This is the last blog I am writing in this series, Communication Matters.
Next week, on Thursday, October 7, I will be holding a text chat session for the Knowledge Centre. The time will be announced on the Knowledge Centre website. During that session you will be able to ask questions which might have occurred to you when reading these blogs.
Today I want to finish this series of blogs by assuring you that if you are passionate about writing, it will happen. Believe in yourself, keep at it, even when you feel down after every suggestion you have put to a commissioning editor has been rejected.
Don't lose faith in your writing or yourself.
You might not start by writing for national papers or a top-selling glossy magazine - but if you start small you have the chance to grow. And anyway, who is saying that writing for a small circulation, but niche publication which has a passionate readership, is not as good as writing for a well-known title?
The world of journalism - especially online news - is now open to everyone. It has come of age. If you are a good writer, maintain high ethical standards, are passionate about what you write, interested in who you interview, determined to leave no stone unturned in your search for the truth, fascinated by learning new facts and think the world ought to know, then you will make a great journalist.
You can start by writing your own blog.
However, you may also want to contribute to your local newspaper or county magazine with a submission for print or online. Local newspapers are grateful for well-written stories about the area, its business and people.
Though media watchers talk about the end of print - in truth, no one knows what the future holds. In fact, last week Tindle Newspapers launched three more new weekly print titles in London - all focussing tightly on specific communities.
The three new papers - the Barnet & Potters Bar Press, the Hendon & Finchley Press and the Edgware and Mill Hill Press - will be distributed free door-to-door to nearly 90,000 homes.
The move follows the launch by Tindle Newspapers of four other ultra local titles in March as part of Sir Ray Tindle's efforts to create local community newspapers across the country.
Tindle Newspapers publishes more than 200 newspapers in England & Wales, many of them more than 100 years old.
Apart from print publications, there are a number of online news sites which welcome submissions and they are great places for building a journalism portfolio. Most of these sites offer guidelines to writers.
Many newspaper groups have launched hyperlocal sites.
Hyperlocal websites are sites that focus on the community in a small part of the paper's circulation area. These sites welcome contributions. Take a look at one of the hyperlocal maps.
Last year, The Daily Mail & General Trust launched 50 hyperlocal sites
as a trial in the south west of England. The sites, which include falmouthpeople.co.ukand bidefordpeople.co.uk, cover areas with between 10,000 and 50,000 inhabitants. All these hyperlocal sites aim to encourage interaction with the public by allowing users to create profiles, write and publish stories, upload images, form
groups and rate and review other content and message each other.
Newsquest launched a raft of hyperlocal websites for its Midlands
titles. The Kidderminster Shuttlehas 30 sites (examples Bewdleyand Stourport.
All of them rely on community correspondents, people who are not trained journalists but are actively involved in the community, to give them news.
William Perrin is the champion of hyperlocal sites. He says on his Kings Cross site: 'I am a community activist in Kings Cross, London, and in my spare time work with residents to clean up our neighbourhood. This site is about the challenges we face locally and how we tackle them. I have lived in London's Kings Cross on and off since 1995 ...... I got heavily involved in improving the local environment when a car stuffed full of fireworks exploded outside my flat in Autumn 2002. At that time the area around Rufford Street was in chaos - littered with burned-out cars, the streets piled high with rubbish, endemic anti-social behaviour, drug-addicted sex workers everywhere. The community has pulled together since then and turned the area around working with the council, the police and the voluntary sector. I am also a non-executive board member of CYP the excellent local youth charity. I recently took a sabbatical from my civil service job to set up TalkAboutLocal to inform people about the benefits of grassroots community websites more widely. I moved about a mile from Kings Cross recently but still keep up the website with the team and local activism.”
That's what hyperlocal sites are about. Grassroots journalism, community interaction and support. They do all the things that local newspapers used to do, but many can no longer achieve because of the public’s change in reading and buying habits and the drastic cuts in journalist staff numbers on local papers.
In this new breed of online papers are particular niche sites such as Women's Views on News, an online daily news and current affairs service launched by writer Alison Clarke and put together by a volunteer collective of women journalists from around the world. The stories featured are always about women. This site welcomes ideas and stories. Most sites, just like Women's Views on News, have guidelines for contributors such as who to send material to, what the site is looking for, how long the piece is etc etc.
Citizen media start-up AllVoicesis a global 'community' which encourages users to contribute news and commentary by mobile phone or online. AllVoices ranks news events based on the activity they are generating on the Web at large.
One of the most successful sites built from reader contributions is US website, The Huffington Post. It was launched in May 2005 as a commentary outlet.
Now it offers coverage of politics, media, business, entertainment, living, style, the green movement, world news, and comedy as well as news. It has a core group of contributors and some 3,000 bloggers and specialists who deliver copy in real-time on a wide range of subjects.
People want to know what's going on in their city, town, neighbourhood and street. Someone has to provide that information.
