It’s Sunday night. 3:12AM. Your head is full of stories, problems, facts and figures. Then, as you twist restlessly in bed, your body in the lurching throes of caffeine-induced shakes, it hits you like a sledgehammer. That terrible question you’ve been suppressing for so long comes bounding from the back of your mind to take its place centre stage under the dazzling spotlight of your self-doubt: Is this really what I signed up for?
I’ve been a student journalist for two years now and this particular drama has befallen me more times than I care to mention. I’ve heard the same insecurities from a number of colleagues and now believe that I’m endowed with enough knowledge to tell you the truth about being a fledgling hack.
First, The Job really will alwayscome first. Before starting down this road you will attempt to persuade yourself otherwise; you can deny it all you want but if you want to be a good journalist you cannot switch off. As the saying goes: “The news doesn’t sleep… so neither will we.” This will inevitably mean working late, missing dates/parties/birthdays and, much to your mother’s disgust, checking Twitter at the dinner table.
Next up, even though it’s your job to talk to people, unless you tell them you’re from the Beeb, they will avoid doing so at all costs. This especially applies to anything that might sully their reputation. Sneaky councillors, MPs and press officers (most of whom, from my experience, ironically, hate the press) will, at one time or another, make you have a rage-induced embolism. You can avoid this (partly) by never believing the words “I’ll call you back.” They won’t – don’t stop badgering them until they give you what you want.
Joe Bloggs won’t like or trust you (not at first, at least). Even if you’re one of the most considerate and friendly people in the whole world, telling the average person you’re a journalist will always bring up images of phone hacking and skullduggery. Just recently I had the brother of a man whose sentencing I’d attended spit on me and threaten to punch me in the face. Why? Because he saw me frantically scribbling shorthand whilst he and his family were sobbing, even though I’d explained in the nicest way possible I was just doing a job. Luckily, this is fairly rare.
You reduce your chances of being abused by undertaking every effort to make people aware that you’re just a normal person with honest intentions. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred this will work.
You’ll live in fear. Fear of missing a deadline. Fear of your story falling through. Fear of getting facts wrong. Fear of libel. Fear of never having a paid job. Fear of returning to the newsroom without a decent quote. Fear of your camera/Dictaphone breaking mid-interview. Fear of talking to people who have made it clear they don’t like journalists (see above). Fear of another hack taking your scoop.
You’ll become a different person. I never really considered this until recently, but, thinking back, I remember coming into journalism with the view of learning the trade. I never considered what that would mean for ‘me’. It’s true, though, that you really become a journalist. Bank clerks, butchers, bus drivers – these folks probably haven’t changed their personalities because of their jobs, but you will. You’ll be more critical of people and the stuff they say, you’ll have a quicker mind, you’ll get a better sense of humour, you’ll be as angsty as you were when you were fourteen and you’ll be shamelessly nosy. Oh, and you’ll swear a lot more than you ever have before.
I’d like to think that, if asked to write the same piece, most journalists would write the same sort of stuff as I have. But what people neglect to tell you is, if you’re right for this job, none of these things will matter very much and you will, whole-heartedly, love every second.
Is George right? Have any of you more experienced journalists got any pointers to add? Tweet us @wannabehacks or add a comment
George Berridge is a 2nd year BA (Hons) Journalism student at the University of Winchester. He works as a reporter for Winchester News Online (WINOL) and specialises in local government and court reporting. His work and comment pieces (ranging from politics to restaurant and book reviews) can be found on his blog; here. He can also be found compressing his thoughts on almost everything into 140 characters here.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look