In case you have been wondering why I have been so quiet these past couple of weeks, I have been travelling up and down the country listening to politicians trying to rally their supporters and generally make promises they are unlikely to keep.
In other words, I have been at the party conferences.
I was not doing anything nearly as exciting as you would think, reporting on fringe events for a political monitoring company, but the past two and a half weeks have been instructive in more ways than one.
Despite the fact that I am now completely and utterly exhausted and have been completely out of the loop of real life for weeks, I am glad to have had the experience, not just because I finally had the opportunity to make a little money but also because of what it has taught me:
1) How important it is to know your stuff - So you think you know a lot about politics? You have got a political science degree or studied political history and that makes you an expert? Not likely.
I have spent two weeks at the most obscure fringe events you can imagine, listening to talks and debates from tackling childhood obesity to the future financial stability of the water industry.
Because of this, I have learnt an incredible amount about the ins and outs of government and opposition policy.
This has been so useful in demonstrating that I actually know what I’m talking about in the three job interviews I have also had whilst I’m on the move.
The problems associated with being a freelance (aka financially insecure) journalist are the temptation to become a jack of all trades and master of none. However, knowing your subject in depth, even the boring bits, will stand you in good stead when it comes down to actually getting to that dream job, more than just having superficial knowledge and an impressive NTCJ qualification/journalistic work experience.
2) Making contacts - If you’re like me and the idea of networking makes you feel a bit queasy then the conferences are the perfect place to get your feet wet as to a certain extent its one big party.
What has worked best for me, generally speaking, is going to fringe events that I wasn’t reporting on and asking questions such as an event organised by Hacked Off to discuss the future of press ethics after Leveson (which I will be writing about next week).
Having drawn attention to myself, I went up to the panelists afterward, thanked them for answering my question and struck up a conversation. Over the next weekend or so, when I have woken up properly, I will attempt to get in contact with them to capitalise on the impression I made.
At another event, I just happened to be standing next to the editor of a left-wing blog and when we struck up a conversation he asked if I was interested in writing for them.
It’s at these sorts of events where casual acquaintances and contacts are made because everyone is on the lookout for their next big break.
They may be working hard on the task at hand but it is not just the politicians looking to move up the ranks by doing well at the conferences.
3) How to improve - Political reporting is hard work. Having a three-hour window to turn over copy, three times a day is a lot tougher than it sounds.
You have to simultaneously be a reporter, writer and sub-editor, often on only 4 hours sleep whilst still looking out for opportunities to network and write articles for other publications on the side.
From doing all this I have highlighted the ways in which I have to improve my writing. I realise these past few months as a blogger I have been rather spoilt by being able to take as much time as I need and write as long sentences as I like.
Real life journalism is not like that. From now on I need to work on the certain stylistic errors I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m prone to, such as run on sentences, too many apostrophes and some serious grammatical mishaps.
I also need to stop getting distracted so easily and stop thinking I can write after eleven o’clock at night!
There is always room for improvement, no matter how great you think you are.
4) How to blag - I always thought the successful career of a wannabe hack was 10 per cent talent, 10 per cent luck and 80 per cent bluster.
Or at least it always has been for me. Reporting on a conference, or a festival, sporting tournament etc, is the ultimate way to signal to the media industry that you have ‘arrived’. There is something about putting that security lanyard around your neck that says you are meant to be there and didn’t just wander in by accident.
Even if you still don’t know what you’re doing, at least other people will take you seriously when you say you’re a journalist now.
5) How to create other opportunities - Whilst I’ve been focusing on writing reports on all and sundry I have also been keeping a note of potential articles as I go and even wrote my verdict on Ed Miliband’s speech for the Independent last week.
The party conferences are what you make them. They can be two weeks of hell as you try to make enough money to pay the rent, they can be an excuse to ‘celeb spot’ politicians and well-known journalists or simply to eat the free food.
However, if you’re smart, they can also be a building block to get yourself out of the freelance doldrums and into a paying job.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look