Young journalists’ thoughts about sunblock, shorthand and sex

Wednesday 17th April 2013 – 0 comments

The Society of Editors’ Regional Press Awards 2012 shortlist was announced last week. So we at the NCTJ decided to have a chat with the five bright sparks who were shortlisted for the Young Journalist of the Year Award, to find out how they’ve achieved such brilliant starts to their careers.

The winner of the Young Journalist of the Year Award sponsored by HoldTheFrontPage will be announced at the Society of Editors Regional Press Awards ceremony at the Savoy Place, London on Friday 17 May.

NCTJ: What are the most important skills you’ve learned on your NCTJ course?

Bill Gardner, The Argus (City College Brighton and Hove): Shorthand. You can’t be a reporter if you don’t have decent shorthand, because without it you can’t accurately record what people are saying to you – simple as that. It’s worth all the hard work in the end. You need to have a decent grip on media law as well, and the NCTJ is a good start.

journalist thoughtsSam Morris, Lincolnshire Echo (University of Staffordshire): Without doubt it has to be shorthand. I was covering a high-profile murder trial recently, and without the 100wpm shorthand, there is no way I would have been able to produce the copy that I did.

Self-confidence is also an important trait, and believing in yourself, and the questions you ask as you look to root out the real story. It is also important to never give up, as you will often feel as though you have hit a brick wall when working on stories, but there is always a way around the stumbling block, and it is up to you to find it.

Jacqueline McMillan, The Echo, Basildon (News Associates London): The most important skill I learned on my NCTJ course was most definitely shorthand. It is such a vital skill which I use every day, every time I interview someone for a story.

It is such an integral part of your course, and while it may take hours and hours of persistence and practice to get to 100wpm, you are so thankful for it when you’re actually out in the field having to take down something verbatim. Daily tasks, particularly reporting on events such as council meetings where you cannot just simply ask someone to repeat what they are saying, would be so much harder without it.

Rachael Burnett, Dorset Echo (Nosweat Journalism Training): Everything I learnt on my NCTJ course has come in handy, but shorthand is probably the one skill that I couldn’t do without.

journalists thoughtsRichard Wheatstone, Manchester Evening News (Cardiff University): I can’t imagine doing my job without shorthand. It felt torturous at times getting up to that magic 100wpm, but once you’re there, it quickly becomes second nature, and you’ll use it every single day. I studied at Cardiff School of Journalism, and they also really drummed into us the importance of being able to manage a patch and build a network of contacts.

Most trainees will be given a patch to cover when they start out at a paper, and I found it really useful to know where I was going to go and who I was going to go out and talk to. Once you crack that and start bringing in your own stories, it gets progressively easier as people get to know what you’re about and start coming to you.

NCTJ: What’s the craziest thing to happen to you, or that you have done as a young journalist?

journalist thoughtsBill Gardner: I was sent to interview Sir David Attenborough during my first week on the job. I met him in this grand old room with two high-backed armchairs and I was nervous as hell. But he couldn’t have been nicer – even when I half tripped over on the way in – and actually the interview went rather well.

Story-wise, the craziest thing was to uncover that a local care home had been hiring prostitutes for its disabled residents. I sort of stumbled over the story initially, but then managed to unravel the whole thing, which was thrilling.

Sam Morris: Spending an evening with my colleague Ed Grover driving around a local well-known “dogging” hotspot! We had received a call from a member of the public saying that the problem was getting worse, and we were tasked with spending the night gathering evidence for a splash the next day. We spoke to many people living near the woods who were angry about the lack of action being taken. We were there for several hours and saw some things that were not the nicest! Despite that, it made for a good front page.

I also recently began researching an article for our glossy magazine about looking into paranormal activities in a local coffee shop. I arranged for a ghost-hunting company to come along, and with the owners of the shop, we spent the evening trying to communicate with the spirits. Now, I went into this with a totally open mind, but what I experienced was difficult to explain. We had tapping on the table, K2-metre activity going off the scale, and the sensation of freezing temperatures going through our bodies at the same time. There was a lot more too, but you will have to wait and read that in the piece!

journalists thoughtsJacqueline McMillan: I think the craziest thing I have ever done was when I carried out an undercover investigation at an illegal shisha bar operating on my patch. I had done a few stories about the shisha bar being under investigation from the local council’s tax, planning, licensing and environmental health departments as well as the local police. I was then tipped off about the shisha bar allowing children to smoke there under age so decided to carry out an undercover investigation to find out the truth.

