TOUGHEN UP

3 TOP TIPS FOR WOULD-BE JOURNALISTS STRAIGHT FROM THE ZEBRA’S MOUTH

At the ripe old age of 30, I decided to leave a career in the charity and education sector behind and get my teeth into something meatier.  As a ex-teacher you’d think I’d be able to axe my way through the new journalist’s battlefield with an armour-like thick skin.  Sadly not. Truth is, I’m a soft-hearted cardigan-wearing liberal, as green as any other wannabe hack and I need advice.

Chris Wheal has experience as a full-time journalist, freelance journalist, editor and trainer. Meeting him was petrifying.  He’d given me 30 minutes of his time and I felt that my bumbling and naive questions would waste time.  His first piece of advice?

#1 – DROP THE GUILT

“When you’re researching a topic you will need to ask people for a lot of things, and one of them is time.”  Was he using his journalist’s sixth sense to smell my fear?  “It’s just part of the job,” he smiled.

Feeling a bit more at ease, I asked Chris my first ever question as journalist.  Did he enjoy his job?  Immediately he laughed loudly like a man who knows he’s made it.  “Well I get to do some amazing stuff.  I had a great time researching Disneyland for free. A men’s health magazine had asked me to write about golf and…”  My guilt sensor lit up again immediately.  “But… Didn’t that… I mean things like that… Where you’re basically helping to sell something… Doesn’t that feel a bit… Dirty?”

He stopped gesticulating proudly and frowned down at where I was sitting like he’d just noticed a new student in the back of a class. I looked down at the scribbles in my notebook and mumbled. “I mean… that kind of job sounds less like journalism and more like advertising or PR…” He raised his eyebrows but, instead of delivering a lecture, sighed and sat down opposite me. Like a patient parent he slowly revealed to me the ways of the hack.

“Journalists NEED to work with PR staff, they’re just part of the industry. It’s very much a two-way flow. You both need something from each other, and actually a lot of the time as a journalist you need them more because you need information. That’s why sites like Gorkana exist. And press releases.” Ah, press releases. I’d written a few myself in my last job.

#2 – KNOW YOURSELF

I relaxed. I was in the gang, and I didn’t need to feel guilty about it. I’d bare-facedly asked for someone’s time and now I was interviewing them. Like a real journalist. Or was I? Who was I? What made me special and how would people know about me?

I mean, I had a Facebook page, but that was private. Chris thought different. “It’s getting harder to keep secrets online, just take down anything you don’t want people to see and be transparent. Be human.” Controlling my online brand meant cleaning up what I didn’t want people to see but also putting up what I did, including my own website. (Ta-dah!)

The idea of “branding” myself in this way always seemed a bit disingenuous but Chris told me about journalists who’d used who they were and what they were into to make a career for themselves, such as the Fashion Detective.  A warning to would-be bloggers though: give yourself headspace outside your work.

“Being a rugby journalist is going to be difficult if you play rugby yourself – you can’t write about your friends.” Chris himself has a breadth of different types of journalism experience and only now years later has he let the motorcycle fanatic and financial wizard within him combine to become the-zebra.com, motorcycle finance in black and white.

Chris’ video for The Zebra is an entertaining format – something about those baked beans pouring out is mesmerising. In today’s world, journalists need to be able to tell their stories in different ways. Nice turns of phrases are no longer enough in the world of video streaming, audio podcasts, and interactive graphs. The need for skills was mentioned only last week by someone at The New York Times who explained that a lot of the people being hired now aren’t even journalists.

This all made me feel quite smug, since I already had a blog.  Then Chris the realist (he is a financial journalist, after all) brought reality home.

#3 – NEVER WRITE FOR FREE

“Navel-gazing won’t pay your bills,” Chris lectured.  I thought of all the thousands of blogs and thousands of other would-be journalists with blogs. I had to toughen up. “You can write for fun, sure. You can even get your articles published. But until you put your foot down you’ll never make this a career. You have to value yourself and your work because no-one else will. Just ask for money. If you don’t, people will just keep publishing your work for free.”

And so, I’ll end this here because although my soft-hearted days are well and truly over I am not getting paid for these words…

With special thanks to Chris Wheal, aka The Zebra

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