Tuesday, 20 November 2012

57. Lessons from the movies - what sells well.

A short post today.

Stories about institutions can often read very dry - hence there is less (not necessarily no) interest in them.

People like to read about people. It is a simple fact of life. Always remember that.

If say writing about a local college transforming itself from a failing institution to an outstanding one consider going in on the headteacher that made it happen or a student who has benefited from the changes.

Major roadworks months overdue? Try finding the shop owners who will be affected.

If nothing else it makes the photos more interesting - rather than just a hole in the ground.

You will find that time restraints will mean that too often you will struggle to find a talking head willing to be photographed... so look out for them when the opportunity arises.

Today's clip comes from the superb Billy Wilder 1951 classic Ace In The Hole.

Cynical hack Chuck Tatum brings the circus to town when a man is trapped under a rock fall.

Well worth catching if only for the opening scenes of Kirk Douglas walking into a small local newspaper...

Oh yes, and the unforgetable line: "I've met a lot of hard boiled eggs in my time - but you are 20 minutes."

You can buy it here:

Monday, 19 November 2012

56. Making money from journalism. Finding news stories you can sell.

In this and over the next few posts we will be going into detail about selling news stories.

Any idiot can give away content for free (and if you are struggling to do even that than perhaps you should reconsider your career options).

But why should you be doing it? The immediate answer is obvious: The cash.

That, however, isn't the only or most important reason (it is highly unlikely you will be paying off your university fees - more likely a couple of takeaways).

Getting into the habit of selling stories concentrates the mind more than any classroom exercise. You will be on the look out for news stories in your day to day life.

You will start to see what makes a story and what doesn't. You will be competing against journalists in the real world... and have to deal with the public in the real world.

And after that you'll have to put up with seeing your byline robbed and a 50/50 chance you won't get the money... or at least have to spend an age chasing it up.

So a few generalisations:

1. Local newspapers and websites rarely pay for stories - even front page ones.

2. Tabloids pay better than broadsheets.

3. Sundays usually pay more than dailies.

4. Human interest sells better than hard news - celebrity exclusives pay best of all.

5. Bad news tends to sell better than good news.

6. Stories about middle-class young people do better than stories about working-class old people.

7. Good new photographs will help sell a story.

8. Exclusives can pay more than selling all around - but you will only get paid on publication.

9. Prepare to be ripped off time and again (and not just by the nasty papers - who are actually more likely to pay).

10. Being first helps but until you gain trust it might not always be enough.

And remember above all else - the most important byline is the one on the top of the cheque, as the (old) adage goes.

First off if you intend to sell a story to a national or a magazine or an agency do not merely pass yourself off as a student journalist. While strictly speaking it may be true it's also dishonest.

People may be more inclined to help a student rather than a professional reporter - and, understandably, they may get mightily pissed off if they discover you've been flogging off their story and soon as you've left them.

It's a greyer area if you run it in your student publication and then sell it on because than it is in the public domain.

Secondly don't go around telling people you work for the publication you WANT to sell it to. News editors take a very dim view of this -  not least because it will be they who will be dealing with any mess you leave.

And anyway these days they have enough problems dealing with complaints (mostly imagined or exaggerated) about their own reporters without having to deal with wannabes claiming to be on their staff.

(Oh yes, that too is dishonest.)

When in doubt try: Freelance reporter, which more or less covers everything.

Now stories come from anywhere - and there are no hard and fast rules. Previous posts in this blog have given you pointers on where to find general news.

But essentially what makes a story can be anything. Your college is a good place to start (ie a college netball team playing in a foreign town hit by a hurricane would probably make a story that people would pay for - especially with photos).

If you are a journalism student and assigned a patch listen out for the unusual - a celeb moving into the local area (be careful about this as estate agents have been known to conjure up these stories at times when an expensive property in their area isn't selling).

Thursday, 15 November 2012

55. How to sell stories and photographs to newspapers and magazines.

There has never been so much need for journalism... and so little desire to pay for it.

But there is a lot to admire in the Samuel Johnson school: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

There are, of course, plenty of blockheads. And to be fair you do need the experience to be a journalist - not a blockhead.

But let's face we are not writing for charity... and even if you are writing for charity, you'd like to get paid, right?

The prospect of actually earning money for what we write is what makes us professional journalists... unlike amateur or citizen journalists.

(Which strictly speaking isn't correct if you are British. We are subjects - but I think the idea of having subject journalists would only confuse matters - so let's stick with citizen.)

So to the point. Can you make money in this game while studying?

The simple answer is: Yes, you can. And should you be doing it? Yes, you should. And will you make a fortune doing it? Er, no.