A personal blog is as valuable to you, the writer, as it is to the reader.
It is a great way to practice your writing. And the more you write,
the better writer you'll become.
But don't see a blog as just a platform for personal posturing. It is
a great vehicle for sharing and gaining information and knowledge.
So what is a blog?
The name emerged from the term web-log and was abbreviated to blog – a
different way or writing and communicating on the web.
Some call it a modern-day diary on the web. If Pepys were alive today, he'd blog.
(In fact, Londoner Phil Gyford is working on a ten-year project to put Pepys's work into a blog format).
But in essence a blog is an online journal where you, the author, can
post and publish entries about personal experiences or hobbies,
political opinion or alternative news coverage. A blog is a method of
sending out personal or company news on the web.
It is an opportunity to champion a cause. And the benefit of a blog
over a print article is that readers can add comments on your entries
(blog posts) which transforms your writing into a two-way dialogue - a
These days it is easier to say - who doesn't blog?
One of the most evocative blogs I have come across is a semi - anonymous
food blog La Tartine Gourmande. But it's more than that. It's a
relationship illustrated in words and photographs between a mother and
daughter and their simple pleasures of outdoor living...and in
between, there is some (a lot of) cooking.
There's Clotidle Dusoulier, in her 30s, who blogs from Paris where, six years ago she started blogging
about restaurants, markets, cafes, and recipes. She got noticed by a
publishing house and the rest is......in her books.
Mums and dads sharing parenting problems and advice on the internet
have made Mumsnet one of the most popular parenting sites in the UK -
newspapers and the Government take notice of what is being discussed
there and prime ministers have ensured they are seen with mumsnet
Other bloggers are enthusiats keen to unearth hidden news and scandal
- such as Guido Fawkes, aka Paul Staines who
blogs on Parliamentary
plots, rumours and conspiracy in the UK. Staines' is a political Tory
blog. He keeps his ear to the ground and breaks news before the
Look up gardener, passionate allotment keeper (and editor of the
Observer magazine), Alan Jenkins.
The Danish photographer Jacob Holdt blogged his journey through the
And so it goes on: there are fiction writers' blogs, showbusiness gossip
blogs, MPs’ blogs, Green campaingners' blogs, blogs by scientists,
medics, followers of fashion, blogs alerting the world to terrible
attrocities, blogs by those in disaster areas, military blogs, peace
activitist blogs and poets' blogs
But why blog?
Once news was produced by journalists and published in newspapers and on
TV and radio. Now anyone can write and be published. For free.
But be warned - there is no right to anonymity in blogging. Only say
in your blog what you'd be happy to say in public.
Keep sentences to 15 - 20 words
Paragraphs of just two or three sentences
Good blogs are updated a couple of times a week
They should take no more than 45 seconds to read
Write well and enthusiastically and you will get feedback.
Your readers will stay with you if you:
Write with clarity
Keep it brief
Make your blog conversational
Remember your audience:
They read the web 25 per cent slower than print
They are picky and selective
They need facts quickly
They don’t read – they scan
Add value to your blog with links to more facts, graphics, videos,
pictures and links to other sites.
Comment on other blogs using the comment box at the end of the blog
post. Give your real name and your own blog's url - then, if someone
agrees with your comment or thinks you have some sound views, they'll
click your name and visit your blog, bringing more readers to you.
How to start
The two main free-to-use blogging platforms are Google's blogger and
WordPress. WordPress has a number of rescources to help the new
blogger such as WordPress.com blog and the official support
site with clear instructions how to sign up and how to start blogging.
Read other people's blogs.
Not only can you see how other people use their blogs, how they
present them and what their content is, but their blogsite will
indicate other good blogs to read. Just look at the blogroll, the list
of blogs the author has put in the sidebar. If you like this author,
then you are likely to be interested in the blogs he rates.
Go to Best of Journalism Blogs to start looking.
Follow Mashable and ReadWriteWeb to keep you in the loop regarding Web 2.0 and
social networking trends, tools and sites. These blogs will help you
understand how and why the media world is changing. Likewise, 10,000
Words is worth logging on to. It describes
itself as a resource for journalists and web and technology
enthusiasts to learn the tools that are shaping digital journalism.
And a note to would-be journalists and journalism students - writing a
blog will make you better a better writer, researcher, communicator —
It is a powerful piece of reporting and writing. It was pieced together after eight months of detailed interviews with relatives of the deceased, survivors, police and fire brigade and transcriptions of emergency services’ recordings. The article's strength comes in the way the narrative is put together using the voices of those trapped in upper floors of the Towers to relive those final terrifying moments.
Immediately after the first plane struck, every television and radio station, every magazine and newspaper worldwide was reporting on the unbelievable sight.
Though 9/11 is an extreme event, it does highlight the dilemma of the journalist.
How does he or she find the angle, the different take on the same event that will stand out over the hundreds of other articles covering the same event?