It was a unique experience, and one I will not easily forget, because the whole time you were trying to find out information without giving away your position. Our special report prompted the council to initiate legal proceedings against the owners.

Rachael Burnett: The job is so varied, it’s what I love about being a reporter. One day you could be out on a soup run speaking to homeless people, and the next you might be covering a royal visit or interviewing a local celebrity. Covering the Olympic sailing in Weymouth was pretty crazy, there was so much going on.

journalists thoughtsRichard Wheatstone: It was always fun on the Manchester Evening News when we had [Italian footballer] Mario Balotelli roaming about the city getting up to all sorts. We’d often have to go out to stand up rumours you thought were completely ridiculous, but then turned out to be 100 per cent true.

Undercover investigations put you in some interesting positions. For one story I submitted in my awards entry, I took part in a pretty full-on two-hour pentecostal church service with dancing, chanting and people speaking in tongues.

Considering I hadn’t set foot in a church since I was a kid, I was well outside my comfort zone, but in the end it helped me get to find out more about a pastor who was selling black currant squash as a cancer cure for £15-a-time.

One I still cringe about to this day was when I was covering a Bury FC game as a trainee. I accidentally parked in the players’ car park, and when I emerged donned in a suit, a young autograph hunter excitedly thrust his pen towards me.

Lacking the heart to correct him (and maybe living out my own childhood fantasies), I signed the programme before his dad emerged from the background and rightly pointed out I was no more a professional footballer than he was, leaving the crestfallen lad to examine his ruined match-day programme.

NCTJ: What advice would you offer to those thinking about a career in journalism?

Rachael Burnett: My advice for aspiring young journos would be to never give up on a story, even when you feel like you’re getting nowhere and get 10 doors slammed in your face. The 11th one could be the one to talk. Also keep a waterproof, wellies, sunblock and water in your car at all times, because you never know what you’ll end up doing.

Jacqueline McMillan: Journalism is a great career for anyone who enjoys meeting lots of new people and being thrown in the deep end in a variety of situations. No two days are ever the same so you do have to be ready for anything. Not only that, it does wonders for your confidence; knowing you have to get the story really helps spur you on to do a good job. But one thing I would say is you must get your qualifications under your belt. Knowing your law well and being confident in your shorthand will help you ensure your stories are accurate, fair and legally sound and save you many a sleepless night.

Sam Morris: Go for it. Get your NCTJ prelims in the bag as soon as possible, get as much work experience under your belt as you can, and never stop trying. Never be afraid to ask questions, whether it’s an interviewee or other journalists looking to clarify things. It’s tough, but if you really want it and are determined to achieve your dreams, you will do it.

Bill Gardner: Do as much work experience as you can. And when you’re there, don’t be invisible and just make the tea every now and then. No one will ever know you existed. In journalism, work experience is about making an impact, leaving an impression. What’s the point in being there if you don’t come in with a few ideas? What have you got to lose? Don’t be scared to go up to the news editor and pitch him/her stories. Make them feel disappointed that you had to leave at the end of the week. When trainee job interviews come round, you’ll be near the front of the queue.

Richard Wheatstone: Make the most of work experience. Having been on both sides of the fence, I think there are too many students who come in on placements thinking it’s enough just to run down the clock and say they’ve been there for a week or two, when really you need to be amassing a good portfolio of cuttings to get that first job.

Always come in with two or three story ideas, whether they are Freedom of Information Requests you’ve submitted beforehand, or even just a new regional line on a national story.

If you show willing and a bit of nous beyond just turning up and asking news desk whether there’s anything to do, it won’t go unnoticed. Even if your ideas aren’t given the splash treatment, you’re far more likely to be trusted with something decent or be sent out on a breaking story further down the line.