If you've read these posts from the beginning - read lots of different papers, read the local newspaper, make contacts etc etc - and future ones this is what it is all about.

That is unless you have private means and want to be a journalist as a hobby - then please skip a few posts, there is nothing to see here.

For the rest of you this is what you do.

First off a question: What is the media? This isn't some bullshit philosophical question.

The correct answer is: Information, written/filmed/recorded/photographed and packaged for certain target audiences.

They generally fall into four categories: Geography, socio-economic, consumer or interest.

It is the wonder of our pluralistic media that everyone - or, at least, nearly everyone - is catered for. (Alas Hermit Monthly folded on account of the distribution costs.)

What does all this mean? Simply put having the right information (story) to yourself (exclusively) and packaging it (writing) to the right target (media organisation) means you may - just may - get paid for it (there are never any guarantees).

Note, no one is asking for your opinion (that probably isn't worth anything - at least not yet).

For now the basics:

1. Get a story: They come from all over the place - check the rest of this blog on how to do this.

2. Make sure it has not already been written: Go on the internet and search the mainstream media. Not just the paper you want to sell to but all of them.

3. Write the story: Unless you are already an established freelance you are highly unlikely to be paid on spec for an idea or concept. Otherwise known as "being put on an order".

4. Double check everything: Make sure your story is watertight. Muck it up now and you could be wasting a lot of people's time - not a good thing for them... or you.

5. Get a friend to read it: (Optional) Find someone who is willing to pull your work apart. Listen to their questions. If they can find holes in your work - you can be sure so will a professional news editor.

6. Try to get a package together: If there are photos/words to be had, make sure you've got them.

7. Think where you are going to place it: Decide where this particular story would best fit (this will change from story to story) and, importantly, who will pay.

8. Pitch: Generally speaking a cold call should go to a news/picture desk. If you live in the provinces find out who the area man is, especially if you are planning to make a go of this and continue to produce future stories.

9. Get the timing right: There is little point trying to sell something (unless it is huge and immediate) after news conference.

10. Hope and learn: If you've got a surefire winner you will probably know straight away. Don't get disheartened if it is rejected...

Future posts will go into more detail on some of these. In the meantime if you think you have a story drop me a line: journalismtips@hotmail.co.uk - if I can I'll make suggestions for UK papers.

Good luck.

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Monday, 12 November 2012

54. The most important blog post a journalism student will ever read

Some what sensationalist, eh? I'll grant you it is a little on the dramatic side - but actually if you are a journalism student and you only read one post on this blog: this is the one.

Because if you are a journalism student and you are not hooked up to spend some of the next few years doing work experience with the local newspaper/news agency/radio station/TV studio/news website - then what are you doing?

Twenty years ago there was the NCTJ - and that was about all. It did for almost everything you could possibly want to get your first foot on the journalism ladder.

Today there are endless courses in fashion journalism, music journalism, investigative journalism, financial journalism (scrub that, for the purposes of this post no one wants to go into financial journalism).

All fine courses I am sure. This certainly isn't an attack on the individual courses or colleges - but this is a warning.

Imagine this: A college runs a BA (Hons) degree Being Prime Minister. This course will teach you the workings of becoming the PM of the United Kingdom. Modules include: Decision making; Meeting the Queen; Dealing with the Whips; Handling a scandal (this is a six part module); Talking to the US President. etc etc etc.

All useful stuff to be sure. And 99 other people are also signed up to this useful and informative course - the question is: How many of them would ever have a hope in hell of becoming PM?

Why do you think it would be any different? Oh and that's not to miss out on those that aren't taking journalism degrees and enter the trade via a different route.

And so we come to the point. According to the Higher Education Career Services Unit Media Studies graduates have "a high employment rate with 71.8 per cent" but they also have some of the highest unemployment among humanities degrees too at 12.3 per cent.

But the really startling figure is that after six months 28.6 per cent of those surveyed worked in the retail, catering, waiting and bar staff category. Nothing wrong with that but was it really worth three years study? Or in the case of an MA a lot of cash?

On reflection you may well think not. If you are going to stand any chance do not wait until you're wearing a mortar board and running around campus doing Batman impressions. By then it could already be too late.

Remember there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of media and journalism graduates, post graduates and the like coming out of the system each year - and there aren't hundreds of jobs (let alone being choosy).

Good luck with the work experience.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Journalism Tips 53. Lessons from the movies: Keeping a diary

To begin with I am not taking about a Piers Morgan style diary as I suspect that it is highly unlikely that your expose of the mayor fiddling his expenses and the cold stares he gives you will be of much interest to a wider audience.

Today's post is about newsdesk diaries.

