Working as a Journalist - An interview with James, a Deputy Editor of a national newspaper
Top tips from James: '...doing work experience is the most important thing to do to break into journalism. Get stuff published on work placements. ...doing placements at smaller outfits is a good way to get more publications than you might do at a bigger newspaper or magazine. You need to learn how to talk to anybody, from the Prime Minister to a socially-disenfranchised person. You need to be able to get people from all sorts of backgrounds to open up to you.'
Deborah: What subject did you study for your undergraduate degree? What topics did you particularly like studying? And what did you do beyond your course (for instance, did you work on a student newspaper)?
James: I read for a degree in History and particularly enjoyed studying Modern British History, although Medieval History also interested me. I worked on a student newspaper in my final year. I was quite late getting into student journalism. It was very useful experience, though. It gave me experience of being in print and being accountable for what I wrote. I was a general news reporter. I covered education issues; I monitored the national press for education stories and wrote about them for a student audience. It gave me the basic discipline of news reporting, looking at what, when, where and why. But when I really got into journalism was when I went on a work experience trip to Israel. When I was there, I realised the power of information and the importance of the media. I was on placement with a charity and I wrote about my experiences in Israel for the charity's magazine and for the student media. I knew then that I wanted to be a journalist, but I wasn't committed to a particular field of journalism. I wanted to be good across a range of different issues. I went on to write a few freelance articles about international affairs for national newspapers before I started my postgraduate diploma in journalism.
D: Tell me about doing the postgraduate diploma in journalism?
J: It was a very broad course. We were taught shorthand, law and municipal political machinery. We did reviews of theatre and film. We did news reporting, feature writing. What I found most difficult was learning shorthand. It is hard work; rote learning. I use it now in an efficient-enough way, but I wouldn't pass any shorthand exams. What I particularly liked about doing the course was the feeling that you were on the brink of a career. There were lots of links to the real world - the course was very close to the industry. We had known experts teaching us - as part of the course team and coming in to give guest lectures. The course team included former journalists and semi-active journalists. Guest lectures were a real attraction. We had some famous names coming in. I found a guest lecture by a campaigning, investigative journalist very interesting - it made clear the importance and potential power of the media. We were encouraged to write for publication while we were on the course - to be bold. And I was published while I was there. I feel that I was quite lucky with that - it wasn't the norm that everyone got published. We also did work experience placements - two of them during the year, each for two weeks. I went to a small specialist magazine for my first placement. I got lots of stories published there. And then for my second placement I went to a political magazine. That was less successful because I did more junior stuff, like listings. It was less exciting. You have to get the right placement. People aspire to go to big magazines or newspapers, and they can end up making the tea. But if you go to a smaller organisation you've more chance of getting articles published. I'd recommend work placements at smaller organisations.
D: What was your first job in journalism?
J: I got a job at a specialist trade magazine. (I got it through seeing an advertisement in a newspaper, rather than through contacts made via the journalism course. But, nonetheless, I have found that having the postgraduate course on my CV has helped me in my career - a lot of colleagues I have now also did the same course; it's very well-regarded.) I actually got the job at the specialist trade magazine before my postgraduate diploma course ended. I'd decided to apply for jobs before the end of the course to get in first, ahead of other graduates trying to get jobs! Because the course hadn't ended, I actually started part-time, two days a week. I didn't particularly enjoy the job, although I did like working in journalism. I was head-hunted to join a competitor magazine within 3 months; I got a small pay rise but what was most important to me was that it was a more dynamic and robust environment. I stayed there nearly a year before I moved to my current employer.
D: What did you find most challenging when you started out in journalism?
J: Deadlines! You have a short space of time in which to turn things round, and you need to be accurate. You get better with deadlines over time. You don't sweat over style. You develop a basic instinct about how to get things out quickly. You agonise less over each word and get the information out. There's a craft to it.
D: What did you find most rewarding about journalism when you were starting out?
J: Making an impact - knowing that I'd exposed injustice and that I'd helped inform debate.
D: How has your career developed since you started out in journalism?
