latest trends are, what’s moving young people, and what’s coming down the road, particularly on the fronts of music, film, fashion and the creative arts. Without realising it, you are probably already tapped into an extensive, informed, aware cultural movement; the problem it often has is articulation. If you can listen to your peers, and articulate their viewpoints, their preferences and their criticisms to a wider audience, editors will probably queue up with commissions.

Hatchet jobs might be fun, but they are also often unprofessional. It’s very easy to say what is wrong with a particular album, artwork or book (particularly if you’re a naturally funny writer); what is much trickier is identifying what it is that strikes a chord or what succeeds about an artwork. By all means point out something’s flaws, but always be open to its finer features. Criticising something is easy; criticism, though, requires skill and consideration.

Try and identify the area you want to work in. It doesn’t have to limit or define everything you write or produce, but it’s always good to have a specialist area and become a go-to person for an editor under pressure. To this end, familiarise yourself with the technical aspects. You don’t have to be an expert (yet), but if food is what you want to write about, trying working with a chef or learning how to cook properly. If music is your thing, learn some theory, and know how to identify time signatures, for example (this latter also means you’re half way to becoming a half-decent DJ). If it’s theatre you’re into, take some acting lessons. You don’t have to be as good as the people you are writing about, but knowing the daily challenges they face in what they do will help you enormously when you are writing about them and their work.

Be interested in everything, all the time. Yes it’s a cliché (never use clichés by the way), but everyone has a story to tell and something to say –you’re the one who is going to tell it for them. Be patient, be interested, always be considerate and the stories will be so good that the writing will (almost) look after itself.

Diarmuid Doyle
Producer of Savage Sunday on Today FM, former Deputy Editor of the Sunday Tribune.
Never tell a potential employer that what you’d really like to do is write a column. Live life for a few years; the well-remunerated pontificating can come later. Learn everything you can about everything you can – you never know when it’ll come in handy. In any case, multi-tasking is the way of the media future. The more skills you have – whether they be writing, editing, radio producing, web design – the better you will be able to cope with the freelance life, which will be the lot of many journalists in the future. Always know who the Minister for Agriculture is – you never know when some bolshie interviewer will try and catch you out by asking you. [note - that was what Diarmuid asked me during my first interview for the Sunday Tribune. I didn't know the answer.]

And finally…
Your lecturers mightn’t want to bother with getting journalists into your class to talk to you about the day to day gig. But you can do that yourself. It’s really important to talk to people who are doing this for a living, not just teaching it. Suggest some guest spots to them, or if you’re in a journalism-related society, think about organising some. If you need assistance in doing this, I will help you, so get in touch in the comment section, or tweet me @UnaMullally.