Monday, 20 February 2012

10. When starting work experience, a new job or going to an interview bring in a story or idea – editors will be impressed.

I can tell you what it's like to work for a newspaper. Imagine a combine, one of those huge threshing machines that eat up a row of wheat like nothing, bearing right down on you. You're running in front of it, all day long, day in and day out, just inches in front of the maw, where steel blades are whirring and clacking and waiting for you to get tired or make one slip. The only way to keep the combine off you is to throw it something else to rip apart and digest. What you feed it is stories. Words and photos. Ten inches on this, fifteen inches on that, a vertical shot here and a horizontal there, scraps of news and film that go into the maw where they are processed and dumped onto some page to fill the spaces around the ads. Each story buys you a little time, barely enough to slap together the next story, and the next and the next. You never get far ahead, you never take a breather, all you do is live on the hustle. Always in a rush, always on deadline, you keep scrambling to feed the combine. That's what it's like. The only way to break free is with a big story, one you can ride for a while and tear off in pieces so big, the combine has to strain to choke them down. That buys you a little time. But sooner or later the combine will come chomping after you again, and you better be read to feed it all over again. --Ray Ring
from the novel Arizona Kiss
(Taken from:

And it's true. Newspapers need constant filling and it is a grind. You can make a good impression by actually bringing a story in.

Believe me bringing in even a half decent story will get you noticed - bring in two or three and you're practically in the door.

But watch for the pitfalls...we've all done them. Before suggesting a story idea check that it hasn't been done before. Hopefully you will have been taking note of the earlier tips about reading the paper first but it's worth double checking the paper's website too.

Secondly don't get disheartened if your idea isn't taken up. There may be reasons, not immediately obvious, why the paper won't run it (there may be legal issues with previous stories, you could be writing about the editor's best friend, could be something to do with advertising).

However the very fact that you bring in something will at least be noticed.

Don't wait until you start the job/work experience to write it up. Write as much as you can - you may want to leave the official comments until later (many press offices will refuse to talk to people who are not bona fide journalists - so calling from the paper's offices does have an advantage).

If you are very organised try putting in a Freedom of Information request weeks beforehand. Don't make it too complicated and don't expect a reply within the time - a general rule of thumb is six or seven weeks before.

For ideas check the brilliant David Higgerson blog. So what if it's a rip from a successful FoI in Dundee, if you are in Surrey the same idea can be used. The chances are no one in the newspaper office has had the time to do it.

Alternatively use your local knowledge. Listen out for stories - and check them out to make sure they will work.

There is no point putting up a great idea and then watching it fall apart after you've told the news editor.

And really don't take offence if he wants a staff reporter to help you with it. It means it was a good idea and they want to make doubly sure.

If nothing else bringing in an idea shows you are a go-getter.

Being a smart Alec I once turned up to an interview bringing in 67 ideas for stories and follow-ups based on that week's newspaper which I'd written on - quite literally the back of an envelope. (Note I can say literally because it was on the back of envelope as opposed to a cigarette packet which, if I had done and I hadn't, would mean I have very small hand-writing....or perhaps short ideas....ok let's just park that and move on).

So back to ideas. Bringing in your own story/stories also helps because in the vast majority of cases no one knows what to do with you or what you are capable that for good or ill.

But if you do it and do it well, you are more likely to be entrusted with more work - perhaps even proper sure beats sitting twiddling your thumbs and being offered the chance to join a real reporter at the Magistrates' Court if you are very lucky...

So a quick recap. Make sure it's not been done, make sure it's doable, don't promise anything you can't deliver.

Tomorrow: Why being cool or curmudgeonly doesn't work.

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