J: I've been with my current employer over a decade now. I started as a Reporter, then became Chief Reporter, then Deputy News Editor, then News Editor, then Assistant Editor and I'm now Deputy Editor. I was a Reporter for about 5 years before I got my first promotion. I'd say that's a usual amount of time for someone to stay on the shop-floor. You're building up your experience and you're learning about legal problems and complaints. It's important to have 'been there' before you try to manage others.
D: You are very well-known in your field for investigative work. What does it take to be good at investigative reporting?
J: Yes, people have said to me that if I'm ringing it must be bad news! (That's less my role now as Deputy Editor - now I'm able to have more positive relations and although I miss the front-line elements, I don't have my name in print as much, I get great pleasure from the bigger picture, from having my stamp on the whole product.) To be good at investigative reporting you have to be tenacious, dogged and patient. You have to dig out information that people don't want you to have and that requires patience. You may be dealing with sources who are very nervous. You have to deal persuasively with them to get evidence for claims they're making. What you print has to be accurate or you could be sued and bring down your newspaper or magazine. You have to be measured and get the facts right. You use your experience to know which story is safe and which isn't and, where you need to, you'll run a story past the libel lawyers first.
D: What's it like being a Deputy Editor?
J: It involves managing people. If you've been a hack all your life, tending to work independently - getting your story, writing it and handing it over - it's a change. At Deputy Editor level, you look at how the team is structured, Human Resources, restructuring, production schedules, resources and budgets. The less glamorous side! But as I said, I'm enjoying being able to put my stamp on the product. I'm very enthusiastic about the direction in which we're going here and I'd like to be the Editor in the future.
D: Student volunteers or paid workers in the field that we're particularly focusing on in this website - domestic violence - might want to write a piece for a newspaper about an aspect of domestic violence. How would you advise them to go about writing it and getting it published in a national newspaper?
J: It's about targeting and tailoring. Don't just write something and hawk it round. Work out what you want to say, familiarise yourself with the type of publication you're approaching, familiarise yourself with its style and the type of content it publishes. Make sure they haven't published something on the same topic recently. Find out who commissions work and ring them up, having worked out your pitch first. Make sure not to pitch at the wrong time - don't ring on press day (to find out when press day is look at the Writers and Artists Yearbook, newspaper and magazine websites or ring the Editorial Assistant). You could instead send an email.
D: If volunteers or paid workers are being interviewed by a journalist about their volunteering or paid work, what would you advise them to bear in mind?
J: Be very careful what you say. If you're asked to speak to a journalist, don't do it immediately. Think about what you want to say, what points you want to make. Ring them back. Don't get distracted into saying something you don't want to say. Rehearse what you're going to say beforehand and stick to the script. Think about how what you're saying will look on the page. It needs to be lively enough to be used. If you're asked for a quick quote, you could put that in writing, although I'd discourage that as it can read more like a press release. Telling people to be careful what they say might seem a strange thing for an investigative journalist to advise, but investigative journalism isn't about tripping people up, it's about getting to the truth, hearing different sides of the story.
D: Do you think graduates would find it difficult to break into journalism these days? What sorts of skills and experiences do you think students should be looking to develop at university if they want to be a journalist?
J: Journalism is becoming more graduate and postgraduate entry now. It used to be the case that you could go in making the tea and work your way up. I'd say that doing work experience is the most important thing to do to break into journalism. Get stuff published on work placements. As I mentioned earlier, doing placements at smaller outfits is a good way to get more publications than you might do at a bigger newspaper or magazine. You need to learn how to talk to anybody, from the Prime Minister to a socially-disenfranchised person. You need to be able to get people from all sorts of backgrounds to open up to you.
D: So, the sort of volunteering we've looked at in this website - around working on a helpline for people encountering domestic violence and doing outreach work with young people - would be useful?
J: Yes. Sometimes as a journalist you need to act as a counsellor. People sometimes contact the media because they are at the end of their tether. They didn't want to go to the media, but they feel aggrieved, they feel that they've experienced an injustice. You have to have a sympathetic approach, without taking sides. People can be distraught or angry. You have to be able to cut through the passionate elements and get to the truth. That's quite a skill to deal with that. You have to listen carefully and be impartial.