Do you have what it takes?
“If you don’t want to change the world, don’t be a journalist.”
That quote from Jane Reed CBE, a former magazine editor, publisher and Director of Corporate Affairs at News International, is all the more relevant today. Even though our modern media seems so trivia-driven – it is still possible to bring about change for the better in society by getting your thoughts and beliefs published in newspapers, magazines and websites or broadcast on TV and radio.
So obviously you’d need to be a great writer then? Not necessarily. You do of course need a firm grasp on the ‘tools’ of your trade – grammar, punctuation, spelling – but in many situations, like fashion or beauty writing, the ability to write a hard hitting headline or a catchy caption is what’s required rather than prose for posterity.
There are other equally important must-have qualities that journalists need:
Integrity: Never forget that you owe your readers a fair and unbiased version of the truth and that means retaining your editorial independence at all times.
An ability to work under pressure: You might get only five minutes to do that all-important interview or have the editor breathing down your neck while you write up your story – it’s essential to keep cool and do the best that you can do when the going gets rough.
Self-reliance: Deadlines alter, circumstances change, scheduled interviewees may go AWOL. You’ll always need to be able to think on your feet and have Plan B ready to roll.
Determination and persistence: You’ll need both of these in abundance to find the job of your dreams. Then when you’ve got it you’ll need these qualities all over again to ensure you always get the story, the interview or the scoop of a lifetime.
A liking for people: Great interviews rely on getting someone to like and trust you almost instantly. Interviewing is a knack you can learn through experience but a genuine care for and sympathy with people in all their human frailty and variety is something you need to be born with.
A love of hard work: You’ll stay at the office until your deadline is reached however late that is. You must be prepared to work long, unsocial hours and still turn up on time next day. You’ll probably work weekends at least sometimes and all for a not-very-big salary.
A healthy disregard for wealth: Unless you plan to become a famous columnist or edit a glossy, don’t expect to earn a fortune as a journalist especially if you take the traditional route of working on a local newspaper. But who cares about getting rich when you’re doing something you love every day?
Discipline: However tired or ill you are, in the media the show must go on and the deadline is paramount. Meeting your word count and brief are also vital. If you don’t want the subs re-writing your piece, get the style and content of your piece right for the publication and the target audience. Get all three right first time and editors will always come back to you for more.
Ace research skills: Know where to look for the facts and figures you’ll need to write a piece – never simply rely on the Internet, the information there is readily available to millions of people. Cultivate experts in the business you’re in, PRs, local counsellors, designers, scientists, they’re the ones who can give you the necessary inside information. There is no substitute for talking to people and networking is the name of the game.
Knowledge of the zeitgeist: A magazine lead-in time can be as long as three months so you’ll need to know what the ‘next big thing’ in fashion, sport or whatever your chosen field is in advance. In all media you’ll always need to be able to spot embryo trends well before they become fully fledged crazes.
Reader Awareness: All magazines and newspapers are aimed at a target readership. Before writing a word you should be aware of who they are, what they like, their age, gender and socio-economic position. And you must be able to adapt your writing style accordingly and change it instantly when the magazine is re-launched or re-positioned or if you swap jobs.
Ideas, ideas, ideas: In journalism there’s no such thing as a new one, it’s all been done many times before. The knack is always to be able to come up with a fresh slant on an old subject however many times you’ve written about it and to make it topical and appropriate for your readership with the right spin and angle.
An eye for the visual: Especially in magazines, a ‘good eye’ is essential for visualising finished features on the page and understanding the way words and pictures work together to make a harmonious whole. It’s not just pictures though, text has to look good too – knowing where to put a sub-head or a pull quote to break up a big page of type is an equally useful skill for subs and writers alike.
An enquiring mind: If you’re the kind of person who likes to peek into the windows of lighted rooms as you go past on the bus you’re half way to becoming a journalist. Seeking out truth, finding out more, becoming the ‘instant expert’ in a subject we’re currently researching and writing about is what we do every day and it’s what you can do too if you’ve got what it takes…