Dear young journalists
It may be hard for you to believe, but this decrepit, cynical, exhausted news editor was also a young cub once. I was 8 the first time I visited a newsroom; 10 when it became something I did every Saturday and 18 when I started working during my varsity vacations. I was probably guilty of every single thing I’m about to criticise you for, and I’m probably still guilty of many professional sins now that I’m (allegedly) all grown up and running a news desk. So yes, perhaps a lot of this is hypocrisy. But take it whence it comes: from a place of love and utter, draining impatience.There’s something you need to know, before we even start.
You’re not special. You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. I don’t care what your mother told you growing up. Mine told me the same thing. What you are is a young journalist fighting for your place in a crowded industry that’s shedding jobs at a rate of knots, and where you have to be better, smarter, more savvy, quicker and far more driven than the next person. I can make you a better writer, by working with you. I can teach you how to plan a diary better, and how to identify an angle, and how to know when someone’s spinning you a yarn and when someone’s being straight up. I won’t always get it right, and neither will you. You will get shouted at. I still get shouted at sometimes. It’s not pleasant, but it’s going to happen.
Here’s my advice if you want to be a really great journalist. I draw it from my own life as a journalist-in-progress and from the lives of my colleagues, current and former, who teach me new things every single day.
1. Don’t be an arsehole. I read a great piece on Grub Street recently about rude journalists, and it made my blood boil. Nobody thinks you’re cool if you treat people like shit. You are not a god of any sort – you are, in lots of ways, a public servant and you have a job to do. Am I saying don’t ask tough questions? No. Am I saying let people walk all over you? No. But I am saying that simple things like saying “Please” and “Thank you”, taking the time and care to spell someone’s name right, listening to their answers and not bulldozing them because you think they’re stupid/lying/not talking fast enough for you will make you a nicer person and a better journalist. I know there’s a whole generation of journalists who disagree with me; who came of age being far tougher and nastier than me, but I think there’s a middle ground and I encourage you to find it.
2. Never stop learning. You don’t know it all and you never will. One of my favourite things about my job is that I learn at least one new thing every day – usually more. I’m not even exaggerating. My young colleagues teach me as much as my older colleagues. A reporter teaches me as much as an editor. The day I stop learning, or think I have nothing more to learn, I will resign and stop working as a journalist. If you think you know it all, you should quit before you’ve even started. Know-it-alls make for lousy journalists.
3. Plan. And then plan some more. I once blogged about Tash the Second, whose name is really Nicki and who is my boss. She is obsessive about planning – plans A through Z make her feel most comfortable. At first, I thought this flew in the face of good journalism, because we’re meant to be flexible and able, when necessary, to fly by the seat of our pants. But Nicki is right (and so am I, but more on that in the next point): planning makes you a better journalist. I attended a great training session a few years ago in which the facilitator suggested keeping a planning notebook. I favoured an A4 hard-back book, one of those with a black cover. The idea was to do a rough plan of your week – in those days I worked Sunday to Thursday – by day. It took a thorough reading of the newspapers, a good sense of your own areas of expertise, upcoming court dates or events, and keeping in touch with your contact base. Then you’d make a rough plan for each day, with stories you knew you could do and stories you hoped to do. It made my diary pitches 100 times better and made my week far easier, too. It also meant that I could be flexible – if a story broke on a Wednesday, I could shift my Wednesday plan to one side for another day, or offer stories to other reporters who were maybe at a loose end.
4. Be prepared to spit in your plan’s face. Nicki’s right, and so am I. Planning helps you do a much better job all round. But sometimes, news happens. In those cases, your best-laid plans go to hell. I sent a reporter to Marikana to cover a labour strike. If he’d stuck to my brief and our plan, he may not even have been on the ground below those notorious koppies on August 16. He may have been in an office somewhere, or at a distance. As it was, he was caught up in the shooting and he phoned me, his voice cracking, and told me that people were dead. We had a plan; he trusted his gut and threw it aside. It worked.
5. Ask questions. If you don’t ask, you won’t know. Is my brief not clear? Ask me what I mean. Don’t be afraid. If your news editor is such a monster that he or she won’t countenance questions, report them to their bosses. If you take five extra minutes to understand exactly what’s being asked of you, you’ll do a much better job. Out in the field, the situation’s the same. There are no stupid questions, just stupid people (as my father used to tell me). Sure, some people will get impatient when you don’t grasp a complex concept the first time, but that’s their problem. Taking the extra time to understand them will make for a better story. I just did a series of interviews for a story I’m writing this week, and I made sure to chew over what the interviewees said, and then repeat my understanding of their points. It really helped.
6. No, you may not interview the President. Guess what? Journalism’s hard work. You will do a lot that you think is beneath you. It’s not. Grow up, suck it up, do it better than anyone else and you’ll climb the ladder far more quickly than your peers. Don’t be precious. My colleague Carien has been a senior political reporter for some time now, and last year she stood outside Nelson Mandela’s Houghton home in her sweaty, disgusting running clothes because that’s what you do, even on your day off. Carien has interviewed the president, by the way, but she still gets the lousy jobs sometimes. She and most of my other colleagues routinely work on their days off. I’m sure it drives them and their families absolutely mad, but they do it. You will, too. Well, either that or you’ll clock in at 9am and clock out at 5pm and do the bare minimum. And then you’ll never get to interview the president.
7. Digital savvy is not optional. The future is here, folks. Learn how to cope with it. Tweet, blog, learn to do audio and video; multi-skill until you’re so impressive you push me right out of my desk job. One of my colleagues has even been teaching himself to code online. Don’t fight it. Embrace it.
8. But there’s no shame in being old-fashioned. I am a proud newspaper journalist and damnit, I intend to stay that way until they wheel me out of here dribbling ink onto my nice clean shirt. Newspapers that adapt won’t die (see point 7 – digital savvy will lend new and wonderful life to your newspaper self, as I’ve discovered while working at City Press). There are some things that won’t change, no matter the medium: contact books are crucial (whether you keep a hard copy in a scaffy old book that’s falling apart, or store your contacts on a computer or your cellphone or an external hard drive or all of the above). Contact management is even more crucial. Take your contacts out for coffee. Touch base with them even when there isn’t a story brewing.
Thank them for their help. I am guilty of being a poor contact-builder, and I know I’m going to feel it when I leave the desk one day and try to write again. I’m sorry, contacts I’ve neglected. I owe you all lots of coffee. Read the newspapers. Read news websites. Read magazines and books and surprise yourself by reading things you’re pretty sure you won’t understand. I am not very clever when it comes to business and the economy, so I sit and carefully read Business Day every day. Sometimes I have to look up concepts. I’m not ashamed. It’s not turning me into a top-notch financial journalist, but it’s teaching me stuff. Refer to point 2.
Don’t be disheartened, young journalists. You may not be beautiful and unique snowflakes, but if you do it right you’ll be pouring your heart, soul and brain into an amazing career that is, by turns, exhausting, exhilarating, amazing, heartbreaking and life-changing (your life, mind you). Have fun.
PS. And by the way, I take my coffee black and with no sugar. Thanks.
Natasha Joseph is news editor of City Press. This post was first published on her blog site, News Ed Musings. She is a former winner of Women in The Media ‘Rising Star’ award. Follow her on Twitter @TashJoeZA
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