One of the things you soon find in any newsroom - be it newspaper, television, radio or website - is that news does not come in nice easy to handle packages.

And that goes for nationals, regionals to even the most hype-local of weeklies because news is funny like that.

One week you are scrabbling around trying to find nine page leads and something that will vaguely look slightly less embarrassing to stick on the front and the next the editor is agonising over what they should splash with that day.

(Admittedly the former is rather more common than the latter.... and when I say rather more common I mean usual.)

Now this lumpy and, quite frankly inconvenient news scheduling is a bit of a pain in the butt for news editors and will soon prove to be a rather bigger one for you since it will be you (the reporter) who has to find the stories to fill the pages.

The result is a constant scramble of chasing after so-so news stories to turn into page leads and shorts or nibs (news in brief).

And what that means is time is constantly running out for the edition, minor stories are propelled into page lead status and longer investigations are forgotten about.

So it is worth considering the introduction of the newsdesk diary. A full diary - which admittedly does take time - will pay long term dividends.

Many newspapers already have them. But they are all too often restricted to upcoming court cases and dates of forthcoming meetings (councils and the like).

A really good diary will go much further. It is worth taking half an hour each week after edition (or better once the paper is printed) to see which stories are worth a follow up.

A few examples: A new major supermarket announces it is coming into town. Everyone says that it will be the end of the small independent shopkeeper.

Inevitably protest groups are set up. There is much anger and many meetings. People are up in arms (literally, because all you can afford is to live in a rough part of town).

The council gives the go-ahead and in the store rolls. And for some reason everyone thinks the story has ended there.

Of course you may run odd follow ups about boycotts, protests and so on (which always happen on a Saturday morning when no one is working). You may also, if people can be bothered to tell you, run stories about small shops closing down as a result of lost business. But this is waiting for events to happen.

Now think again. A diary entry making note that the store opened three, six, nine and 12 months before will help you gauge how the town is coping with new supermarket.

Instead of writing that the local shops have closed down you can chart their progress. Is it as bad as everyone feared? If the answer is yes, a campaign: Shop local! Save Our Shops! Over the next few weeks and months you will have a series of engaging, relevant local community stories that will engender good will from locals and - more importantly - fill that space on page nine. (I will deal with running a campaign in a later post).

Or what about an inquest? A small child dies after drowning in a pool. The parents are naturally devastated and, understandably, at the time really do not want to talk. But the issue is an important one. Making a note of the anniversary of the death and asking again if they wish to talk a year on from the tragedy is not unreasonable. No one is suggesting their pain is any less. However they may feel they now want to talk so as to warn others. Well told, the story will have lost little of its relevancy or importance.

Example three: A local nursery has shut down and the parents have had to find somewhere else for their beloved brats to go. One month, two months, three months on... have they found new places? What does it mean for the parents? Have they had to give up work because they can no longer afford child care? And so on...

A few quick calls - to the organisers of the campaign to save the nursery - will soon establish if there is a problem. If there is a page lead... if not a nib.

There is a spin off from all of this as well. In two of the above you have taken stories about buildings and committees and turned them into stories about people (again this will be covered later).

Now here is a clip from ITV's mid-1980s fantastic sitcom Hot Metal that perfectly demonstrates everything I am talking about in terms of news desk diaries.

Loosely modelled on The Sun's own history and the Kelvin MacKenzie era it was not as Hugh Grant may have you believe a documentary but a sitcom.

The Crucible's ace reporter Greg Kettle (played superbly by Richard Kane) is busy at work in the hotel room of a royal's girlfriend...

(One thing: The entry should have been at two and a half months before any official announcement at nine months the whole world would have known and there would have been no exclusive.)

For part one of journalism tips from the movies click this link.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Journalism Tips 52. Lessons from the movies: Shorthand.

How invaluable shorthand is cannot be underestimated. Sure you can do the job without it - and many do but if you want the best quotes than Teeline or Pitmans is the answer.

It is particularly valuable in court, even when barristers speak at a deliberate 70wpm to eek out their fees  - or choose a steady pace in order to carefully pick their words carefully.

And for those still doubting think of Glenn Hoddle who was quite prepared to sue The Times for printing his comments that disabled people had been bad in a previous life.

Fortunately reporter Matt Dickinson was able to produce his perfect shorthand notes and the threat of legal action faded away.

Of course having said that shorthand in the warmth of the office is nothing like that out in the street on a cold November day when you've been waiting in a freezing car (if you're lucky) for someone to leave their home.

Nor is it like the scramble down the street as the interviewee decides they want to walk and talk.

And as for the complete sentence... Alas no, people do not finish tend to complete their...