Jim Dwyer found a way. His journalistic lesson was: The bigger, the smaller. Dwyer based a series of articles he wrote immediately after 9/11 on specific objects with the story woven around them.
For example: A family photograph found in the rubble; the tale of six men, one a window cleaner, who escaped from a lift trapped between floors in the north tower by cutting through three layers of plasterboard with the metal edge of two squeegees. In Fighting for Life 50 Floors Up, With One Tool and Ingenuity the article tells how the men ran out of the building five minutes before it collapsed. In fewer than 1,000 words, Dwyer captured the drama, the horror, the heroics, and the survival of average New Yorkers acting in extraordinary ways.
Other articles in his 'Objects' series featured handcuffs used to dig people out, daffodils to be planted in a city park by a father who lost a son, and a yellow baby buggy in The Kindness of Strangers.
Dwyer's was great reporting and evocative writing. He found a 'human' way to reflect the extent and extreme emotions of the inhuman tragedy.
And that's what reporting and writing is about. Humanising events so people can identify with them.
When you are looking for a story, try to get to the people who are closest to the action. Talk to those who are involved rather than just figures of authority.
As a writer, faced with reporting an incident, you will look about you, you will talk to....friends, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, the old lady in the bus queue. People are the story - what they do, what they see, what they feel.
Another major retrospective this week was the marking of 70 years since the start of the Blitz which saw Britain sustain prolonged periods of heavy bombing by the Nazi Germany air forces from Sept 1940 to May 1941.
A Britain at War article in the Daily Telegraph online makes a Blitz feature relevant to today's readers by using a gallery of pictures which fuse the images of streets as they are in 2010 with images of the same street as it was in the Blitz.
Take a moment to listen to Bandits of the Blitz an audio feature by Duncan Campbell on BBC Radio 4. The BBC has run a series of programmes to mark the start of the bombing campaign.
This particular audio feature is (like Dwyers' Twin Towers feature) a sideways look at a subject. In Campbell's feature, we are told about those who took advantage of the sick and the dying, who looted and stole (even from bodies as they were carried from the rubble or lying in a town hall waiting for relatives to identify them) and made it rich on the back of others' misery during those months of chaos.
It is a fascinating feature - not least because it takes an off-beat look at a segment of history which is often portrayed as the time communities and individuals pulled together, and good will and honesty all round. And again, it wins hands down because it is a feature about people, it carries interviews with those who were there - and it grabs the reader's interest because its subject matter stands out from the many thousands of words written last week about the Blitz.
And that is what feature writers have to do. Find that angle, that particular look at a subject which will stop readers and listeners in their tracks.
And today's journalist has an arsenal of weapons to help tell that story. He can (and is expected to) choose and use video, audio, photography, graphics and the written word to communicate an event, big or small, to readers.
But whatever medium or selection of media is used - the story is always about people.
Last week, record-breaking UK yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur gave a round of interviews to radio, TV and print journalists to launch her new book Full Circle.
The interviews were based on MacArthur's revelation she was giving up the sea to focus on environmental issues.
But The Daily Telegraph's feature writer Elizabeth Grice brought another dimension to her article about the 34-year-old; it was a personal touch referring in her story to previous one-to-one meetings Grice had had with the solo yachtswoman.
Grice recalled in her profile on MacArthur last week week, 'At the end of her Vendee Globe triumph in 2001, she took me down into the tiny, unventilated cabin of Kingfisher on a “tour” of the quarters which had been her cell, home, work station and survival-capsule for 94 days. She talked about the meticulous planning that had gone into provisioning her nutshell of a boat...'
The opportunity to recall earlier conversations, pull quotes from a stored-away notebook, gives the journalist's work an added dimension, a certain credibility, and it tells the reader that the journalist is not only familiar with the person they are interviewing but have been trusted to return for another interview.
Last November, (2009) the body of Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid was brought home to the UK from Afghanistan. The bomb disposal expert died defusing an IED (improvised explosive device) which had trapped his squad in an alley the day before he was due to return to his wife and stepson on leave.
That week, The Sunday Times carried a feature His Last Lonely Walk written by journalist Miles Amoore on the front page of its News Review section.
It was a moving article, particularly because much of the content came from conversations six months before between the charismatic ‘Oz’ Schmid, who had disposed of more than 65 Taliban IEDs, and the freelance journalist.
S/Sgt Schmid's words had been kept, unused, within the pages of Amoore’s notebook. Those words became hugely relevant after 30-year-old Oz Schmid’s death.
S/Sgt Schmid had struck up a friendship with the journalist Amoore and freelance photographer David Gill when the three met in the British Army’s forward operating base Jackson in Sangin in Helmand Province last summer. They talked about their respective jobs during down time during the Taliban’s brutal bombing campaign Panther’s Claw. The three kept bumping into each other – always lapsing into conversation, many of which ended up in Amoore's notebook.
