More advice for (young) journalists

Paul Bradshaw’s list got me thinking. (See my post from Tuesday.) The list was so good, it kept cycling back through my mind over the next two days after I first read it. Here are the associated ideas that came along.

1. If you focus on tools and button-pushing, you de-emphasize the journalism.

I’m in the middle of trying to teach photojournalism to a group of print-trained journalism students. They all have different cameras, mostly digital point-and-shoots. Many of them have never used Photoshop before. Because we need to cover a lot in the course, we have only about four weeks for photojournalism.

Thank heaven for Kenneth Kobré’s textbook, because it gives the students a lot of great journalistic photos to study and puts the emphasis on the acts of journalism, not the technical skills. I add a quick-and-easy “how to” for basic Photoshop, and I leave it to them to figure out how to get better images out of their cameras. I laid a “rule of thirds” grid over 18 pictures by David Alan Harvey (taken from this Magnum video), and that was their instruction in composition.

What’s most important, though, is trying to lead them into thinking like journalists (in this case, specifically like photojournalists). That’s all about ethics, accuracy, story value, and stepping up at the right time, in the right place. Getting the picture — like getting the story — is not really about the tools.

2. Talk to strangers.

Paul’s advice to “make contacts” and “do things and talk to people” will resonate with many journalism educators — and maybe some editors too. Why are so many students’ stories so boring? It is not because educators (or editors) have seen it all before. No. It’s because some students (and some journalists) stick to what they already know. They don’t circulate enough. They don’t talk to strangers.

Come on, you’re not a little child anymore. You cannot be afraid of strangers if you want to be a journalist. Get over it.

Yanick Rice Lamb gave some wonderful advice about this in a column at the SPJ site: “You have to circulate to percolate.” When you first glance at her column, you might think it’s only about diversity issues. Wrong. It’s about the whole idea of becoming a good journalist.

3. Why does this story matter?

First you’ve got to know what the story is about. The classic example for new journalists is the speech story. Is your story about the speaker coming and giving a speech? Or is your story about the content of the speech? Simple, but most students get it wrong the first time they cover a speech.

Then answer the qustion: Why would anyone, anywhere, care about THIS story? If you can’t think of a good reason, then why the heck are you wasting your time on it?

Equally important: Just because you don’t care doesn’t mean no one else cares. Figure out WHO would care and WHY. Then you’ll know why the story matters — and only then will you know how to write it.

More ideas: Bryan Murley added seven good tips of his own to Paul’s list.

6 Comments on “More advice for (young) journalists

  1. Pingback: More On How To Be A Good J Student « TEACH J: For Teachers of Journalism And Media

  2. Frankly I’m appalled at this list.

    “1. Read the news.” This is a recipe for journalistic self-referencing. Read what other journalists write? Get a life!

    “2. Forget you have an opinion. Do you think anyone cares what you think … ?” Editors are paid to think and the wise ones — and wise journalism educators — will encourage their reporters and sub-editors to think too. To say otherwise is a recipe for dumbed-down old-male dominated hegemony.

    “3. Know the difference between news and features.” If graduates don’t know the difference between plain exposition and “writing with thinking” then it’s their professors who should accept the blame.

    “4. Make contacts.” This is merely common sense, and not just for journalists: for police, lawyers, bus drivers, doctors.

    “5. Get a life.” So is this. More journalists should.

    “6. Learn to use the phone.” So is this. But try the mobile, SMS, blog, MSN and Skype as well.

    “7. Learn how to spell.” Typical of the old-hat practitioner journalist eager to identify something about the younger generation which is “not up to scratch”. Find me a comma which — ever — changed the world!

    “8. Don’t say you want to see the world but then complain when you have to go to Djibouti.” This is a hegemonic editor’s refrain: do as you’re told and I’ll tell you what to do. Young journalists will vote with their feet, leaving domineering old-fashioned editors who want to rule the roost without any employees.

    “9. Read books.” Typical of the 19th century print generation. Why read books? Tell me that one … and include real justification in your answer.

    “10. Know what you want to get out of this – and chase it.” The only worthwhile piece of advice in this collection … but the one which is philosophically opposed to 1-9. Young journalists will do just that, leaving old fashioned industrial newspaper journalists (and the like) stranded and unemployed.

  3. Pingback: Advice for journalism students |

  4. Mindy — absolutely: yes indeed I do. And practiced in metro newspaper and magazine reporting and production (and some radio and online) 1981-2006.

    My reading of Paul’s “old hat” list clearly matched that of many others (your’s and your list members, for instance) but, as Paul told me this morning say, I was the only one/one of few to challenge it.

    Here in Australia, aging management of what calls itself “mainstream journalism” (Big Media such as News Corporation, the TV networks, Fairfax newspapers) has become so fascinated with itself that it has forgotten two essential ingredients in traditional journalism: the audience is everything; and change is everything. Instead, they are fascinated with preserving the status quo and with rich and powerful men at the Big End of town.

    Most journalists here (and in the US and UK according to the stats) are male and over 40 and stuck in their ways (look at Paul’s list again, it’s there) and think everyone has their values, their ways of seeing and their prejudices.

    This is clearly problematic sociologically but it is ALSO clearly risky commercially, since acceptance of these traditional news products (newspapers, Big Media news bulletins) has been tumbling for years and continues to everywhere except Scandinavia.

    So my points in my earlier post are relevant not just socially and psychologically but commercially: if we as journalism academics want to produce graduates who can deal with contemporary and future audiences, we need to liberate those graduates from the hog-ties of “journalism past”.

  5. @John: I agree with just about everything you said in your last comment — but I disagree with most of your criticisms of Paul’s list. It’s not that Paul’s list tells us completely everything a journalism student must do — but I believe some of the things you labeled “common sense” (while they ARE common sense) are being ignored by many of our students today.

    I like Paul’s list as a foundation. I like the idea of putting it in front of a student and saying, “If you’re not doing these things, you’re not preparing yourself to be a good journalist.”

    As for “Read books”: You know I spend many hours online every day. I would never tell them to give up online reading and information gathering. But the absolute avoidance of books makes for a very ignorant person. Someday this might change, but today, it’s still true. Ignorant people are gullible, and they make foolish mistakes. That’s not good for journalism.

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