Tuesday 5 October 2010

The Long Forgotten Q&A - Part One

All the way back in February I announced that I was going to hold a Q+A for my blog fans. I asked followers to email me questions and said I would answer the first ten I received. I set up a second email account for blog correspondence - then forgot about it. I only recently remembered and realised that I'd better start answering questions.

This blog is dedicated to one question, which prompted a lengthy answer. More will follow.

How do we non-journalists best go about starting a career as a freelance journalist?

Helen, UK

I think that first and foremost it is important to decide whether you want to be a journalist or a writer. Lots of people say to me that they love to write and therefore would love to work in journalism, but the truth is that journalism has very little to do with writing. You can be the best writer in the world but if I sit you behind a desk and ask you to produce a news story, your writing skills are going to be of little value to you. A journalist's job is to report - it's no use being a great writer if you have nothing to write about.

As a journalist you will typically spend 90% of your time investigating and 10% writing. The job of a journalist is to find stories, gather evidence, interview sources and then, once all that research is completed, write it all up.

Being a great writer will be of especially little value to you in news journalism, where there is little creative freedom. Stories are generally written to a strict set of guidelines, often referred to as the 'inverted pyramid' structure. There's more creativity in feature writing but the focus remains on research as opposed to prose.

So if you want to be a journalist, your passion has to be for investigation; for digging out new information, sifting through documents, tracking people down, testing the gatekeepers and asking tricky questions. A passion for writing is way down the list.

If it's journalism you're interested in, it's also worth thinking honestly about what your motivation is for breaking into the industry. If you think it is a glamorous profession, think again. Shows like Sex and the City portray the life of a journalist as an easy one. Carrie Bradshaw writes a slender column for a magazine on what seems to be a fairly infrequent basis and can somehow afford to live in a central New York apartment while splashing cash on high end designer outfits. To say that this is not an accurate representation of the industry would be a huge understatement.

That's not to say there aren't perks to the job. Journalism can afford you the opportunity to meet your heroes - my first real excursion into the world of 'celebrity journalism' was a brief chat with my own hero, James Brown. You can also wind up scoring seats at movie previews or lining the red carpet at showbiz events - but these things often aren't as glamorous as they seem.

Red carpet events such as film premieres can be deathly boring. You stand around for hours on end waiting for the stars to show up and when they do there's no certainty that you'll have any access to them. If you happen to be fronting the TV coverage for a primetime show, you're quite likely to get an interview. The dozens of print journalists squeezed into the press pen, however, are often less lucky.

The minor celebs - the reality contestants and C-list popstars - will hang around the press pit for ages because the TV crews don't want to speak to them. The stars of the film, however, will often breeze straight past the print reporters and simply have their assistants furnish the press with generic quotes about how they 'love this city' and 'thank the fans'.

It's not just celebrity events which seem less interesting when you experience them close-up - it's the celebrities themselves. That's not to say they're all dullards or bores - not at all. What I mean is that the more time you spend around celebrities, the more you realise that they really are just people. Rich people. Famous people. But people all the same and, as with all people, there are some you enjoy talking to and some that you don't. After a while you stop getting truly excited about the prospect of interviewing a celebrity, unless it's somebody you really admire.

As a general - but not universal - rule, the more famous somebody is, the less interesting they are in interview. That doesn't mean they're a less interesting person, it just means they have more to lose by speaking freely. They're guarded, surrounded by PR professionals who hover over your shoulder in an attempt to intimidate you into not asking any tricky questions, and who glare at you if you dare stray from the topic of whatever it is the celebrity is promoting at that moment in time.

Stars often speak in soundbites or just recite pre-rehearsed answers. If you've ever watched multiple news channels during the week of a film premiere, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. You'll watch ITV News and see an actor and director giggling as they recount an annecdote, then tune into BBC Newsnight and watch them telling the exact same annecdote to a different reporter with equal 'spontenaity'.

That's not to say all celebrity journalism is vacuous. Of course it isn't. Some can afford you a real insight into the mind of an artist; the process of a genius musician or the struggles of an icon behind the glamorous Hollywood facade. Jonathan Lethem's article 'Being James Brown' is one of the greatest articles I've ever read on any subject, for instance. But most celebrity journalism, particularly in newspapers and celebrity magazines, consists largely of puff pieces, gossip and dodgy paparazzi photographs. Glamorous is probably one of the last words I'd use to describe it and there are legitimate questions to be raised about whether much of it is even journalism at all.

Journalism has a few core functions. One function is to reveal new information to the public. Another is to tell the truth. Another is to act as the fourth estate, testing government and the legal system in order to ensure that they're held to account. If you're serious about journalism, I think you need to have a real interest in justice. I think you have to be invested in seeing that wrongs are righted, that power isn't abused, that corruption is exposed, that mysteries are solved and that justice is served.

It can have other facets, like high end celebrity journalism as I described earlier, which affords the public genuine insight. Sports too, and arts and culture. But primarily, it's about truth and justice. If the thought of upholding both of those really gets your blood pumping, journalism is probably for you.

My first piece of advice would have to be to go and get trained somewhere. In the UK you can study for a journalism degree or you can study with the National Council for Training Journalists (NCTJ). The former will equip you with far more knowledge and experience, but the latter requires a sixth of the time and, inexplicably, is more readily accepted in the industry.

Once you're qualified it will still be difficult to find work, especially since the recession, during which many newspapers were firing reporters and slashing freelance budgets. There are steps you can take that will make it easier to find work once you're trained.

During my journalism degree I had to complete work experience at local newspapers and was encouraged to contribute to local newspapers for free in my spare time as well as writing for our in-house student magazine.

In my second year I started writing articles for free and sending them to a US music journal, who were glad of the free copy. After two articles, they started paying me for my contributions. Writing articles for free is valuable in that it gains you first hand experience, it helps you to build up a portfolio of published work and it allows you to make contacts and build relationships in the industry.

By my third year at university - with my experience, my portfolio of published work and my network of contacts - I was contributing to newspapers and magazines on a national and international basis and usually being paid for my work.

My last piece of advice will sound quite contradictory: Carve yourself a niche, but don't limit yourself. I carved myself a niche as a black music writer. The more I published on the subject, the more people came to me for work in that area. But at the same time, there's no point in limiting yourself to that niche because it will reduce your income. Although I specialise in black music, over the years I've taken on financial journalism, property journalism, autosports journalism and various other topics. In a job as unreliable as freelance journalism, you can't really afford to pass on work unless you're only doing it as a hobby.

So that is my advice to anybody planning to become a freelance journalist. Make sure journalism is for you, get yourself trained, be willing to write for free in the beginning, make sure you build a network of contacts and try to carve yourself a niche as some sort of specialist.

Finally, read and write as much as you can. While literacy is not the most important part of a journalist's job, it obviously helps. Read everything you can from tabloids to broadsheets to celebrity magazines, obscure fanzines and specialist journals - so you can familiarise yourself with different journalistic writing styles. And write all the time, even if it's not being published. Practice makes perfect.