That summer, Oz emailed his wife Christina Schmid telling her that he had been photographed by a freelance photographer. She emailed the freelancers asking for copies. Amoore and the photographer Gill were happy to oblige. When S/Sgt Schmid was killed, Christina emailed the freelance pair saying, ‘He died yesterday.’
Amoore talked to Christina about her feelings and the last times she had spoken with her husband. Then he and Gill put together the article about S/Sgt Schmid – a sad but powerful tale of great bravery.
S/Sgt Schmid, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery in March 2010. He was described as 'the bravest of the brave' by Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff.
At the time of his death S/Sgt Schmid became the face of heroism in Afghanistan. His bravery represented that of all other soldiers there.
But why S/Sgt Schmid? One could argue, it was as much because Amoore had his notebook of conversations which 'humanised' Oz and his fellow soldiers as it was S/Sgt Schmid's unquestionable courage. Had Amoore not had those notes to draw on, his article would not have been so deeply personal or moving.
I am writing this not in praise of Amoore and the quotes of a dead man he was able to put into his article at a time of someone else’s tragedy – though I think that having read the article S/Sgt Schmid's wife could not help but be even more proud of her husband. But I am writing this to show that by writing down those quotes and extra first-hand details of people you meet and interview (even though they may lay dormant for weeks, months or years in your notebook) they may, one day, add so much more to an article.
Amoore's meeting with S/Sgt Schmid is obviously an extreme case. But because Amoore kept his notes and because he and photographer Gill were supportive to their contact – they were able to produce a powerful and very human article full of quotes and personal details which told of one man’s quiet heroism – a shining light in a terribly black place.
Elizabeth Grice refers to her earlier meeting with Ellen MacArthur to highlight the then and now of the world record holder's life. This added dimension sets Grice's feature apart from the many other articles written about MacArthur's decision to quit the sea. Grice was able to do this because she had kept her notes and her quotes from nine years ago.
Notes are invaluable for all the reasons above. But they are also invaluable should an interviewee turn to you in the future and question what you have said in your article. On a legal point, all notes, recordings and photographs should be dated and kept in good order for at least one year. They may save you should someone challenge your writing in court.
Interviews are part and parcel of good journalism. They provide more than just additional voices to a story. They add facts, expertise, balance, depth and credibility. They can breathe vitality and vigour into dry, sterile information.
Good questions make for good interviews.
An interested interviewer draws out interesting angles and quotes that otherwise would lie dormant with those being interviewed.
But to conduct a good interview, you, the writer, must plan and focus and try to make your interview interesting for your interviewee too.
Always ask the obvious as well as stimulating questions. And don't jump to conclusions. The detail is as important as the earth-shattering facts you unearth. The obvious means, for example, that you ask for the spelling of names, that you make sure your 'researched' facts are correct - and the fact a couple don't live together anymore doesn't mean they are divorced. They may be separated - or not married in the first place. So check your facts before you leave your interview. These potentially 'small' inaccuracies will erode your story's credibility.
As with most interviews - the skill is to get the person you are interviewing to drop their guard and talk. This is often when the more interesting facts, anecdotes and description usually come. Keep chatting even as you are packing up to leave. The person you are interviewing often relaxes at this stage. The formal bit is over. It's at this point that the best quotes often come. Or even new facts. Make sure you follow them up.
In order to make the most of the time you have for your interview, research as much as you can about your subject. Otherwise you will seem ignorant and uninformed to those you are interviewing. Background knowledge will be appreciated by your interviewee, and having checked your researched facts are correct, you will have more time to ask other questions.
Don't talk too much. Listen. Prompt and listen.
Most people love to talk, even shy people, especially if they have an attentive audience. Be that audience.
Before the interview, list your 'must know' questions - this keeps you on track. Know why you are interviewing the person. What do you want to find out? Refer to your list of questions at the end of the interview to check you have covered all the main points. During the interview follow up new information but go back to your core questions.
Before setting off on an interview, it is worth considering why anyone would want to be interviewed by a journalist.
By asking yourself these questions and considering the answers, you will be in a better position to face your interviewee. Every interview is different. And every interviewee comes to an interview with a different set of expectations and a different agenda.
What would motivate a person to talk to a journalist?
He or she:
•believes the journalist really cares
•doesn't really want to, but it's their job - they have to
•believes strongly in their cause
•wants to get the facts right - to set the record straight
•is outraged at something or someone and thinks it needs to be aired in the Press
•wants to defend someone else
•can't resist the exposure
•wants to give their side of the 'story'
•has a hidden agenda
•thinks it's the right thing to do
•getting paid by someone to talk
•hopes the exposure will further their career or help their reputation
•wants to publicise an event, or product or boost a business.
The skill in writing and the skill in interviewing go hand in hand.
How you conduct your interview will have more impact on the outcome of your story than anything else. And what you get out of an interview very much depends on what you put into it.
And remember the basic facts all stories need to contain: Who, what, why, when, where, and how?
