Saturday, 31 December 2011

Six things to know for journalism excellence

I’m wrapping up this blog for 2011 with a list of things journalists need to know in order to practice their craft excellently. I got the idea for this post from a tweet that had a link advertising a position teaching journalism in Africa. I saw the tweet and my mind went off on a tangent all on its own.

I hesitate to use the term ‘profession’ for journalism as there is not any type of body that is used to routinely vet journalists who could be on their way to entering a list of regulated practitioners. Not anywhere in the world, as far as I know. Unlike for accountants, lawyers and doctors, for example. It’s true that journalism has changed markedly from the training standpoint. These days you are more likely to have formally studied journalism at tertiary level before being hired by a media company. It is a recent development. There are more and more journalism schools at universities, and not just in Australia.

The six themes that will be explored in this post are: time, editorial relationships, access to sources, expertise, liberty, and connections. There may be more conditions for excellence. Indeed, the longer you practice as a journalist the more things you might think of to add to this list. I have worked full-time as a freelance journalist for two-and-a-half years. These are the things that I think most directly affect the quality of my own journalism.

Time

In journalism, as in everything else within the professional realm, time is money. Stories are paid for usually on a per-word basis, say 65 cents a word. If you have in mind a longer piece that can accommodate within itself more of the topic’s complexity, then you might envision a story 2000 words long. At 65 cents a word that’s roughly $1300 for the story. Given that you are rational about allocating your time to stories, you would think that two weeks would be all that you can afford to dedicate to this story.

Of course, you would not think of sectioning off a two-week period and doing nothing else but work on the one story. It doesn’t work that way, despite your understandable preference. Once you start getting up to speed as a journalist you will need to be able to manage time across a number of stories simultaneously. You might make a phone call for one story one day and the week after that do a preliminary interview off the record; after all, the person you identified as a qualified source might be on leave or simply be too busy to talk with you when you first call.

As a general rule, there is never enough time to give to a story. There are always more angles to explore, more people to identify and contact, more interviews to complete. But reality intrudes on your most cherished plans. And the thing that will most decisively restrict the amount of time you can dedicate to a story – apart from the rational consideration of money – will be the amount of space you can use. This detail is mostly up to the editor, which brings me to the second of my themes.

Editorial relationships

If you only have 800 words to give to a story because that’s the word limit an editor usually applies, then there are obviously going to be limitations in terms of journalism excellence. Often the editor has no choice. He or she has a managing editor to report to. There’s a set budget for the year and the budget is predicated on a standard, 800-word story length. There’s nothing you can do about this.

Some editors don’t care how long the story is, and will not give you any guidelines. But a long story may take longer to place due to the necessity, for a piece over, say, 1500 words, of finding enough space in the layout. So you might complete a story in February and not see it in print until December. This editor gives you scope to be excellent but may deny you the turnaround that is important to keep your work process on track.

Other editors care less about the length than the quality (within reason). But they might have a set rate on a pro-rata basis, instead of a word rate. It’s up to you whether you write 2400 words or 1600 words, but you’re still only to get the $700 the editor is offering you. This editor is interested in excellence but actually cannot afford to pay for it. You may choose to pursue it anyway because you are passionate about the subject, but requests for more money will fall on deaf ears.

There will be other types of payment regimes used by other editors you come across. Each will have an upside and a downside. It’s up to you whether you want to write for the editor. The best thing about editors, from your point of view, is that they read every word you write and will sometimes give you feedback. Feedback is invaluable, as we shall discuss later on. A really good editor will talk with you about the trajectory that a story is taking; you can see this at work in the Millennium Trilogy novels of Stieg Larsson, which focus on a small, independent magazine and its staff.

Access to sources

Often a story idea and a pitch to an editor will hinge on your already having secured permission from a source to be interviewed for a story. And finding sources takes time, so even before you get the commission you need to spend some time looking into your topic and locating and contacting sources. For highly topical stories this can be especially challenging. Everyone has seen the movie All the President’s Men, about the Watergate scandal. In the story, Deep Throat is the source. You will not likely be in a position to crack a story of this magnitude in your career, but it doesn’t really matter. Most important is finding useful sources who can tell you things that will really add value to the story you plan to write. Again, it’s time that counts here. And persistence.

A word about communications departments is required here. Large companies have corporate communications staff to control access to information about their companies, as do government departments. Small companies might contract this work out to a public relations company. Government departments are the ones most likely to refuse to give you direct access to a source, someone who you can interview on the record. Most likely the person in the communications unit will take an email containing specific questions and pass that onto someone within the organisation. You will receive a response in a timely manner, but the language will be careful, guarded and colourless. This is unavoidable. Large companies might also do this. However, if a corporate public relations operator gives you access to a person with expertise within the company they might still want to see the story before it gets submitted to the editor. You have to decide whether you want to do this.

Often, this will lead to changes being made to the story, even changes to direct quotes you have recorded on the record from the mouth of your contact. Naturally this tends to deaden the language. But it may also lead to useful information being added to the story. It’s a trade-off. If a public relations practitioner tells you that their being able to vet the story prior to publication is a condition of your gaining access to the interview subject, then you probably have no choice. But treat changes as suggestions, and talk with the PR about the draft when you get it back if there are significant difficulties.

Expertise

Most journalists are inexpert in the topics they write about and this is a characteristic of the profession. Journalists write about so many things that it’s impossible to be on top of all aspects of every story. You rely on expert sources to provide the depth you need to cover a topic thoroughly. But most journalists tend to stick with a small subset of topics that they develop a level of expertise in. This makes it easier to come up with good story ideas. It also enables you to develop a relationship of trust with your editors. Again, developing expertise takes time but you will find that you do it naturally. It may take three stories on a single topic before you acquire a level of expertise that enables you to write that truly excellent story. But stay with it; it’s one way to become excellent.

Liberty

Scores of journalists died in 2011 while undertaking activities related to their profession. In some countries, there is government pressure or censorship. These things affect the quality of your work, and impact on the excellence of your stories. In the West, the other themes discussed in this blog post are more likely to have an impact on the quality of your work. In short, however, you must have liberty to report if you want to write a good story.

Court reporting operates under specific rules and journalism students will learn about these rules while doing their coursework. Also at issue are laws relating to defamation. You just cannot say anything you want. Most of the time, your editor will work with you to make sure a story is unimpeachable before it is published.

Another aspect of this theme is the system of corporate values if you work for a media company. The values that matter will probably not be written down anywhere, or even communicated, but they will colour your way of approaching and writing a story. All large media companies campaign on certain topics, and this drives the editorial approach on stories related to that topic. If the corporate values of the organisation are inimical to you, you have to decide before writing the piece how you envision your future career. Too often going against corporate values can lead to professional dissatisfaction, a lack or opportunities for advancement, and frustration.

Connections

A problem for freelance journalists is isolation. If you can find people to talk to about what you’re working on, this will enhance the excellence of your stories. This can be a challenge. It’s important to ask for feedback from your editor; if they have a few minutes spare they will do this for you. But it can also be important to talk with people outside the journalist-editor relationship. So cultivate connections and try to find ways that you can secure feedback from people who you trust. Being connected is one of the things the internet enables, and this avenue can be useful for you in your quest to attain a high level of excellence in your writing. Good luck.

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