As a wannabe arts and features journalist, I’d always set my sights on work experience at a national paper or magazine. But when my NCTJ diploma demanded I spend Fridays at a paper, the locals were an obvious starting point. In truth, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But after stints at the Hackney Citizen and Southwark News, I’d recommend local newspapers to any wannabe hack.
Every Friday, I learnt more in one day than I did in a week spent studying coffee-stained textbooks. Sure, I made some embarrassing mistakes. But the papers were kind enough to let me make them for myself. And for one day a week, I was reminded why I gave up a job – and pretty much my life – to become a journalist.
So here’s my advice to any aspiring journo: do some reporting for your local paper. Whether you want to write about feminism, Filo pastry or foreign affairs, you’ll learn something constructive. Raring to go? If so, here’s how to avoid some blatant blunders.
Things to bring
Turning up without a dictaphone and asking to borrow a reporter’s camera won’t do you any favours. And if you think your Smartphone will do, try taking someone’s photo while simultaneously recording them. – not a juggling act I recommend.
Find those in the know
Follow relevant people in the paper’s patch on Twitter. For starters: councillors, police, businesses, galleries, football clubs and gig venues. If you’re struggling to pitch ideas on your first day, type the name of the Borough you’re covering into Twitter. You might be able to sniff out a story from local tweets.
Think of your feet
Think you’ll be sitting in an office all day? Not so much. And trust me; traipsing around an icy Elephant and Castle roundabout collecting vox pops is hazardous in heels. If you can navigate pavements at breakneck speed in stilettos, then I salute you. Comfy footwear is a must.
Pubs are for drinking, not interviewing
In December I arrived at a Streatham pub to do an interview. Picture the scene: red-faced workers boozing through rowdy Christmas lunches and babies howling like they really, really mean it. Trying to catch a conversation with a Dictaphone in that pub would’ve been like fishing for plankton by hand. Luckily, the interviewee was happy to brave the pub’s garden. Don’t run the same risk.
The human factor
I was once convinced I’d interrogated a marathon runner rigorously. I had every nitty-gritty detail down in my shoddy shorthand: age, name, profession and his story from start to finish. But when the editor asked me if he was a husband, boyfriend or father, I felt like a fool. I’d missed the most important thing: what made him human?
Quadruple check with police
Check facts with police again and again. And again. I wrote a story involving a man hospitalised with burns. Moments before a deadline, the editor suggested I called the police again. Again?! I was embarrassed about haranguing officers umpteen times. It turned out the victim had been discharged with minor injuries, and my story had to be rewritten. Lesson learnt.
Press release = launch pad
On day one, a press release will probably land in your inbox. Nerves might tempt you to write a short news story based entirely on the release. But don’t settle for that: pick up the phone. You never know, you might get a new angle. Or a sparkling quote that no one else has. This sounds obvious, but it’ll rescue your first story from banality.
Natasha is a wannabe arts and features journalist. After finishing her NCTJ diploma in January, she’s now interning at the Telegraph’s Stella magazine. Follow her @natashalunn
Picture courtesy of renatela
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look