Some people ask if it is necessary to interview those who have suffered a traumatic event soon after it has happened? What is the value of intruding on people when they are grieving, disoriented, shocked and frightened? What should you discuss with someone before that person consents to an interview?
It is unrealistic to say that people who have been involved in a shocking event should not be interviewed. If that were so, the cameras and journalists would have stayed away from Haiti after the earthquake in January 2010 or the Indonesian tsunami disaster in 2004. They would not be in Pakistan at this moment recording the tragic loss of life and livelihoods as the floods continue to devastate a nation. The world would not have known about these disasters or the scale of the human tragedy - neither would the money have been raised globally to rebuild the shattered lives of these people.
Sad as it is, people who are traumatised often have stories to tell. And those stories may be helpful to broadcast their plight. But journalists should seek interviewees in a thoughtful and respectful manner.
You, the journalist, must understand that not everyone involved in a news story fully realises how the press works, what an interview entails and its potential effects on them, their families and friends. Interviewees should also be told whether their names are likely be used in the story.
Read this blog by journalist, Chris Wheal, who found himself as a 'member of the public' when his nine-year-old nephew was found dead in the family garden, hung by a swing rope last month. Another point of view is given in response by Dominic Ponsford, editor of the Press Gazette.
Characteristics of a good interviewer
Consider which of these attributes you will need when you are interviewing a person or persons over a sensitive subject. Maybe you need all of them?:
Freedom from expectations or judgements
At the end of any interview, ask if you can have a direct contact number and email address, and ask if you can get back to your interviewee if you need to check facts. You shouldn't hesitate getting back to the person you interviewed if you want to check you have got certain details right. The interviewee wants to be portrayed accurately.
Conducting a good interview can allow you to grow in your own knowledge and, by sharing that knowledge, impact a wider circle.
Most memorable interviews is a series of videos showing the good, bad and ugly moments of interviews conducted by leading writers such as Observer feature writer Lynn Barber.
It may sound obvious but before you type your 1,000 word article, you need to know both your reader and the publication for which you plan to write.
Many writers fail to do this. And then they wonder why their idea wasn't accepted by the commissioning editor. The fact it was rejected wasn't necessarily because it was a badly written or badly researched article. It's more likely that what was proposed was inappropriate for that particular publication.
All editors will expect each and every one of their writers to be familiar with both the publication and its readership.
How can you write in the correct tone, in the correct style if you haven't leafed through the publication, taken stock of what articles it covers, how it covers them (word or picture heavy, fact boxes, first person etc)?
And how can you deliver suitable content if you don't know the publication's readership - their age, gender, interests, the type of life they lead in terms of home and family, income and work, political, religious and social affiliations?
Writers also need to be market researchers. Research is absolutely crucial if you are to have any chance of success, and if you want to be taken seriously.
It is worth standing in a newsagent's and spending some time looking at the magazine and newspaper titles.
More than likely, you will be surprised at the range of subjects published. You will be so used to going to the same magazine rack, to the same section, and looking for the title you usually read, that it's highly likely you didn't know there was a magazine called Cardmaking, Bead Trends or CrossStitcher. How about: Home Farmer, Practical Fishkeeping, Bizarre, The Dolls' House Magazine? And in another section you will probably find EcoTraveller, A Place in the Sun and French Property News.
Search sites which list UK newspapers and magazines and you will find titles such as The Philosopher's Magazine, Girl Talk, Golf Monthly, The Drum, Today's Flyfisher, Outdoor Photography, Today's Railways, The Hat Magazine.
As a writer, it is vital to get an idea of the range of publications. These are all possible markets for you. Another excellent resource which lists hundreds of publications and describes who they are aimed at is The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.
According to the Periodical Publishers' Association there are 3,212 consumer magazines and nearly 5,000 business titles in the UK. Some 200- 300 new titles are launched each year. Britons are the third biggest spenders per head on consumer magazines in Europe and UK consumers will spend £2.5bn on magazines this year. Nine out of ten UK adults read consumer magazines. UK publishers sell 40 million magazines outside of the UK every year.
Those are big figures, a lot of magazines, a lot of space to fill. So it's worth keeping up- to- date with what's out there be it magazines, newspapers (and their online equivalent), trade magazines, e-zines (online 'magazines' ) and online 'newspapers'.
Make yourself familiar with a number of publications which carry subjects in which you are interested.
Look at the articles, the adverts (this will help you understand to whom the magazine is targeted and what their interests are).
Look at the coverlines on magazines. These are the words on the front of a publication which gives readers an idea of the main stories inside.
The coverlines will tell you a lot about the content and the readership.
The same goes for the image on the cover of the publication. The cover will help you define the target audience (sleek and sophisticated, fun and fast, considered, mumsy, sexy, DIY fiend).
The design of the front cover tells you whether the publication is a quick read (are the colours bright and brash which say 'pick me up, read me and throw me away') or more sombre and studied (a glossy coffee-table style magazine with content you are likely to read and refer to again).
