On Being A Journalist

1009785_605530999486595_556337990_nWell, here’s someone who likes to start the day early. In gloriously frosty sunshine, it was 7.45am and I was sitting outside ‘Ed’s’ office, where he was already hard at work.  

Having decided not to do the NCTJ course, our chat became an exercise in looking more specifically at how to ‘be’ a journalist, what editors are looking for in freelancers and how to approach writing an article.

Oh, and how goats’ cheese often lacks its requisite apostrophe.

But first, the interview began with a very thoughtful and helpful gift: a print out of the NUJ’s Code of Conduct.  

A Journalist:

  • At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed.
  • Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair.
  • Does her/his utmost to correct harmful inaccuracies.
  • Differentiates between fact and opinion.
  • Obtains material by honest, straightforward and open means, with the exception of investigations that are both overwhelmingly in the public interest and which involve evidence that cannot be obtained by straightforward means.
  • Does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest.
  • Protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work.
  • Resists threats or any other inducements to influence, distort or suppress information and takes no unfair personal advantage of information gained in the course of her/his duties before the information is public knowledge.
  • Produces no material likely to lead to hatred or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age, gender, race, colour, creed, legal status, disability, marital status, or sexual orientation.
  • Does not by way of statement, voice or appearance endorse by advertisement any commercial product or service save the promotion of his/her own work or of the medium by which she/he is employed.
  • A journalist shall normally seek the consent of an appropriate adult when interviewing or photographing a child for a story about her/his welfare.
  • Avoids plagiarism.

How Does One Get to Call Oneself a Journalist?

If you see yourself in the way of the NUJ’s Code of Conduct, then you are a journalist. If it’s simply writing nice things for friends and getting into print then no. Our principle here is that the journalist doesn’t intrude into the piece too much. There are some exceptions but by and large we write in third person and the only first person things are quotes from the people. Feature writing can sometimes appear to be a bit fluffy but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be up to the same standards as news journalism. I accept the fact that you don’t need to do shorthand and you don’t probably need to understand the finer points of court reporting and a number of other things, but often the way you find out the things you don’t need to know is to know them all.

I’ve never done an NCTJ course, although I’ve been writing since I was sixteen. I first wrote pieces at school for a camera magazine, got published and then spent the next 33 years just carrying on. I’ve also never had a press card in my life. I’ve just always stated that I am. And that’s been enough. I did a Computing Science course at University, but that was really to go on the student newspaper as much as anything else, so really I’ve been writing for an awfully long time. I never did a course because I was already doing the job. I was in an office where editorial was honed and there were enough people telling me what I was doing wrong and how to do it better that I didn’t feel I needed to. Often when you’re working in specialist magazines, a knowledge of the topic is more important than ticking the boxes on whether you’ve got top shorthand speeds. I would always say there’s no such thing as wasted learning – but at our stage there are the practicalities to consider too.

I’m also 49 and about six years ago I very nearly retrained as a lawyer. I got accepted onto a law course, everything was in place but my house sale fell through so it had to go by the by. Then, as luck would have it, I was headhunted by my magazine to be their editor (I think they might have found me through www.journalism.co.uk), which was an altogether more pleasing environment than having been a freelance writer in technology. Although there’s lots of work, the amount that will people pay for it is going down. I remember pitching a piece to The Guardian and they said would I mind awfully waiting until April to be paid, and this was in November. That’s symptomatic of the fact that not everyone has money.

However, I’ve worked for a broad range of titles, from Practical Boat Owner to Vogue to Wedding and Home and by far the worst are the ones who pay the most money. Not because they were particularly punctilious but they’d keep changing their minds about what they want. There are standards in journalism that need to be maintained and the danger in going one’s own way is that things slip. You’ve got to be very careful. For instance, if people haven’t actually said the words you say they have, that’s a problem. A common journalistic ploy is to ask the interviewee, ‘Would you say it’s reasonable for….’ If the journalist then turns round and says, ‘x said it was reasonable’ that’s wrong as they haven’t actually said it. And in any case, a journalist shouldn’t be asking closed questions; they should be asking open ones in order to get the person to actually say the words.

What we do with all our interviews is send them to the person interviewed to check there’s nothing they don’t recognise. We make it very clear that it’s not an invitation to rewrite the piece, it’s just an opportunity to check that they’re happy with it. One thing it does is give us the opportunity to allow things to stay as quotes if they would have said it had the question had been phrased differently. And we always flag it up as something the person didn’t actually say. In an ideal world we never put words in people’s mouths.

Also, it’s not Watergate – we’re not trying to shaft people. Sometimes when we send the articles to people they wonder if they want something they’ve said to be printed. We take a view on that. We don’t give people the right of veto but we very strongly consider their feelings and we wouldn’t ever want somebody to feel they’d been made a fool of, although often what they consider to be embarrassing is actually quite uplifting. This is sometimes the only time they’ll appear in print and it would be good for them to feel really happy about it.

