The former Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, Herbert Bayard Swope, once said: “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give the formula for failure – which is trying to please everybody”. I was reminded of these words after writing my first major news story as a student journalist.
Writing your first front-page article brings with it a certain buzz. Even though my first ‘big’ story was for a student newspaper, the fact that my name would be attached to one of the most read stories of the day was a huge motivating factor behind writing it.
The story was about a sports initiation. Initiations are, and will continue to be a contentious issue, especially in student journalism, so I knew that the story would create a backlash, but not the one I was expecting.
On the night we went to print, every other journalist in the office knew it was a big story. Some even thought that it was a good story. But, unfortunately, not everyone who reads your work is a journalist themselves.
The following Monday, the paper was distributed and the content posted on our website. What came next changed the way I saw the industry I wanted to work in.
Hundreds of comments were posted below the article online. Some defended the basis of the story but were quickly dismissed by others. Many called it a poor piece of journalism while others just directed abuse at me. The website received an unprecedented amount of hits that day. It was shared by hundreds of people on Facebook and some even went so far as to send me a friend request after visiting my personal account.
The majority who read the article had been quick draw their own conclusions about what the story was trying to expose. The majority saw it as a same old attack on student drinking culture. It wasn’t but that is the conclusions that were made.
The day after, I began to receive emails from the hierarchy of the institution the initiation had occurred in. They began demanding official apologies, while my editor was receiving phone calls that shed light on rumours that staff were to be sacked as a result.
I initially felt very small, asking myself how a story I had written had created this sort of reaction. I began to question whether this was the right career path to go down, but as the dust settled, my feelings began to change.
Our office received a call from a local newspaper asking if they could run the story. Initially I said no because of what had happened during the week, but I ended up regretting the decision.
On meeting another journalist, the first thing they mentioned to me was the ‘initiation’ story and how it was a good story. I was then told the same during my interview for the NCTJ Course in Newcastle, and eventually I won a Press Association award due in part to the story.
It made me realise that even though I had upset a lot of people, had been told I was a poor reporter by others and had been branded as hypocritical by some, I had written a good story. That realisation was one that cemented my desire to be a journalist.
It also made me realise that it was the big stories that caused a stir that were ultimately going to get me noticed, and give me the buzz that you couldn’t possibly have got with any other writing job. Most of all it made me realise that you aren’t going to appease everyone with what you write and you may receive some abuse as a result. At the end of the day however if there is a reaction normally it is because you are doing a good job.
Wills Robinson is an NCTJ student, Editor of The Newcastle Tab and former News Editor of The Courier. He tweets @Wills_Robinson.
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