Quick-read publications are aimed at a readership who's in a hurry and only got time to read over a cup of coffee or a pint. The story lengths will be shorter. The content less ponderous. It will be written in a bright and breezy tone.
Another type of publication will aim at a readership who has more time. In that case, the articles will be longer and more considered. They will carry facts and argument which add to the content.
This goes for all publications whether an inhouse magazine for a business, or a parish magazine for a local community. A successful publication will have a tone and a style which will be consistent and relevant to their target audience.
Several publications, such as the BBC's Science and Technology magazine Focus, tell writers just what they should be aiming for when they are planning an article. This is obviously a great help. But as the magazines' guidelines say - all writers should get to know the magazine first.
In this way, you will be a far more effective writer because your article ideas and your writing will be tailored to fit that specific market and the specific reader.
Surprisingly, a would-be journalist does not have to have any specific training or qualification to join the profession. Neither is there any definitive code to which a new reporter has to adhere.
While there are many universities running media courses and there are training schemes run worldwide that aim to guide and help the new reporter develop their craft, in reality, anyone can set themselves up as a freelance journalist be it as a feature writer, a news reporter, a video journalist, a photo journalist, a news blogger, citizen journalist, or even an online editor.
The internet and speed and ease of communication has made this even easier. Citizen journalism is a relatively new term but it reflects how the field of journalism has opened up to everyone.
However, most people who earn their living from journalism either have regularly paid jobs on the staff of media companies or they work as freelances. Freelance journalists earn money from the stories or photographs they get published. Citizen journalists are rarely paid and do the work because it benefits their community, highlights something they believe in, or gives them the satisfaction of having their work published.
But whether freelance, staff or citizen journalist, all journalists are expected to maintain certain conduct that upholds not only their own reputation, but the reputation of the publications for which they write.
There are codes of conduct which are now part of journalists’ contracts of employment such as those laid out by the self-regulatory body, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in its Editors' Code of Practice. Members of the public can, in the UK, turn to the PCC for advice or if they have concerns about any matter involving the press, such as harassment, intrusion or inaccurate reporting.
However, it is generally agreed among journalists the world over that all good and responsible newsgatherers aim to seek out the truth and deliver it to their audience in an accurate, objective, balanced and honest manner.
In order to uphold the highest standards, all journalists should set these goals as their own benchmark.
Accuracy is essential. Even failing to get numbers right, or the correct names and details of companies or individuals, will lose any journalist their credibility - and potentially their job. Certainly, as a freelance, they wouldn't be asked to write for that publication again. Some classic misprint howlers can be found on Hold the Front Page and the Faux Pas File. The answer is to check facts remorselessly. And then check them again.
Being objective means being able to stand outside the story or subject and report without prejudice - to give a fair and impartial account of the event or news item. This means also evaluating one's own background and culture and being able to report stories without that influence. A reporter's duty is to inform, to give the facts from all sides and let people make up their own minds.
To produce a balanced article the writer has to offer both sides of the story. This involves giving the person or persons whose behaviour (for example) has been questioned, the opportunity to respond to the allegations.
Honesty is an absolute. There are tales of reporters who make up quotes, lift stories from other news outlets and pass them off as their own, and even offer totally fictitious stories.
Daniel Jeffreys, The Daily Mail's New York correspondent, wrote an eyewitness account in 2002 of Tracy Housel's execution in Georgia, where the British prisoner spent 16 years on death row for rape and murder. The writer for the UK tabloid produced a riveting read, says the New York Magazine.
'What happened will haunt my dreams for years,' wrote Jeffreys solemnly. 'We could see Housel mouthing the words "I love you."'
Moving stuff. There's just one problem. It's all made up.
Jeffreys never actually witnessed this event. He wrote the account, he says, having spoken to Housel’s lawyer who was there.
This is Jeffreys’ original story filed to The Daily Mail.
A journalist should, under the International Federation of Journalists' code of ethics, only use 'fair methods to obtain news, photographs and documents'. Threats, bribery, and tricking people into giving information is an absolute 'no'. As is not identifying oneself as a journalist when gathering information or asking for an interview.
Some of the ‘tactics’ used by one UK Sunday tabloid have been questioned. The News of the World’s investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood (the fake sheikh) broke a number of exclusive stories having ‘exposed’ royalty, actors, criminals, sportsmen and presenters when interviewing them in his sheikh disguise.
So what characteristics should a journalist possess?
Ultimately, the key to your success is your:
Ability to write and research. A specialism, an interest, a degree or some indepth knowledge of a subject is likely to stand you in good stead. You can then write with authority, with confidence and with a background knowledge that will give your article credibility
Perseverance.You will be tenacious, want to seek out the truth, and not give up when faced with opposition or bureaucratic inertia
Curiosity. Your questioning will be deeper and your interviewee's responses more rounded if you are personally interested in the subject and curious to know the answers
Desire to get the whole picture, the truth behind your story. You will be persistent in your questioning and won't be fobbed off by those who think they can ride rough-shod over your interview
Ability to be relaxed with all types of people in all sorts of situations. People are stories. Mixing with people will lead you to yet more stories and story ideas. The more time you spend with people, the more they will give. Your stories will be richer for it.
