Wednesday, 28 March 2012

32. Keep old telephone directories. With more people going ex-directory, they are a valuable source for finding people.

This is about as simple as it gets...although not particularly useful on work experience it is fantastic for offices.

One of the most basic sources of information is the humble telephone directory. Once upon a time it contained practically everybody - today all it has got are a couple of old ladies who didn't realise they could go x-d, a local vicar and a few assorted oddballs.

Holding on to old directories is a first step to finding people. This fade for only divulging minimal information to the wider world but everything to Google is relatively new.

Got a directory going back even five or six years and there will be a lot of detail. So never throw them away, even if your paper has spent money on a Trace programme.

Actually go one step further and hold on to any you find. It might just give you the break you need.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

31. Sensationalism is rarely sensational, esp in local newspapers. You might get away with it once or twice but not forever.

The trouble most people have with papers like The Sun and formerly the News of the World can be encapsulated in one word: "sensationalism". That and the fact they are read by the working classes...dreadful bunch of people.

The chattering classes can ignore tabloids with a dismissive wave of the hand without ever really looking into them, naturally.

And contrary to what some former tabloid hacks will tell you I never had to make anything up (actually that's a lie I did work for ahem the Sunday Sport - I was young, I was naive, I needed the money, that's usually the excuse...actually I needed the money - and I confess that it is not true that Kangaroos played a football match or Sir Trevor McDonald's face was seen on the White Cliffs of Dover).

But oddly enough, even here I didn't need to make much up. Indeed I learned a lot in how to investigate real - if not particularly edifying - stories on shoestring budgets.

How to track down a Blind Date contestant using their first name, approximate area and clues such as: "I work in a bakery where we make all kinds of bread, if you were a loaf what kind would it be?"

(In my defence here it was the biggest show on television at the time. And I was told to find a story on it once a week. I did. Every week. In the face of the bigger tabloids.)

However the same techniques I learned there - that got me genuine stories - I applied to more productive use years later. Tracing people with few clues and not much of a budget.

The good tabloids do produce sensationalism, if you will, but that is the result of bloody hard work and months of it. And it is only very occasionally wrong. Even the best reporters can make mistakes.

On the whole though I saw a lot of investigation go into stories.

Now compare it to this story. On the face of it the front page headline is correct: Bridport: Pickpockets target market day crowds - enough to scare the wits out of any pensioner.

All well and good until you get to the quotes from anyone in authority who say they have no knowledge of such a crime even taking place. Actually it gets even worse...the purse was found and handed in to the police. Indeed one might wonder why this honesty isn't trumpeted and the answer is lazy journalism and sensationalist reporting. 

Quite frankly it looks ridiculous to almost everyone or just scares naive and gullible local people for no due reason. 

A personal theory is that because local people know their area they will soon know what is and is not true. So while you can get away with such headlines once in a while the cumulative effect is ever diminishing returns. Sales jump up year on year because the news has become so much more racy but like the boy that cried wolf people soon stop paying attention to them in locals.

For once you know someone who is connected to the exaggerated circumstances distrust, like damp in walls, creeps in. Bit by bit the foundations of a local newspaper are undermined and will crumble.

It doesn't help that people will accuse you of sensationalism if they don't like the story as happened in this particular case.

So when tempted to write over blowing the circumstances, taking that top spin a little too hard, just remember you will be caught out. And it won't look good.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

30. Keep contacts on a Word doc not a paper address book. It's neater, easier to update, can be backed up & harder to lose.

As a reporter I've always made a point of watching journalists I admire and tried to learn their "secrets".

And I've certainly been lucky to work alongside some of the very best. They are all very different characters but had one thing in common: contacts.

These days a reporter doing his or her job - and doing it well - can be arrested for having contacts - for that you can thank The Guardian.

Despite this contacts remain an essential part of the industry. They are one of the things that make the difference between a good and bad reporter - and all the elements in between.

So it is a surprise in the digital age to see the number of trainees still using address books to keep their contacts.

Apart from the obvious - you can lose the bloody thing - they soon become tatty and virtually impossible to read.

People move and numbers get scrubbed out...anyone living in London for any length of time will by now have got used to their fourth change of area code (01, 081/071, 0208/0207 and now 0203).

Plus there is not much room for notes - a useful thing when meeting contacts.

Personally I use Word. You don't have to. When I first put this up on Twitter a student contacted to tell me I'd got it all wrong, I was out of date, why wasn't I suggesting Cloud.

I didn't need to use the full 140 characters of Twitter 14 sufficed. **** off, ****.

But I did look into it. And by all means if you have nothing better to do with your time look at Cloud contacts or whatever.

Personally I found Word simple and easy to use. You can search with ease and, if you keep them in a rough A-Z format you can check if you've made a spelling mistake.