Or they veer off the point or don't appear to be saying anything of interest until, with a degree of verbal dexterity you could never have imagine, they make a brilliant, original and controversial point which becomes your instant top line half way through a sentence.

So do not think you don't need shorthand. But keep a digital recorder packed at all times.

One last thing. No one speaks at precisely 100wpm. As demonstrated in the clip above from Norman Wisdom's Press For Time (1966).

For me the beauty of this scene is not Stanley Unwin's brilliant town clerk gobbledygook routine but Tom Selby's County Chronicle reporter Harry Marshall. His studied boredom of the proceedings is priceless.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Journalism Tips. 51. Writing stories. Why I think you should take I out.

Sir Humphrey: The identity of the official whose alleged responsibility for this hypothetical oversight has been the subject of recent discussion is not shrouded in quite such impenetrable obscurity as certain previous disclosures may have led you to assume; but not to put too fine a point on it, the individual in question is, it may surprise you to learn, one whom your present interlocutor is in the habit of defining by means of the perpendicular pronoun.
Hacker: I beg your pardon?
Sir Humphrey: It was... I.

So far we've gone through the basics of finding people, using FoIs and the basics of making contacts. More on these subjects in a later posts.

Now we come to the business of actually writing the story.

As a general rule of thumb whenever you are tempted to write anything that is to be read by more than a handful of people go through it removing the word "I" - unless it is in quotation marks and somebody else has said it.

This goes for most news, features and reviews... and an awful lot of comment too.

If you don't believe me (again only to be rarely used) try reading a paper at random...

Pick up the Daily Express and run through its news pages. Or The Mirror... or the Bridlington Post... or the Falmouth Packet... or The Economist... even i won't have news stories with the word I (unless it is about the paper's circulation - but let's draw a veil over this).

Unless you are a fundamental part of the story - and going along to an event does NOT make you a fundamental part of the story it makes you an observer - you should never use it.

Instead what you write should be about other people. It is part of writing as a journalist. It is not to say that gonzo journalism or first hand reporting will never feature in your career it is just at this stage it is best to leave it on the park bench, give it a lolly and tell it you'll be back in five minutes - then not return to that area for at least the next five years.

"I" is what Twitter is for... not readers of your news stories.

Similar when reading student articles interviewing someone vaguely famous there is far too much what a great honour it is for the interviewer to meet them. Why "it's not every day that you get to meet global superstar and singer extraordinaire Frankie Cocoza..." (at this stage I'd like to apologise to readers of this blog from outside of the UK for even introducing the concept of a Frankie Cocoza into your consciousness. Needless to say he is some irritating little no mark who once appeared on the UK version of X Factor).

Ask yourself: Who will be interested in YOUR experience of meeting a celebrity? What will they get out of reading about you? Why would they care?

Again, stop reading stuff online and read a few properly subbed features in a newspaper or magazine. See for yourself how they are done.

The word "I" may feature occasionally but it is not the main focus.

Now before anyone starts let's put aside the writing of the brilliant Liz Jones - yes, I did say brilliant. She had a style which is often mocked but it is incredibly successful - and well read - especially among her target audience. That however takes a lot of experience because that is what she is sharing as part of her hook for readers.

Or take Hunter S Thompson who shoe horned himself into his stroies to create Gonzo journalism. This was not done on the basis of a single interview or evening. He lived and breathed the life of his subjects - or er not in some cases. You simply haven't got the time - yet.

Perhaps more importantly once you remove the "I" from your copy you begin to write differently. It naturally changes your persepective. Your copy-style changes, and quite rapidly, to one more like that of mainstream media.

To break my own rule: I once picked up a college magazine. And every single article featured the vertical pronoun and tucked away behind the reviews and the going out pages and editorials and lengthy articles of Developing World debt were two pages on the forthcoming student elections.

An important subject for most students, one might think? Perhaps an interview to hear the voices of somebody else in the paper? A meaty subject worthy of spending some time over...? Of course not each candidate was given 30 words to say what they would do if they won office.

I consoled myself with the fact the reviewer of James Joyce's Ulysses happened to enjoy it.

Update: A former colleague who has asked to remain anonymous sent me this rather glorious tale that illustrates the above beautifully...

She wrote:

This brings to mind a story told by an old editor of mine after a terrible accident involving a ferry when a number of lives had been lost. He was told at conference by the head of news that one particular junior reporter was at the hospital bedside of a survivor who had given a blow-by-account of the horror. "Great," said my old editor. "Let's clear two pages for a first person piece." Three hours later, when the 1,500-word story was submitted, it read something like this: "I was awoken at 6.30am by a phone call from my news editor. 'Get down to the ferry station', he said, with some urgency in his voice. Immediately I grabbed my notebook and my camera and headed out of the apartment, grabbing a bagel en route." And so it went on and on and on....

