Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Journalism students and work experience: getting the most out of a newsroom

Journalist Patrick Smith tweeted some sensible advice for student journos preparing for the world of  work experience this week:

 He followed it up by urging workies not to be scared of suggesting ideas; now, Patrick is a kindly sort and also found space in his 140chars to acknowledge the difficultes unpaid work experience types face in a newsroom; I hope those who saw his tweets took the message on board. But it did get me thinking about the workies I've seen around newsrooms over the years, where they fitted in to the organisation, and what they got out of it.

The newsroom can be a daunting place for a newbie, even one on the payroll, and it's easy to get overwhelmed and overlooked if you're joining the bustle for a one-week taster of real world workplaces.
When I was reporting or newsdesking, workies - by which I mean journalism college students, not school pupils - tended to arrive in reception at 9am on a Monday morning (because that's when their letter from HR told them to arrive), ask for the news editor (again, as per their letter) and then, if they were lucky a newsdesk PA came and got them. If they weren't, they'd sit in reception until a harrassed newsdesker or journalist arrived and let them into the Inner Sanctum - where a pile of national papers would be thrust at them with the line: "We're all on edition, someone will come and see you soon".

Now, soon is one of the most flexible definitions known to newsrooms; it can mean 10 minutes, or it can mean "it's 4 o'clock - you should go home now". So, two suggestions:

1. Phone the newsdesk the week before you start, introduce yourself and, even if you've already got a start time from whoever arranged the pacement, just check the newsdesk is expecting you then. And check who you should really ask for at reception.
2. If you're steered to a desk and look through the papers, get the guest login for the computer, and search them online instead - and run some searches for local blogs, forums and social network updates while you're at it. It's faster, easier and you'll feel better looking at a screen like everyone around you, rather than turning pages in a futile search for news.

I don't want to generalise here but I'll bet most newsrooms don't revolve around making sure your work experience is a happy and useful one. So at some point a workie needs to approach the newsdesk.
You see the phrase 'brimming with ideas' time and again in journalism job adverts. However, the word 'good' needs to be in front of 'ideas' or everyone's wasting their time.
A few, thoughtful and relevant suggestions to pitch are more valuable than a scattergun approach; the latter might grind a newsdesker into saying yes, just to get you to knuckle down and do something, but the finished product probably won't make it to the page, printed or online.

The phrase to avoid is: "Is there anything for me to do?" Find out from the reporters what time the morning madness subsides on the newsdesk and, if you've been left to your own devices til then, make your move. Saying "I've got some ideas for stories but before I start those is there anything you want me to help out with?" sounds confident and bright. If you want to spend one of your five days working with a journalist or department you're particularly interested in - like the health reporter, or the business desk - then ask. Also ask if you can attend at least one news conference, to see how the paper is planned.

Have some story suggestions, but craft them around what you know is making the local news agenda. So, if the previous week the issue of, say, residents complaining the local council was giving them different bins (like this) then consider how you could move that issue on. Lateral thinking  is good; you don't need to go down the vox pop route.
You may aspire to the WSJ but if you've got a work placement on your local paper, about the important local issues.
Also think about asking the picture or digital desk if they'd like you to do a video report or soundslide, or whether local environment/recycling statistics could make some nice cross-platform infographics - the multimedia skills journalism students learn as part of their studies give them an edge in many newsrooms, and abilities are remembered. 

Read the paper. And I mean REALLY read the paper. If house style is January 10 and you keep writing 10th Janurary after you've been told once, it's annoying. If you write 600 words when it's obvious the average length of a lead is 350 you're wasting your time and newsdesk's time and patience. Is it 'mum-of-4' or 'mother-of-four'? Is it Cllr, Councillor, Clr, Coun?
If you don't know something, ask the reporters around you or see if you can't find the style answer in the actual title.

Of course, newsrooms need to do right by work experience people as well, by which I mean treating them as embryonic journalists who have aspirations to work in the industry (and who might one day be an editor themselves) rather than ambulatory pieces of the furniture.
But some workies don't do themselves any favours - I've previously sent people  home for wearing jeans - and a can-do attitude is way more attractive than either world-weary insouciance or projecting an aura of 'helping out the local rag until The Guardian comes and asks me to rescue them'.

The issue of paid and unpaid work experience is a thorny one. I've had a couple of newly-graduated journalists work ad hoc shifts, unpaid, because they wanted the experience and bylines. It was informal, and on their terms, and I wouldn't ever have considered them on the rota, so to speak. It's not the way I think newsrooms should operate as a habit, but if someone wants to do some days over the summer to boost their profile and CV, then it can be a mutually-beneficial arrangement.
However, 1st year students discovering if mainstream media journalism on an average local paper is for them, is a very different thing. 'Free staff' is not how a newsdesk tends to see someone whose copy has to be rewritten from scratch to turn the facts into something resembling the English language.

I suspect some workies leave their placements thinking regional newspapers aren't for them; it is hard work, and sliding circulations and cutbacks aren't the best adverts for a career on the local paper. But it is one of the best, maddest careers you can choose - there aren't too many jobs where you answer the phone to hear a annoyed receptionist snap: "There's a man in reception with a dead otter and he won't leave til he's seen you"*.

Five days - 10 if you're lucky - aren't long enough to experience regional newspaper journalism but it is enough time to learn how a newsroom barrels along (on the edge of a catastrophe curve) and how to be an effective operator in a workplace (take your turn in the tea rounds).
My advice for journo students on work experience is, I guess, to aim to learn some new things, have an open - and broad! - mind and a few ideas, and see if you can't have some laughs. Because there are plenty of opportunities for them, and you'll enjoy your week a lot more.

*That really happened, by the way.

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