It's also incredibly easily transferrable. I email my contacts on a semi-regular basis which means that if I lose one I have it somewhere else.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

29. Pen – paper. Paper – pen. You only need two things to do this job. Always carry spares (esp when covering court).

(Press For Time: Bike not required)

If you strip away everything else - the local newspaper reporter only needs two things. A pen and a pad. That's all.

(Although you walk into a newspaper office without a mobile phone - which naturally they won't pay you for - and you won't be staying very long.)

So it always surprises me the number of trainee journalists who walk into a newspaper office without either.

It shows a distinct lack of preparedness by the reporter. No, you shouldn't have to pay for your equipment but at the same time if you are doing an NCTJ course or a degree in journalism you would hope you would be carrying these things around with you at all times anyway.

It's what makes you look like a potential journalist and not the GCSE student considering journalism as a possible career.

Having said that pen - paper. Paper - pen.

(Tommy Cooper: The joke only works with a jar AND spoon)

It's amazing how difficult it is to bring these two elements together. But it shouldn't be.

Carry spare pens with you at all times (although I have been in court and seen three pens fail on me during a case...I should have brought a fourth).

And always have a pen and paper ready when you call or get a call from news desk - you don't want to sound unprofessional rummaging around.

It is the most basic lesson you can learn as a professional journalist - because if you are not recording it,  what are you doing?

Monday, 19 March 2012

28. Look for stories while at college, write it and tell the local paper. You never know if there's a job coming up there.

As a student journalist you should be writing news or taking photographs for the college newspaper/website/radio (obviously not taking photos for the radio station - that would be pointless).

Please note that I said news. Not reviews, not musings, not comment, not a column, not analysis, not poetry, not critiques, not op eds — just news. Let me be more specific local news.

Hard though you may find this to take no one is interested in your views on the unfolding crisis on Syria as you saw it two weeks ago but finally got round to writing it between lectures.

Neither are they going to read your 2,000 word piece on the plight of women in the Gobi Desert - even the friends who say they have, haven't.

(Press Gang: It's sort of relevant)

It's all very well wanting to be a Guardian journalist — but all you will learn by writing such articles is why the Guardian isn't very well read and how to haemorrhage readers...just like the Guardian.

(By the way unless you are reading this from Oxbridge they probably aren't going to be too interested in having you anyway - it's all rather patrician is our Guardian.)

You will learn nothing about journalism or being a journalist and will bore the pants off of any editor when they try to read your oh-so-worthy cuttings. Actually they won't even look at them and anyway the point of this blog is to steer you towards a job without much need for an interview.

And trust me it works. I know.

Like countless journalists my career began in the student newspaper. If anything it was a wheeze thought up by a friend to get us out of any real work experience (odd since three of us went and remain in the media - probably a far higher ratio than any who did it properly).

Since none of us had a clue about newspapers we went charging into it. Our first big story was that sabbatical officers had all been taking huge loans from the Student Union off the back of their wages - so large in fact that they wouldn't have been able to pay them back out of their remaining pay.

Thus fulfilling the first rule of student journalism (the paper was paid for by a Union grant)  - bite the hand that feeds you.

The fact it I had a source, we dug through files, we asked questions - if only we'd known it we had stumbled across investigative journalism.

The story made the front page of the local paper - and yup, I was hooked. Journalism was simple, fun and I enjoyed it. I've spent the next 20 years trying to maintain hasn't always been easy.

But what does this all mean? The first step is that your student newspaper/website/radio is your first step to understanding journalism - you can make all your mistakes (hopefully not too many legal ones) and not too many people will care. More importantly you can learn the tricks of the trade.

Want to be a political reporter? Attend student council meetings. Get to know the student union, find out what's happening with the block grant.

Want to do investigations do general news and make contacts - they will soon start telling you things you can devote more time too.

And as for those worthy pieces?

I can assure you an article about Student Union bar price increases for next year will be read a 1,000 times more than a piece on the West's Imperialistic ambitions in a post-dictatorship Middle East. Honestly if I wanted to read that I'd pick up the Economist and read it by someone who has been there and interviewed the leading players not some spotty oik with pretensions of being an armchair John Snow.

This is not to stamp on people's ambitions. But to give a good grounding in the basics.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

27. Carry a camera with you, even if it's just on your mobile and remember to take pix. Photographers can't be everywhere.

Sadly, as I've stated before on this blog, local newspaper photographers are an increasingly rare breed.

Given the fact newspapers rely on content - namely words and pictures - to fill in the gaps between the adverts you would have hoped that photographers would have been kept on.

Naturally that is asking a little too much - which is a shame because a really good photographer can make all the difference. So too can a really bad one.

I once watched a photographer at an awards ceremony half lift up his camera a dozen times and never take a shot.

When the proceedings were over he shouted: "All together now." Like sheep they all got together for the great group shot. That evening he took a single picture.

The following day I was sent it in all its blurred glory - looking like a slightly hazy portrait of the Adamms Family...only without the charm.