Added to the above, all journalists need to cultivate a certain degree of scepticism. Information will come your way but you always need to question why your source has passed on these details. What's in it for them? Has that official or company press officer put certain information your way in order that their businesses are seen in a favourable light? Question everything.
But why write?
As a journalist you will write because you are interested in the subject, because you enjoy imparting information, because you have an enquiring mind and want to get the facts, because you want to meet people and see things they would otherwise not see, meet or do (writing gives entry to all sorts of venues). But your role is always to represent the ordinary man in the street not to enjoy some sort of celebrity kick.
And your skill as a writer is in how you research the story and find the answers, how you then tell the story, how you structure it, accurately reporting the facts and detail, making your article readable and relevant.
And while you are writing, you’ll remember that all good stories whether 50, 500 or 5,000 words long share the same basic elements: what happened, when, where, to whom, why, and how?
What other qualities do you think a journalist needs?
In this blog, we will look at what makes a good feature.
In order to understand what makes a good feature you will need to trust your own senses - as a reader.
Take a moment to think about a particularly enjoyable article you read recently.
What was it that made you want to read beyond the first paragraph?
What made you want to read to the end of the page or the end of the screen?
Was it a feeling of satisfaction - a feeling you had been given new information?
Perhaps you felt the article shocked, horrified, saddened, uplifted, or amused you?
Did you turn to that article to add to the knowledge you already had on that subject, or was it because you knew nothing about the subject and were intrigued?
Perhaps you liked the style of the writer - found him/her engaging or authoritative?
As a writer it is important to think about this when you are looking at articles. You need to stand in the reader’s shoes and see the story from their perspective. What do they want to know, what will interest them and get them to read to the end of your story?
You can try the same exercise with an article you don’t like. Think what it is that doesn’t make that particular article work for you. This will help you to be objective in your writing, to stand outside your words and see whether or not they work.
All the papers this weekend have been filled with columns of words describing the horrors, tragedy and losses of the floods that have swept Pakistan. Neil Tweedie in his piece for the Daily Telegraph - Pakistan in Crisis: left to help themselves - recounts recurring stories of bitterness and betrayal. He builds a picture of starving families grieving for their dead, their homes lost and livelihoods swept away, there's pending disease, a fractured aid programme, and anger mounts while the country’s prime minister continues his controversial visit to Britain.
Tweedie uses his words to paint a picture of what has happened, how it has affected the people of Pakistan, where the floods are to strike next, how people are coping with their suffering, why this disaster happened and who is helping. His words answer the key questions the reader wants answering and put the disaster in context and make it relevant by associating it with the Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to the UK.
So what are the magic ingredients for a feature or an article? Well, it upholds the best reporting traditions of solid, clear, accurate and visual storytelling.
I found the subject matter intriguing, the concept of women in the male dominated Afghanistan regime taking on perhaps one of the most macho roles conceivable was fascinating, and the article itself was well put together with a mix of personal stories, emotion and hard facts.
Then, on a completely different subject, there’s Jeffrey Kluger’s article in Time magazine: Inside the minds of animals? Kluger tells us about a study in the States to determine the linguistic intelligence of animals. The article tells us about his conversation over a cup of coffee with 29-year-old Kanzi, one of the main contributors to the study. Nothing unusual about that - except Kanzi is a monkey with a vocabulary of 384 words. This is a cleverly executed article with all the key facts woven around Kluger’s face to face with the formidible Kanzi.
Trainee journalists are always told to write their articles as though they were telling the story to their mates in the pub or the bar.
Standing among their friends, the young journalist will tell their story in a way to capture and hold their friends’ attention. They will start with the most important details. They will add description, more than likely mimic some spoken words, repeat some conversation. They will describe what happened, why and when it happened, to whom, where and how.
This is storytelling and they will be storytellers.
Just as the young journalist pitches his story to his friends, when you write, you will relate to your readers - they are your market, your audience. Your readers may be women, men, the young, the elderly, professionals, specialists or academics. Whoever they are, you will write with them in mind and have a written ‘conversation’ with them in their ‘language’.
What you write will be relevant to your readers. What you have to say will connect with them on either an intellectual or emotional level - or both. And most importantly you will never leave your reader asking any questions.
And to ensure your article doesn’t leave the reader wanting; you as the writer will always make sure your article answers the questions: Who, what, why, when, where, and how?
Who is the article talking about? What happened? Why did it happen? When? Where? and lastly, how?
When you have dug deep to get answers to those questions - you will have mastered the basics to writing a good feature or article.
Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning starting in October 2010. For details see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/study/cll/open_courses/certs/writing_features/
This is the first in a series of blogs about writing and communication. Good, clear, accurate communication is vital for us all to master as the range of different media outlets through which we can message, contact, inform, and educate continues to grow. In these blogs we will explore the pleasures and pitfalls of writing using these multi-media tools.
It is now so easy to communicate with pictures and moving images, through audio, and in writing. We talk about global audience, e-publishing, world-wide interaction, the conversation.
And we’re all doing it - especially through social networking sites such as Facebook which just two weeks ago announced it had notched up 500 million users.
Twitter, the four-year-old social networking site which lets users say something in up to 140 characters, yesterday (Sunday) announced its 20 billionth message had been posted.
That’s a lot of posting going on - a lot of words being written and pictures being uploaded.
Because of the internet, we’re now all publishers. We are all authors. We can express what we like to our audiences which may number just six, sixty, or sixty thousand.
But can we really say whatever we want?
Be warned. We can’t.
This should be the first lesson for anyone embracing any form of social media, writing emails, putting up comments on websites, blogging, Twittering - even publishing articles in standard print media.
A lesson to be learned came last week when a Facebook ‘joke’ cost the author £10,000 in a High Court case which experts say highlights the dangers of posting even light-hearted material online.
Social networking sites are a great place to share your thoughts, words and deeds with all your friends, family and work colleagues. Sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter can be light-hearted and jokey places.
But there are jokes...and jokes.
Sending up your friends or colleagues on any social networking site with the intention of making them look stupid or inferring they are not what they seem, is no joking matter. It is libel. And it could cost you thousands.
The object of the Facebook ‘joke’ was British student, Raymond Bryce. He was awarded £10,000 in damages last Wednesday (July 27), after his former friend Jeremiah Barber posted an image of Bryce superimposed on a picture of child porn. Barber had also written a note which insinuated Bryce was a paedophile.
Bryce was devastated. The 24-year-old law student from Staffordshire said more than 800 people would have been able to view the page. Bryce told the High Court in London he was too scared even to leave his home because he didn’t know who had seen the image and read the post.
The judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, said, ‘This was not only defamatory, but a defamation which goes to a central aspect of Mr Bryce's private life as well as his public reputation.
‘This post was deeply offensive to him, but also a cause for alarm.
‘He could not go out in public because he feared he would be a victim of violence, which is not infrequently the result for those accused of paedophilia.’
The judge added, ‘I can infer that the number of people who saw this Facebook page would have been in the hundreds. This post was clearly a malicious act.
‘Damages in libel actions are awarded as compensation, not as punishment, to vindicate reputation, to compensate for harm to that reputation and as compensation for injury to feelings.’
We all need to take note of the judge’s words.
We communicate in writing everyday through social networking sites, Twitter, emails, text, and ink on paper.
But we must take care with everything we write. We have to remember we are publishing to an audience and we have a responsibility not to bring any person’s reputation, or any business’s reputation into disrepute.
To do so, we are defaming them. This means others will see them in a poorer light. The only defence to a claim of defamation is that the words spoken or written were true.
When we speak in a defamatory way, we commit slander.
When we write in a defamatory way, we commit libel.
If you send a private letter to just one person and you are unfairly critical of them - that is not defamatory. But if you send that same letter to others - you have published it to a third party. In that case you could be sued for defamation.
What might appear as a light-hearted comment or a joke to you, might not be taken that way.
So, when you are posting on sites, emailing (and copying others in) or Twittering, think about what you are saying. Is it true?
It is far too easy, particularly in this electronic age, to write something and quickly press the send button.
Pause for thought. Consider: Is what I have written accurate? Is it fair? Have I checked my facts?
Ask yourself: Have I clearly expressed what I wanted to say or is it open to misinterpretation? How would I feel if someone said this about me? Would I feel my reputation was harmed?
Then, and only then, should you post.
Sally Ballard is the tutor for the online course, Writing for Publication, run by the University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning starting in October 2010.
It is no longer only those working in media that need to have adept media skills. As the possibilities for self-publishing on media platforms opens up thanks to the internet, it is increasingly important for us all to develop a media literacy in order to make use of the opportunities this presents. For young graduates digital media competence is fast becoming expected, and valued, by employers looking to keep up with technological developments and online trends.
Communication does matter to you as an individual as well as your employer. The importance of communication is often overlooked because we are so used to having conversations with a multitude of different people day in day out, whether it be face-to-face, by email or by phone. Effective and efficient communication does not necessarily follow from this high-volume of interactions however. A critical examination of the methods by which one presents information is essential for making improvements.
Sally Ballard will provide an opportunity to master the basics by posting the essentials on this blog. Over the next ten weeks Sally will update us every Monday with the next installment.
09:20, Thu 15 Jul 2010
About the blog
The Knowledge Centre blog features comment and opinion from leaders outside of the University, dscussing their views on a number of fields - be that industry, education, politics or life in general.