Other / SPA Midlands: Advice for budding journalists

Last month saw the Student Press Association’s regional conference held at the University of Warwick take place, bringing together student writers and experts within the journalistic world in order to talk, learn and overall gain some well-needed inspiration and experience.

Arranged by chair of the SPA, Jem Collins, alongside marketing and Midlands officer, Sian Elvin, we were treated to talks from many different corners of the press: Fiona Webster, a successful national newspaper and magazine journalist for many publications including The Guardian and The Sunday Times; Brenda Wong, marketing executive for Voxburner; Sarah Graham, a freelance journalist; Natasha Clark, reporter for The Times’ Red Box newsletter, Michael Allen, reporter for Airfinance Journal and David Levesley, social media producer at Sky News. Throughout the day, each writer gave us all a different insight into what it takes to be a journalist in the world of today, with one prominent thread throughout which can be perfectly summed up by Levesley: “never be afraid to fall in love… journalism is a seduction…”.

 Work experience / getting your foot in the door

Natasha Clark maintains that work experience is “the single most important thing on your CV” and gave several pointers on the best way to get your name out into journalism circles. There are vital ways in which you can secure a decent work placement: calling up news desks and emailing everyone you can find with a connection to the publication you want to write for helps to secure something decent to include on job applications further down the line. Every speaker at the event also made a point of contacting editors, simply just to ask to meet up over coffee and discuss ideas, as this can be a great way to get people to learn your name and get to know you as a writer. Levesley insisted you should “never apologise for sending a follow-up email” as editors will, although sometimes reluctantly, always eventually reply. Another way of getting your foot in the door is training, especially by way of Press Association courses. Fiona Webster, an established national newspaper and magazine journalist, runs the PA’s NCTJ post-graduate multi-media journalism course, and explained that not only can it give you the skills necessary for a media job, it can also give opportunities in editing, production, proofing copy and designing pages (www.becomeajournalist.co.uk)

Pitching articles and adapting your writing style

Fresh and quirky ideas for pieces are harder and harder to think up these days, especially with the prevalence of Buzzfeed and the like posting things on a regular basis such as “26 Things You’ll Only Understand If You’re The Oldest Sibling” and “37 Things Donald Trump Is Probably Doing Right Now”. Brenda Wong, a marketing executive at Voxburner who started out her writing career at Hexjam (formerly known as Student Beans), gave her best tips on thinking up and pitching stories. She broke her tips down into three stages – brainstorm, pitching and social media. Making sure you have both your audience and a headline in mind, adding a personal spin to your idea and linking to previous (and relevant) examples of your work can really help to win over an editor. A key message from her talk: DO THEIR WORK FOR THEM. A theme prevalent throughout the day was simply knowing your stuff – if you want to write a piece about something, make sure you go to the effort of learning everything about it, and know that when you think a first draft is decent, it probably isn’t. Levesley put it best, in that “journalism is like a pub quiz”.

Freelancing: what are the advantages?

Freelancing is a very popular way of getting work as a journalist in the modern era, and if you’re successful at doing so, you can build up an extensive and professional portfolio across a wide range of publications. Webster explained that it is highly important to not only build up contacts, but keep them as well as to market yourself and be as adaptable as possible in order to grab as many opportunities as you’re able. Sarah Graham, a journalist specialising in women’s issues and mental health, is a successful freelance writer but wouldn’t necessarily recommend freelancing straight after university – however, if this is something you’d prefer, it requires a lot of commitment, hard work and she suggests you save up a lot of money as freelancing tends to earn writers a fairly low commission. Alike to many speakers, the power of emailing is something she also touched on, maintaining the importance of emailing the people you want to work with and write for directly. Suggest meeting, show willing and that is the first and largest step in the right direction to a freelance pitch. In freelance pitching, in keeping with interviews in general, it is always best to be honest and show an interest, namely by asking how you can progress and asking directly what they may be looking for in a writer such as yourself. It seems the name of the game is to simply ask a lot of questions, as it shows your genuine interest and willing within the field!

Other media outlets

We tend to forget that journalism does not just mean local and national newspaper articles, but also branches out into other media: magazines, radio, television and even simply having an virtual presence through blogging and online media. With many of these other media outlet professions, it was touched upon by Fiona Webster in particular that you should be aware if your skills are transferrable, if you can work and adapt to deadlines and that you’re able to work efficiently in your own time. Many other media platforms are just as fast-paced as newspaper journalism, only with their own internal deadlines, and in a day and age where blogs and online articles are accessed much more sought after and read, social media is vitally important. Brenda Wong was very clear that your “Facebook and Twitter sell” is now more important than ever, and by making it visual and driving, this can draw readers in and make you much more well known within writers’ circles.

It is clear from SPA Journalism’s regional event that inspiration and dedication is the key to a career in journalism, and that having a driven mind when dealing with pitches and writing articles themselves is vital to this career being a flourishing one. As stated perfectly by David Levesley, “everybody is going to hate you” if you’re a journalist, however you need to learn to distance yourself, find a balance and remember one thing: “journalism isn’t dying… it’s just changing”, and you can be part of that change if you work hard enough to get there.

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