(We never used that photographer again under my editorship.)

At the same time we lost a great asset to the paper - one whose art and dedication made a difference to the pages.

Indeed I've seen and worked with many photographers on local newspaper I would gladly work with again.

But bit by bit we are losing them. This, in part, is due to the increasingly cheap technology becoming available. That, and the fact there is no need for a dark room any more.

(Reporters have never been trusted with dangerous chemicals - a fact that remains true today but is largely confined to the showbiz circuit. *feeble joke*)

Digital technology has certainly made it a lot  easier for any slob to pick up a camera and point it in the direction of an object or person who, in turn, is usually pointing at something themselves.

(This in part, but certainly not entirely, is why local papers believe they can do away with photographers - some are so bad or lazy that managers thought anyone could do what they do...the same, it must be said, of a lot of reporters.)

So the point: If you are a reporter carry a camera with you. The bigger, the better really. It helps too if you learn how to use it.

You never know what's going to happen and with locals to usually one - although quite often no - photographers it is essential you learn the skill.

I am a rotten photographer. I have no "eye"....or for that matter no steady hand either.

As can be demonstrated from one of my own efforts when a photographer was unavailable one Saturday morning.

The man in the picture was the Dean of Truro Cathedral, who had been the subject of a church investigation when he was accused of having an affair.

He denied any wrong doing and was allowed back to work. (Although than put on gardening leave). However despite being cleared rumours persisted that was indeed now living with the woman.

He was, and this shaky shot taken on a Canon D500 (I won't go into lenses it's too tedious but it was pretty basic) was proof enough to go to the church authorities.

The picture was used about the size here in the paper I was working for at the time. It got a slightly bigger show in the Daily Mail.

This is a rather extreme example but think because in theory we are always heading towards the story...or we are if we are doing our job right.

And with mobiles now packing half-decent cameras it's worth remembering to take them out if you are first at the scene.

A crap picture is better than no picture.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

26. Avoid putting banalities in your stories (ie a budget is a budget not a “pot of cash”). They make copy look amateurish.

When I started editing a local newspaper I wanted to make a few changes - actually, I wanted to change everything.

Which isn't quite as bold as it sounds. The paper once a thriving weekly in a beautiful market town was losing ten per cent of its sales year-on-year.

If you are not prepared for change you are part of the problem.

It occurred to me that one of the issues was we were not writing for readers. Which isn't quite as daft as it sounds. People who read newspapers still read. They don't flit from article to article reading the first few...hey! come back here,

So they want something that will inform and entertain them.

What they don't want is a collection of cliches and hackneyed phrases clumped together in a 350 word page lead - tied to together with some quotes from a local councillor.

I was trying to explain this to the worst offender, a junior reporter, who "agreed" with everything I said and then did her own thing again and again....and again and again and again....

And again...and again...and again and again (ok that's enough of that).

A big part of the problem is the language we use. Sometimes you get the impression local newspaper editors hate words (see left - quite why it can't have even a few paragraphs on the front is beyond me.

Especially when even the "downmarket" Daily Star manages to fit a few precious words on the front of its pages.)

But back to my point I was left with a problem. The copy was moribund at best but what could I tell her? They weren't cliches exactly. I explained the problem to a friend, a retired English professor, giving some examples: "Ah! he said" (he was dramatic that way) "you mean banalities."

And indeed they are. Council spending comes out of budgets - it is a perfectly acceptable and understandable word. They do not have "pots of money" like some old grandmother who keeps her savings in a jar. It's a bloody budget. Two examples of how stories sound amateurish:

COUNCILS in Dorset have warned there is not enough money in the pot to repair the county’s damaged roads.

And the second:

But while the district council insists the cost of the ‘jolly’ was allocated in the budget, the authority claims there is no money left in the pot to spend on toilets.

Actually the second example simply doesn't need the "left in the pot" at all - it doesn't add anything except banality.

It's not even being used as a pun.

As always it's not difficult to find examples when you start looking. Take this 

Homes in Havering boss Sheila Belgrave has been suspended from office – but the borough’s top brass are refusing to say why!

Simply dreadful on so many different levels.

The "borough's top brass"? I mean really? What's wrong with "her managers"? or "housing chiefs" or "councillors" or "senior officers" or "the local authority".

The trouble with using banalities like this is that you are removing any gravitas from the story. This is potentially a rather serious matter but the use of "top brass" and that exclamation mark bring it down to the language of the Beano (a future blog will deal with the usage of exclamation marks).

There have been plenty of other examples all pet hates of friends and former colleagues - many of whom are respected national newspaper journalists.

What about "slammed" as in "Councillors last night slammed protesters.."? It's not so much that it should never ever be used but use it and them sparingly.

Another is "floral tributes" or "flowers" or "bouquets" or wreathes" as they are more commonly known to everyone outside of local newspapers.