Checking we’ve got our quotes right is where shorthand or a recorder comes in – although really you should always back up your tapes with notes, as technology can’t be relied upon. Batteries run out; a fan from a neighbouring computer might be the loudest thing it hears. Also, in the same way when you learn anything, it’s two ways in, two ways out. If you write it then you re-read it, if you say it then you hear it – it gets more embedded than if you’re just passively listening.

Does every feature article have to have a point? A theme? I

t’s incredibly easy to be prescriptive about how you commission pieces. As the editor of a magazine it’s my job to ensure that thematically the piece fits in with the magazine and stylistically it’s not me me me from the writer but all about the people they’ve seen. But other than that I tend to be quite hands off about how people put the features together. If you’re going to employ someone to do it, then employ them to do it. Don’t just do it by proxy yourself. I wouldn’t suggest you try and read definitive books on ‘How to Write Feature Articles’. I could write you a piece on how I construct a feature but at some point you need to decide what your own style is. How you construct a feature is that you build it in your head.

Sometimes I need to have a headline, although lots of magazines want to write their own and some take it badly if you submit one. They just want: ‘interview with….’ Others are quite grateful if you provide one. I find it difficult to write a piece without a headline in my head because if I can encapsulate what the next 1200 words are going to be about in four or five words the feature will write itself. If you know the headline, you’re pretty sure about your opening and closing paragraphs, then everything else is padding and key quotes. I can write a 1000 words an hour once I’ve done all the research – but I’ve been doing this for two thirds of my life. You can be too obsessed with length, quotes, thinking about messages. A really useful exercise is to look at other features and consider whether you would have put it in that order or written it that way. The more you edit others’ work the easier you’ll find it to write yourself.

Any other tips on writing articles?

I don’t like reading articles that scream ‘I am writing.’ The hardest thing when you’re starting out is to keep a lid on it. Don’t be self-indulgent. I never try and write an uplifting story. People will read it in different ways and if you try and infuse an article with a particular emotion you’ve got to be very careful because you’re skewing it. Even if something is fantastic, just write the facts and let other people infer that it’s fantastic.

What other qualities do you require in your freelancers?

I want people who come up with ideas that I’ve not thought of myself. As an editor I need to subordinate my ego to that of the readers, for I am not all readers. Again, the piece mustn’t be all about themselves in terms of what they write. Eighteen year olds have grown up with social media and are used to everyone being interested in what they have to say. It needs to be all about the person they’re interviewing. And pull back. I recently got a piece from a guy and it’s writing for a super soaraway life – everything is slightly turned up, all ‘fantastic’ and ‘the best’. Don’t attribute values to facts. There shouldn’t be comment in the magazine, just fact. The readers are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions.

Deadlines – don’t miss them. It can never be said often enough. If there’s going to be a problem let me know. It’s incredibly easy to piss editors off and the power is not on the side of the freelancer. Lastly, really get to know the magazine. If we haven’t run something, it’s not because we haven’t thought about it, it’s because we don’t want to. As a magazine we’re not lifestyle – being ‘what am I going to cook, where am I going to eat, what’s the coolest thing to wear’. We’re about things, people and places, we’re not about products – although food off the land is the exception. Someone opening a new vintage store isn’t news. Someone winning best hotel in Dorset isn’t news either; because every year that competition will have a winner, from Dorset.

In terms of presenting ideas, a 100 word pitch by email is fine or ring me. But it’s worth considering that by email I can read it when I have the time. If you phone it might not be a good time. But it’s entirely up to you. I’m constantly being pitched to – and just saying ‘T E Lawrence’ isn’t going to get you very far. I can understand that you don’t want to produce a full article, but you need to put the work in to decide exactly what you want to write about.

What’s the Pay?

We pay £50 a page, which is about £100 per thousand words. Not great, and about the same as I earned in 1981, but – you know. I don’t need photos as well, but it’s always a good skill to have. Do I need them? No. Is it helpful, yes. When I’m judging between two writers, it might be that I’ll go with the one who can offer good photos too.

As a freelancer I would recommend getting three or four regular gigs (a few pages a month each from different clients) to build up your regular income, then slipping the occasional bigger (or more enjoyable but less well paid) project around them. Getting the three or four regular gigs is the key. I don’t increase the rate I pay to those with regular contributions, but they know there’ll be the occasional above and beyond moment in return for that regular work. You’ll work it out, believe me.

Yep, hopefully I’m getting there – although I do seriously wonder how anyone makes a living as a freelancer, especially if you keep your work local. That rather worrying thought aside, in the hour we spent together, I learnt so much. And my favourite phrase to take away? ‘Everyone is interesting if you ask the right questions.’

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1 thought on “On Being A Journalist

  1. Pingback: And So To Bed | THE HAPPY OF NOW

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