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Monday, 5 November 2012

Journalism Tips 50. Working your first patch. Contact building.

Today young reporters are taught all about data journalism - effectively glorified number crunching.

There's nothing wrong in this, in fact it can produce some brilliant investigative stories. It's also not that much fun.

Getting out onto a patch is really one of the best parts of the job. Actually talking to people you would never normally come into contact with makes it interesting.

Building up a relationship with someone so that they take you into their confidence is where - and I'm rather loathe to use the word - scoops happen (or at any rate half decent stories).

Now there is no point simply running around your patch trying to catch everyone and expecting them to tell you easily packaged, off the shelf, exclusives.

Like everything that takes time a fair amount of effort. But it's worth investing the time, especially if you are planning to be on the patch for a few years.

Quite simply having a number of a person does not make them a contact - otherwise we could all walk around with the Yellow Pages and call it our contacts book.

Real contacts need to be cultivated (which sounds slightly cynical but isn't). The contacts that will give you the best stories are those you make an effort with, the ones you speak to regularly.

You have to give them a reason to trust you - and you do that over time. If they see what you are writing and it is well researched, well written and fair - sometimes even if it is not in their best interests - they will begin to trust you.

It really does not take long. But really don't try and score cheap points, or sensationalise or needless stitch a person up over a minor joke (believe me public life is dull enough without trying to make everyone so paranoid they never try humour again).

If you fairly reflect what the person is trying to tell you, they will tell you more. And with trust comes information, better information, more guidance, advice on where to look for that better story... that exclusive which is going to get you a decent page lead in a national.

And it all starts with a simple introduction (and probably, but not always with a pint).

So let's go through this. You should have contacts among:

Local councillors

The police

Tenant and resident associations

A smattering of some of the larger religious groups

Licensed Victuallers Association

Federation of Small Business

Local theatres

Larger businesses

The shopping precinct

Local newspaper

Pressure groups - including friends groups

Sports clubs/leagues

This is only a very basic list but it's a solid start. If you followed the previous tips and started a Twitter feed for your patch you have a basic in.

Anything they tweet about that maybe of interest you have an immediate point of contact. Tweet them and ask for a chat. See if you can develop that moan about funding cuts or local road works killing business into something more. First check it's not been done before... or see how you can take the story on.

Local councils are often the first place. It may not seem it but these are incredibly important sources for your local area, more so than national Government.

This is the organisation that is the frontline when it comes to dealing with national policies. The local councillors are the ones that deal with real people in their surgeries, so they will see how those policies work in the real world. 

Running alongside this is the council's own policies - these too will affect local people. Then there is planning, not necessarily a full council policy, but a policy made from the planning committee.

Too often local papers aren't very good when it comes to dealing with councils. It may be in part that local newspaper reporters are often young and councillors are often middle-aged and old. It is a generalisation but it works as a rule of thumb.

Usually the most helpful councillors are the ones in opposition (funny that). So first off if you are going to contact people on your personal Twitter account I suggest removing any political stance you may have on your profile.

'Lefty' or 'Europhile' or whatever you may have may make people wary of talking to you. Bias will be seen in your copy anyway without you explicitly stating the fact.

Personally over the years I've been told I'm a Tory and a Socialist - even from people reading the same story.

Secondly local government often transcends party politics for the vast majority of its work. Thirdly you should be on the side of your readers (I will deal with this in a later post).

And finally most councillors are doing the job to help their communities and do the job not for money but a sense of duty. 

Now all of this is not to say you can't get on with some particular councillors more than you do others. 

Remember too that more often than not these people live in their areas they serve. By nature of their position they know a great many people, they hear about things both relevant to their work and not.

They are reading through reports, they will know the background to them. A long serving councillor will know what has been tried before... and why it didn't work. In short they can bring alive an otherwise boring planning application, or new road scheme, or parking costs and so on.

In other words lots of stuff you won't necessarily know.

And if they are very good - and media savvy - they will highlight potential areas and advise to stick around or turn up at a particular council meeting.

So yes it is worth attending a few meetings, even as a student. And if the local paper isn't there it may be worth filing a lead and seeing what happens.

But again wherever possible take the story out of the council chamber and into streets. Few things are more boring than a dialogue between half a dozen councillors at a meeting.

What is useful about attending is that you see first hand the councillors with the strongest opinions or those with particular interests. Make a note of them in your contact book - say a councillor interested in the local market it is worth going back to them again next time it comes up in a story.

A good contact book does take time to build up