I'm sure you have other examples. Please feel free to get in touch because I'd like top include them. Thanks.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A pleading nuisance.

Dear reader,

Hopefully you are enjoying the blog so far and finding it useful...or at least entertaining.

Hilariously it has had quite a few compliments from friends, former colleagues and industry professionals — who all know far more than me about journalism and really should be getting on with their work rather than reading silly blogs aimed at students and trainees.

No doubt there are some of you who are simply thinking: "Who is this prat who thinks he can tell us all about journalism?"

(Indeed it wouldn't be the first time - all I can say is that it may make uncomfortable reading but it is largely the result of first hand experience. A sort of Machiavelli's The Prints if you will. *insert collective groan here*)

Anyway let's ignore all that. I wonder if any of you can help with examples of poor copy you've seen in papers? I've seen hundreds over the years...hey I've written a whole lot more myself!

Thinking of cliches, banalities, leaden stories, missed angles... (no, this really is my copy).

Or particularly good examples - esp of things I've already blogged about. Anyway it would all be very useful and make the blog a bit more interesting.

Also if you can think of any clips from films that might illustrate the points being made. I've seen a lot of films about newspapers but every now and then you get something like this...

You can email me at

Any RTs, mentions, comments, recommendations etc would also be useful...(I've given up on the ads).

Thanking you.

Monday, 12 March 2012

25. If in doubt ASK. But don’t over do it. If you want to know if a word is hyphened look in a dictionary or online.

As journalists we are expected to ask questions — sometimes even pretty dumb ones..

(My favourite is to wait for an expert to finish some particularly complicated explanation before adding: "Yes, I get it. But how would you explain that to the layman?" Often mumbling something about wanting it in their own words. However the stupid question is often necessary to extract the raw emotion of the situation. You may see the emotions etched on the faces of, say, a family who has lost a loved one but still need to ask how they are feeling to get the quote.)

No, dumb questions are sometimes required.

Except in the office. And certainly not from the workie who wants to become a journalist.

So keep your questions to a minimum (except the best ones such as: "Would you like tea or coffee?").

A personal favourite was told to me by a friend. A secretary was escorting a potential trainee out of the office when he asked if the paper he had just been interviewed for was a daily or a weekly.

(He didn't get the job...but he's probably now editing something on the web.)

Write everything you are told down, few things rile people more than having to keep telling a student journalist the same thing over and over again.

Remember you have a huge dictionary, atlas, encyclopaedia, gazetteer sitting on your desk - and hopefully you will have been able to switch it on - all by yourself. (Actually it is amazing the number of workies who can't...instead they sit there waiting for the news editor to crawl on their knees to get to the on button - once you've established it's your desk for the week please feel free to switch the bloody thing on.)

So don't go asking how do you spell something like onomatopoeia - check it quietly to yourself online (like I've just had to - having missed the fourth "o"). Actually, if ever tempted to use the word onomatopoeia, don't.

Also don't use the word psephologists (which I can spell and which I did once) it's flash and an unnecessary technical term...I'll let you look it up.

Certainly don't ask things like is the local MP Conservative or Labour - especially if doing work experience in, say, the U.S., Australia or Scotland.

Just be careful not show off your ignorance. If you can possibly avoid it. Here's another from an agency news editor: "I had to tell a new junior who Belinda Carlisle was the other day."

Don't ask. Just nod, make sure you get the name right and then check it online as soon as you can.

You should also pick your time to ask questions. When you see everyone getting stressed, staring intently at screens and barking down the phone with a little bit more intensity than they were four hours before is NOT a time to start asking dumb questions...

Btw if anyone can put this clip onto YouTube I'd be able to upload it onto here. Thanks.

Oh and if you find this useful - please RT.

Friday, 9 March 2012

24. When you've finished a story, read it back to ensure it makes sense, has no typos has been spell checked and it scans well.

You would not believe just how impressed a news editor will be at the sight of clean copy - especially if you are on work experience.

Most of us are guilty of getting sloppy when it comes to Mr Copy - we've too much to do and we're physically and mentally tired.

Take this for example:

Right-wing extremists believe ace riots in Britain are 'inevitable,' a new study claims.

I'm sure they do but however much they may enjoy the riots they are more likely to be 'race' riots - that the right-wing extremists are concerned about.

You on the other hand are fresh out of college - wanting to make a name for yourself.

Because you should see work experience as an extended job interview. That's how I got my first job and it's how many others have got theirs.

So the one thing you really don't want to do have a news editor rolling his eyes at your stupid mistakes.

I've gone into this before but it is worth reiterating. Work experience is the editor's obligations to the community at the expense of his/her news editor's time.

One of the things that I noticed while back on the weeklies was that 15/16 year olds were generally better at writing copy than 22/23 year old journalism students.

For a start they listened and took notes when they were being briefed. Secondly they wrote in a plain, unaffected style. They checked for spelling mistakes and typos, they didn't rush it or see themselves as "above" the story put before them.

