Getting a start in journalism

At the recent UCC Journalism conference (where RTÉ told us with great pride how they’re gatekeepers and won’t allow us to see silly celeb stories on the news), a student asked for advice on starting out in journalism. This was the advice I gave.

1. Start.
Don’t wait for anything in particular. Just start writing now.

2. Pick something you think the media isn’t covering.
Something the media isn’t covering that you think they should? As per this post, you write it. Media has finite resources and the work journalists are doing is increasing while their pay is not. There are going to be gaps. Fill that gap.

3. Your writing is going to be shit to start with. So what, you’ve started.
10,000 hours is what makes a lot of people go from average to talented. It doesn’t occur naturally for most. Work work and work. Read and write then read and write some more. And stop with the excuses. The worst thing for your writing is to stop writing. Runners don’t wait for the “right” race to train.

All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it? – Philip Pullman

4. Become obsessed about a topic you have a genuine interest in.
Read everything about it. Oh God, you’re one of those people at a party. Did I know the Ecuadorian yellow parrot has …? Remember bands we idolised and how we knew everything about them? Even the stuff that would never appear in a pub quiz? Become that person for a topic. When you write about the topic your passion and knowledge should stand out because of that obsession. Read every angle about the topic. Pro, con, neutral, rumour. You are now the knowledge base for this topic. You should now be able to create timelines and linkages and more for that topic. Observe from outside, how you write and structure content about the topic. Maybe use this as a model for other topics then? Obsessions teach us a lot about how to research and get a feel for things.

5. Pick a fight.
In terms of getting attention, it works well. But be justified. If someone is misinformed then call them out with proof. Rebuttals, corrections and more can work well. Be level headed the whole time. No personal insults. See the next topic too.

6. Know your defamation laws.
Irish defamation law is a motherfucker. Designed to make rich people keep the masses down while making lawyers nice and rich. Know the limitations the law says your writing has to have. Do remember though that you will get bogus threats too that you should stand up to.

7. Look at available information sources.
FOI is great for this. The eTenders website is too. Data journalism is a nice new area of journalism. It’s a new name for what has always been there: Proper research and seeing a story where others don’t. Kildare Street. Even Daft.ie are good places to get information. Learn how to sift through data and tell a story

8. Write for people you know
Write for your mother, father, granparent, friend. Anyone can copy and paste from a press release or rob from the Irish Times and the Indo for their churnalism site. The value is not in who is fastest to repost a press release, it’s in crafting something that has a start, middle and end and that has added value to the life of someone by the time they’ve finished reading your piece. Having someone pictured in your mind as you write focuses you on how to communicate the information to them, how to write it in language they understand.

9. Know how to write killer headlines.
Use Twitter as a platform. Look at stuff in the Irish Times, Independent and give them better, catchier headlines and see what ones you create get the clicks on Twitter and Facebook. This headline guide from Upworthy is great.

10. Pitch and Collaborate
It’s never too early to pitch ideas to features editors. Start with local publications and see will they take your content for free. Again, look at topical issues and look at gaps and pitch for that gap. Yeah you work for free but now you’re published. The more places you are published, the more people will take you seriously.

Done your FOIs? Gotten juicy stuff? Pitch the story to a journalist and see will they write it with you. Get your name in the by-line in a paper then. This actually happens, not a lot but it does.

11. Read stuff on content and how to write
This list from me might also help in terms of new forms of content. Media changes, be there for the changes instead of catching up. Fail fast but fail cheap instead of failing slowly.

2500 people have subscribed to my website instead of coming back each day. You can subscribe to the site using a feedreader or email. I'm also on Twitter. My online marketing blog might also be worth a visit. Thanks for visiting - Damien.

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