After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look back on everything I’ve learnt since starting three years ago and seeing what I could pass on to other wannabes.
This week saw my last shifts at WINOL (right). Behind me lie three years of mind-bending stress and frenzied chaos but also some of the most exciting, challenging and enjoyable hours I’ve ever had.
I went back over my first packages recently and – cringing yet pleased – realised that I’ve come a fair ol’ way since my first, hideously over-exposed, badly-scripted and generally woeful pieces.
Thinking about it today, I came up with a list of things I’d go back and tell myself if I had the chance.
So easy, yet it’s something I avoided for the first few weeks of being a reporter in favour of grabbing an extra hour’s sleep.
If you want to get through the day without unnecessary drama then I suggest the following simple things, some of which are obvious yet occasionally forgotten:
a) Pack – I get angsty if I realise I’ve left the house without any of these: phone, notebook, two pens, phone charger, headphones, hair comb (filming a piece to camera on a windy day and having Sonic the Hedgehog hair is never cool) and wallet. The same goes if you’re going out filming: camera, tape/card and spare, extra battery, white paper (for white balancing), microphones (gun and radio).
b) Know the news – Set your alarm early. Switch on the Today programme and start reading the day’s headlines. If you’re covering a particular area, watch the local news and read the local papers. Showing up to a news meeting and not knowing the day’s biggest story is unforgivable.
c) Plan your stories early – Especially important if you work in TV. See my earlier piece on having a good plan. Get your interview times ready, know where you have to be and what shots you want to get.
Over the last two years, I’ve become a massive believer in the potential of student media. We have a habit of latching onto the newest tricks, tools and gizmos before the rest of the world so it only seems right to try to apply that to our work.
We’ve used Skype and Ustream to produce the first ever live, trans-Atlantic student programme, and used liveblogs to follow the recent student demonstrations. I’ve seen loads of other student media outlets utilising new tools and apps to keep what they do interesting and fresh. Things will inevitably go wrong or break, but it’s always better to keep trying.
I spoke to an old Daily Mail sub not too long ago and he said newsrooms aren’t as good now the phones aren’t constantly ringing. When I first started as a reporter, I was terrified on phoning people. I don’t know why, but the fear was there. I’ve been informed that this isn’t unique to me. While email is a pretty reliable way of getting someone, nothing beats a phonecall. Getting over the initial fear is just a part of the job so go with it.
The fear of not getting the right quote, the fear of misspelling a name, the fear of not getting the right shots, the fear of not having the right interviewees, the fear of getting scooped. Don’t hide from it.
Our lecturer told us in one of our first news lectures to “embrace the fear.” Let the fear propel you into working harder for your story.
I’m still weaning my way off having a big long list of questions but I now prefer interviews without questions. For a big interview, they can work as a helpful reminder – that’s granted. Just don’t rely on them. If you’re going into an interview you should know the story and the person inside out and know what quotes you want from them.
It’s unnerving at first, but when you aren’t looking at your list then you’re looking at the interview. This helps create a better atmosphere and stops the whole thing being so awkward and it also forces you to listen to what the person is really saying. From that you can ask relevant and sometimes more important questions.
Don’t let yourself get into the mindset that tells you mediocre work is acceptable “because I’m only a student.” Leave thoughts like that well alone. Treat every day like you’re going to work at a national paper or at a big TV station. Don’t accept doing silly puff pieces or poor production values. When it comes to building a portfolio or showreel, you’ll come to regret it.
Wanting to be a member of the journalistic old-guard elite is a nice, noble target but those jobs are a) taken and b) on the way out. Yes there will always be a place for them, but making your way into the industry will be a lot easier if you are prepared to adapt. Learn how to be completely trained in multimedia reporting. Papers and stations are looking for wannabes who can write, produce video and radio content, use CMS and Photoshop.
I would say try not to pigeonhole yourself when you’re starting out. You might have the ambition to be the Beeb’s next home affairs editor but that job won’t immediately become available so be realistic when job hunting. If you can fit yourself into a range of publications then you’ll find making a name for yourself much easier.
Opportunities won’t just present themselves to you because you’re good at what you do. You have to use some initiative and take what you can get. When you have guest speakers, see if you can talk to them, ask about work experience or jobs, get a phone number. The worst thing anyone can do is say ‘no’.
Taking opportunities has scored me work experience placements, gotten me good contacts and – fittingly – led me to join Wannabe Hacks.
That’s what I’m passing on. It’s by no means a perfect list but it’s stuff I’ve found helpful and hopefully those of you reading will too.
What do you think? What has George missed? What words of advice would you pass on to wannabe hacks? Let us know! Comment below or tweet us @WannabeHacks