They never saw the press release as dull or the people or subject matter it was about as uninteresting. They were learning all the time.

In short they were being good journalists. Bit by bit you could trust them with bigger and better pieces.

You are not going to be given a political scandal if you can't get the wedding report right.

Because behind your back people are asking: "Are they any good?" before deciding if they can trust you with anything that might have the whiff of interest about it.

A news editor once complained to me - very probably about err me - that there was not a single story in the paper that didn't need some correction by the time it came to him...and he is only the second pair of (tired) eyes.

So imagine how you will stand out if your copy is clean. Silly mistakes spotted - I mean what idiot would type "right of passage" instead of "rite of passage"? Or refer to a 10,000 seat theatre? Or...well ok, we'll just leave it there.

The fact is we all make mistakes - in some cases they are small and embarrassing. In other cases, such as claims that newspaper reporters deliberately deleted messages from mobile phones in a cynical way to get more stories, they can see hundreds of decent people made unemployed.

A simple re-read of a story before hitting the send button is often enough to spot most of them. In other cases you may have to think about your vindictive conspiracy addled mind and actually check the ringing up the phone company to see what happens when police officers listen to messages instead of jumping to conclusions because of your pathological hatred of red tops and popularity.

*All mistakes in this article are deliberate and aimed at testing your ability to spot them (naturally).

Thursday, 8 March 2012

23. 99% of national newspaper showbiz journos start by doing news and learning the trade basics - including this ex one.

One of the most depressing things I picked up from returning to local papers were the number of journalism students who claimed they wanted to cover showbusiness - without having the foggiest idea of what it actually entails.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the first part of this. I know and admire many brilliant reporters who cover this area of the news agenda.

And whatever Hugh Mungo Grant (a man who was quite willing to pay an impoverished mother desperate to cover her utility bills to perform a sex act on him - a fact that appears to be forgotten in politicians' haste to laud him as some latter day crusader against newspaper ethics) may say it is important to cover a wide spectrum of heavy (hard) news and light (soft) news.

It is easy to dismiss showbusiness as frivolous - because it largely is. But the skills in being a good showbusiness reporter should not be dismissed.

I know not least because I did it myself - albeit incredibly unsuccessfully and under duress.

I could not muster the day to day enthusiasm required to be a good showbusiness reporter - I did have my moments but they were, I admit, few and far between.

It is telling that now I don't have to show an interest in the subject The Spectator and The Economist are my usual reads rather than Heat or Hello. (I'm not even sure about the Radio Times, if I'm honest).

You may think when you dash off 300 words of your thoughts about the latest goings-on in the Big Brother house on your blog that this is "showbusiness journalism".

Let me break this to you's not, it's shit. Gentle enough for you?

No one - and I will repeat this later on in the blog - gives a stuff what you think about Big Brother or Justin Bieber or Madonna's music or the films of Quentin Tarantino.

Because it is just your opinion. And what's your opinion worth? Well, I think at the last count naff all. (I'm using so many alternatives to swear words I may do an 18+ journalismtips - what do you think?)

So before you start writing your blog all about your views on what piece of crap you've been watching - think this. Why would it impress a showbiz editor? And does it stand out from the million other navel gazing vomit spewed onto the Internet?

And if the answer is: Haven't a clue. Wonder why you are starting it. And wonder too what you can do to change this situation.

Finally learn the basics, they are all applicable to showbusiness reporting and without them you are just another airhead wannabe.

(Unless, of course, you happen to have access to celebrities that no one else haven't? Oh, then you ARE an airhead wannabe.)

But let me be helpful. What to do that would make a difference and help you achieve your ultimate goal?

If you are reading this from college get to know the Ents Secretary and the editor of the college newspaper or website. Find out what are bands/acts are coming up. Get ahead of the curve. You've got your first "showbiz story" (look, you're starting from the bottom here).

Get in contact with the act's management and ask for interviews - you will get a lot of knock backs and disappointment (yes, welcome to the world of showbiz).

Ask about music and their personal lives. What's it like going on tour? Have they been to your town before? Read, read, read...the big interviews in the red tops - see what they are doing.

When they arrive on campus - get pix (they may be the biggest band in the world next year...ok, probably not. But why risk it?)

You'll notice that so far your opinions don't come into it - there's a reason for this.

Get to know the staff at the local arts centre - it doesn't have to be the big one with 3,000 seater events. Meet with the Ents editor of the local paper...and ask if you can do reviews - of everything - in exchange for free tickets. Yes, even the local am dram (showbusiness isn't just music, or fim or TV).

(Just remember never rundown a local am dram - it really should have been my first journalismtip - they can be such hateful people.)

Find out who the local celebs are try and make contact - plead for interviews with their agents for your college mag (you're building contacts all the time and learning to network...the bloke who manages the 1980s micro-celeb may well be best mates with this year's big teen boyband).

These are the skills you need. Sitting in a darkened room, lit only by the glow of the laptop pouring out your views to all and sundry is a sad and worthless activity which

And certainly don't go to a local newspaper and expect anyone to be impressed by you revealing your ambition - just expect to be laughed at (not always to your face).

More importantly when you get - even small stories - get in touch with the showbusiness team of the paper you want to work for...even more so if you have photos.

NOTE: As always if you find @journalismtips useful or even mildly amusing please RT. Thanks.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

22. When interviewing listen for other stories. You can often get one or two page leads from incidental comments.

The biggest problem for local newspapers is actually filling the paper - yes, yes I know that's the bleedin' obvious.

Or so you might think. Local newspapers tend to do everything that possibly can to make this task as hard as possible.

It's not deliberate it's just a complete lack of foresight - which in fairness is easy to do when the sheer trudge of filling the pages is job enough, which is brought about by a lack of foresight, which in turn...

Well you get the idea.

It's all too easy to become focused on filling the pages and panic stricken moving on to the next one - in a rush without looking properly at the material you have.

Which brings us to listening out for stories in interviews.

It should - like for example, reading a newspaper - go without saying that when reading papers you are scouring for stories to use for your own paper.

(Remarkably it seems the effort of ripping something out of a paper is too much even for some national journos. Years ago as a reporter on The Sun a colleague brought in a very good tale about a very pretty woman solider that he had taken from his local. It had also been spotted by a rival news editor - only he was waiting for the news agency to file it...he had a long wait. The interview and pictures were in the bag and printed.)

Ok so, when reading the newspapers or magazines always be on the look out for stories from your patch. You should be able to find one or two in a good week - of course, if you are any good the stories will already have been in your paper.

But the point is always be on the look out for secondary stories in your interviews. For example say a local celebrity during a general interview about their latest book they were bullied while they were a pupil at the local comp...see if it can be developed into: I was bullied at school, says local star. Getting addition quotes from former pupils/teachers.

It is the sort of thing done all the time on the broadsheets...adapt the ideas to suit your own paper.

Or if an editor is against the idea - some of them really are unimaginative - keep the quotes to one side to use at a later date (probably the following week when you will be panicking about filling the pages all over again).

But here's an example of my own about what I mean.

I spotted this interview in The Spectator and even before I'd reached the end I wanted to interview Geoffrey Wellum, the Battle of Britain's youngest pilot...I was genuinely overjoyed when I found out he was from (nearly) my patch (I had to ask politely to do the interview from the reporter whose patch it was).

This is my original interview with him. I never nailed the intro - and actually remain pretty unhappy with the article as a whole...especially when compared to Christian House's Spectator original.

However journalismtips is not a masterclass in feature writing but basic hints for beginners.

Needless to say the article took up a page with photographs. But we couldn't fit everything in. So rather than cramming it I considered what I could leave out.

I decided we could dispense with the details of how his remarkable story came to be discovered and turned into a TV film. The result was this article.

I use this only as an example of how it can be done.

You can also use it for tip-offs which can in turn lead to proper investigations when something is said in an unguarded moment.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

21. Journalism is not a 9–5 job. If you think it is work in another office, don't sit around clock watching. It's annoying.

In an ideal world we all finish work dead-on 5pm. But it is not an ideal world.

Journalism and newspapers should be about passion. (Admittedly it is also about low staff numbers and a management that squeezes every last ounce of good will and morale out of its dedicated team.)

These are the contradictions of the modern newspaper office...and quite honestly probably the old newspaper office as well.

Working time directive? Beats me.

One news editor on a national would wait for the first reporter to leave the office on a Friday evening and then call them to send them to some far flung job.

A tad vindictive but he had his staff on hand until at least 7.30pm when eventually a mass exodus meant everyone was taking their chances - to be called back and sent on some pointless task was the equivalent of being shot during a jail breakout. Everyone knew the risks but it outweighed the time served.

However such things are unlikely to be much of an issue on a local newspaper.

The issue there is more likely to be about you. For the more you put into your work, the more you get out.

You spend hours at tedious council meetings, you will get the contacts and the better stories. And the quicker you can build up a great portfolio the quicker you can get out of that paper.

And when you do you will earn more money, you will work on bigger and better stories and you will be more attractive to people. (Obviously that last one is a lie the bigger the paper the more repellent you become to the outside world - but don't let that put you off. You will get more respect whatever the local MP and your editor may say to convince you otherwise.)

But anyway the irony is that the more contacts you build the easier the job becomes - because the people are at hand.

Plus look around you. What are your colleagues doing? Reporters who swan off on time or sit there and claim back every last minute of overtime in lieu are not appreciated.

Because those pages still need filling and if you aren't part of the solution to that - you are taking the space of someone who is. And nowadays editors are reluctant to get rid of staff because they will probably not get someone to replace them.

And don't think people don't notice - we're *ahem* meant to be trained observers. We notice everything.

And anyway news unfortunately doesn't fall into the 9-5 routine. Annoyingly it happens at awkward times - like just as you are about to go home. It's here when instinct should kick in. When your very reason for being a journalist should override everything else.

Another pre-internet example from a local newspaper. Shortly after 5pm on January 28, 2000 a man carrying a samari sword entered the offices of Cheltenham MP Nigel Jones. Within minutes Robert Ashman had killed the MP's aide Andrew Pennington.

All plans for the Friday night were cancelled - no one needed to ask or even say it - reporters and photographers were sent to the scene and relevant addresses.

The library was raided as we put together backgrounders on all three men.

In those antiquated times a new front page was drawn up by the subs, photocopied and then distributed to the newsagents as an extra. It makes me sound like Methuselah.

The next day's edition was a sell-out. Newspaper sales executives (normally a gloomy bunch) were scouring the offices trying to take the reporters' copies of the paper.

No one got out until 10.30pm. Nor did they much the next day or the day after...

OK so it's easy to pick a big story and say you have to work longer hours - you will have to do it anyway even just filling some of the mind-numbing crap editors insist on filling their pages with.

So accept it. You are not going to have the luxury of a 40 hour week. And if that's what you came into the business for you are going to be sorely disappointed.

You can always become a PR (the pay is marginally better too).

Having said all this I don't want it to become a charter for long hours. Appreciate the editor who rolls up his own sleeves and joins with his team to help speed the work along - there aren't many of them.

Monday, 5 March 2012

20. You can quote people from outside your patch. Just because they're not local doesn't mean what they say is irrelevant.

There's a story I tell from some years back. A local rogue in Cheltenham had successfully sold some prints which he claimed were by William Blake. They had fooled several experts including, I recall, a well known auction house. Had they been genuine they would have been worth thousands.

I suggested to the reporter he contact The Tate Gallery (this may even have been before the Britain suffix) as it had one of the best collections of Blake prints and would, presumably, be interested in the story as well as providing expert advice.

He was confused as to why I would suggest such a thing - after all The Tate wasn't in the circulation area. However I told him to call - and to his amazement (but not to mine) they DID have a Blake collection and experts.

You don't have to feel obliged to stick within the confines of your newspaper's circulation boundary...the area you cover must from time to time interact with the rest of the world.

Many years later a new Waitrose supermarket was coming to town. Everyone felt it would have a huge impact on our small market town - just no one could be sure.

I suggested - and by suggested I mean told - the reporter to call the next nearest market town that had a year earlier had a Waitrose open. He rang around the local butchers, bakers  and deli as well as some other independents - had it been a good or a bad thing? The result was mixed it had some advantages - more people came into town but each one was spending a bit less.

The fact is here we were answering the questions that people had on their minds without them even having to ask.

Look for experts - yes one in patch is preferable to one outside of it. Make contacts with local universities who may be able to provide you with no end of quotable professionals.

But don't be afraid to go outside the confines of your area. Today with telephones, mobiles, the internet few people are restrained by their locality - why should your paper be?

Don't over do it but remember to use it to help with reaction, analysis and so forth.

While looking around local newspaper sites I found this example of what I am talking about. According to the writer:

Archaeologists have discovered important evidence of Taunton’s past as a fortified town and, later, a thriving market town.

So naturally one might expect reasons why it is "important".

Instead it goes on...

Excavation at Castle Green has brought fascinating glimpses of the past to light, including a skeleton and some human bones.

Now we know they are "important" and "fascinating".

But as we go on all we find out are that there are some "human bones" and a "skeleton" - let's not get into the debate about the definition of a skeleton or whether it is human or not.

It takes us seven paragraphs to get to a quote. Naturally this will be from one of the archaeologists or the British Museum, or the county museum or someone from the local museum, maybe the local history society, castle staff, a local author on the castle....

Oh no, we have this instead:

Councillor Mark Edwards, deputy leader of Taunton Deane Borough Council.

That will of course be Councillor Mark Edwards the archeological expert who will tell us something about the bones...the way they were found perhaps?

Errr no.

What we get is this:

[He] said: “The history of Taunton from a Saxon town through medieval times and to the present day is of great interest to people. The work being done today adds to that history.”

I may be alone in this but the history of Taunton hasn't ever crossed my mind and having read this I care even less.

It's a meaningless quote - not that it is Cllr Edwards fault he's a councillor not an archeologist. I would welcome his views on planning applications, the state of the local economy, the public parks and gardens of Taunton - but clearly he is no expert on the archeology. Or if he is he is it doesn't show in this article.

Think about it when you are writing. Is this person adding something to the copy - that might just get it up the newslist.

Oh and one more thing. The article doesn't explain that before any work can be done around the site an archeological survey must be carried out. It doesn't say if work may now be delayed as a result of the find.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

19. Many readers still prefer imperial (ft and ins) to metric (m and cm). Put both in your stories. Use an online converter.

Most local newspapers face an intractable problem. They are written usually by the young and naive for a much older, experienced readership. The interests of the young and idealistic reporters aren't the reality for the majority of the audience.

Many still prefer the use of imperial weights and measures and their understanding of the world is governed by this. Thus 2,000sqm means nothing to them - it does not indicate the size of, say, a shop floor. Is that big, medium or small? It is approximately 21,500sq feet (so the answer is big).

But putting things into context for the reader we are doing our job - we are there to inform them about what is happening not bamboozle them with measurement systems they would otherwise never need to know.

And no, it is not talking down to people.

We are striving to reach a wide spectrum audience - that includes people for who (whom is rarely used in newspapers) the metric system means nothing. Now there is a lot of confusion because we have a dual measurement system.

For example we drive in miles but buy our petrol in litres which in turn is sold in barrels - which are US gallons.

It is confusing for every paper. Here's Rose Wild of The Times's Feedback column:

One of the longest entries in The Times Style Guide is headed, simply, "metric". The heading is more or less the only simple thing in the entry, as is hinted at in the opening advice: "The Times should keep abreast of the trend in the UK to move gradually towards all-meteric use, but given the wide range and geographical distribution of our readers, some continuing use of imperial measurements is necessary."

It might have mentioned the wide range of our writers as well, but the important message is clear: "The main aim is to avoid confusing the reader."

The article continues delving into the issues of rainfall...Nelson's column and the wide variety of buses operating in London. But it concludes:

I'll leave this subject for now with a charitable theory from Francis Wood. He suggests the problem arises "because those providing the translations are young, and have grown up knowing only the metric system, whereas my generation grew up using the imperial system every day but needing to know metric units for school science."
(Times Feb 25, 2012)

See it's confusing, which is why we should be sensible about it. Returning to petrol talk about it in litres - unless using it for historical comparison (or to get shock value - go on check it).

But then we have the 100m sprint - there is no need to convert it you would just look idiotic calling it the 328 feet 11⁄64 inch sprint.

And when we talk about drinks we refer to pints (yes, even wine for the ladies).

But generally areas relating to height and width - now given as metres as standard in planning documents - should be converted. So too space. Any examples of kilometres into miles and so forth.

Yes it does take a bit more time but people will appreciate it.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

18. Always dress smartly, you don’t know where you may have to go. Looking like a slob is bad for you and the newspaper.

Information, Broadcasting and Labour Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga has warned Journalists in the country that they risked being barred from covering functions at State House and any other state function if they continue with their ‘improper’ dressing.
The visibly annoyed Mr. Malupenga was shocked to see some Journalists from named private media houses dressed in dirty jeans, hanging shirt and wearing canvas when they covered President Michael Sata at State House yesterday.
Mr. Malupenga threatened that media personnel who fail to dress properly will would not be allowed to cover the Head of State.
Mr. Malupenga said at a meeting with all media heads at Cabinet Office it was resolved that Journalists covering State functions should be smartly dressed at all times.
ZANIS reports that the Permanent Secretary was addressing Journalists at State House in Lusaka yesterday.
“I had a meeting with your bosses at Cabinet Office and we resolved that action shall be taken with immediate effect on Journalists who opted not to dress smartly and don’t cry foul because we expect you media people to look presentable by dressing in proper attire.
“Don’t accuse us of putting blocks to frustrate your work,” Mr. Malupenga said.

As a reporter you will rarely know where you are going or who you are meeting from one day to the next. This doesn't apply to everyone who works on papers - some know they will be sitting in the office churning out press releases until their P45 arrives on their desk.

(But since you, dear reader, are checking out jornalismtips let us assume you hope to do rather better than that.)

In an ideal world you will (for chaps at least) wear a suit - but in this age of austerity (as indeed it has been especially for new weekly newspaper reporters in the past 20 years) not always affordable. But you will at least need one for special occasions - such as covering funerals, Remembrance Sunday, royal visits and the like....oh yes and for going to your next interview with another newspaper.

But a smart dress code is essential. At the very least - and it is worth noting what the rest of the news reporters are wearing - smart trousers and a shirt and tie are essential.

Remember you are meeting the public and while you may not agree with a tie the person you are interviewing might. They will look and be judging you and appearance is a part of that.

Plus if you are going to knock on the door of a stranger do you really think jeans and a t-shirt would encourage people to invite you in?

People will take you more seriously if you are smart - particularly (but by no means exclusively) the elderly, and especially that which went through National Service.

More importantly though it is simply polite and professional. Looking like a slob will only confirm some people's already dim view of our occupation.

And on a local you are fighting to be taken seriously. While I agree journalism is more about intelligent questioning and writing every element is important - perhaps some more than others but important nonetheless.

So in a way I can sympathise with Amos Malupenga's view point...but that is a whole different story.