Advice from a Journalism Intern: the fun and the pitfalls

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I knew upon signing up for an MA in International Journalism at Brunel that I would have to find those ethereal things known as ‘work placements’. Indeed, a minimum of ten days is required overall in order to graduate and since I was told (by many) that finding a placement in London would be as challenging as getting England to win the World Cup, I knew the path ahead would be a bit bumpy.

Still, I was feeling positive. I was a new London gal about town and had the wind in my sails (sometimes, it was two sheets to the wind I will admit).

Where to apply wasn’t a problem. I already knew the publications I wanted to aim for, but making a list in the first month of the course really helped me channel my efforts and applications. My interests have fluctuated over the last year but I knew some key areas I wanted to explore were entertainment, food writing, travel and literary reviews.

I was naïve at the beginning. I thought I could knock off four or five applications in one day and would hear back with positive answers within the week. Oh, how wrong I was. Still, I managed to gain a week at Bang Showbiz and two at Food and Travel Magazine. How? By thinking outside the box.

Refining my CV for placement applications has now become a continual process (or habit). Paul Lashmar encouraged me to not only produce a clear document that listed my skills and achievements but to design one which sold me as a working journalist rather than a journalism student. This is key budding journos. If you don’t see yourself as a professional, others won’t either.

I now update it every time I publish something new or work somewhere different. This way I’m able to keep on top of the details and ensure I am showcasing all the various experiences gained over the last year.

The time finally came to start sending off CV’s and cover letters. The first place I applied was Country Living Magazine and though successful, was told my internship would not be until late 2014! I knew this was probably not something I will be able to fulfil as, fingers crossed, I should be in full time employment within the next few months. As this was a publication I had aimed for, the disappointment was huge! But the experience taught me that it’s essential to hedge your bets and apply to several organisations. You never know what’s around the corner and while it’s best to apply to a few places in detail, don’t limit yourself to one or two.

Next stop: Bang Showbiz. After sending in my CV and cover letter, I heard nothing for 2 weeks. I decided to call them. Apparently, a little extra self-confidence works wonders in the entertainment world.

Tufayel, the Film Editor, pulled up my application on the screen and offered me work experience then and there for January. If I could give any aspiring journalist any advice it would be this: don’t be afraid of the telephone. In fact I have found most of my freelance work or work experience by calling up the right person or contacting them via social media. Be different, be bold and be a bit of a pest.

The Bang Showbiz agency was established in 1997 by Fleet Street showbiz columnist Rick Sky – who was entertainment editor on The Sun, Mirror and Daily Star – to serve the UK and world media with entertainment stories.

Safe to say I was a little nervous but that Monday morning, just after New Year, came around and I set off on the tube. I got to the Kentish Town office early in order to locate the office and thus avoid embarrassing lateness.

I was quickly thrown into work and had to do a few tests. I was asked to turn a three page Liam Gallagher interview transcript into 4 different 200 word stories in an hour, using the house style. I was then tested on sourcing news stories from Twitter. Thank goodness I had organised myself with Twitter account a few months earlier! Phew.

The first day was hard work but if you have an eye for a story and know your entertainment news well, you’re 80% there. I survived my first day and loved it!

As soon as I walked through the door on the second day, the Beauty Editor asked me: “Are you free tonight, I need a massive favour?” Turns out I was free and I was intrigued. “We need you to cover a red carpet event” she said. Who could turn down such an offer? I set to work researching the celebrities I had to try to interview. I was to cover the VIP red carpet launch of Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Quidam’. I learnt how to use a dictaphone, a simple thing I know, but I wanted to get it right and it’s helped me ever since. I wrote a few more stories during the day and when 5 o’clock came around I hit the road.

I headed to the Royal Albert Hall where I queued up for my press sticker and entered the ‘pen’. My first interviewee was brought up by her PR team. It was Kelly Hoppen, one of the infamous ‘Dragons’ from BBC’s ‘Dragons’ Den’. Next was Beth Tweddle, three time Olympian and current ‘Dancing on Ice’ contestant. My article on Beth was published on  The List, Female First, Virgin Media, IMDB and TV3, something which has been fantastic for my CV.

I spent the next few days transcribing my interviews and coming up with stories. I came up with three or four from each interview before showing them to the Editor and he explained which ones would be suitable for their clients and why which was immensely helpful.

My pieces were eventually published in The Sun, on TV Guide, IMDB, Sunday World, Female First, News Dump, TV 3, The Hertfordshire Mercury and Cambridge News, The List, Silobreaker, IMDB, Virgin Media, TV 3, Breaking News and The Irish Examiner.

The director gave me a great piece of advice. “When you are thinking of your first line for a story, imagine it’s the first thing you’re going to say to someone in the pub”. In other words – don’t be boring! This is a far cry from the more conventional training I have received on my MA, particularly in Jacquie Hughes’s News and Feature class, which taught me to get the ‘what’ ‘where’ ‘who’ ‘why’ ‘when’ and ‘how’ in the first few lines. However, the contrasting learning experiences have taught me about writing for a particular audience and that you need to adapt accordingly.

I’m still exploring my options, but it was an eye opening and fantastic week. I learnt that you need to snap up opportunities when they come around, your writing can never be too sharp and that you should have faith in your abilities. Also, include yourself when you are on work experience. There is no point sitting in the corner staring into space.

The first two weeks of April were spent as an Editorial Intern at Food and Travel Magazine. Again I applied with a formal cover letter and CV – nothing happened. So, I tweeted the Editor Guy Woodward. I got a reply within minutes saying he enjoyed my Blog, which can be reached via my twitter page. I sent my CV direct to him. Within a few hours, I had a placement. As with Bang, it sometimes pays to go about things a little differently (and have a Blog).

After being quickly introduced to everyone in the Editorial and Advertising teams, I was put to work straight away. By the end of the first few days I was fully immersed within the Editorial team, taking on a variety of tasks, from article research and image sourcing to writing and fact-checking. It definitely was not one of those tea making internships.

My first task was to gather images for a Top 50 UK Cookery Schools feature, which involved chasing down each school, speaking to their PR rep and gathering photos. I then wrote about many of the schools – a great test of quickly writing to house style and brief. At first, I was quite nervous about having to contact over 50 different schools in a few days, but I quickly got the hang of it. I learnt how to deal with a variety of personalities as some people were far more difficult than others when trying to liaise about photographs.

Up next was the ’48 Hour City Trip’ section, where I had to research flights from the UK to Ouro Preto in Brazil. I also had to research information for a trip to Rome which was hugely enjoyable. Then came the ‘Three For’ restaurant review page where I had to research, write and gather photos on three Greek, Jewish and Kitchen Garden style restaurants in London. Again my persuasion skills were put the test when I had to explain why we were featuring the establishment and what we needed from them.

The time finally came at the end of the second week for my newly acquired InDesign skills to shine, when I was asked to work on the contents page. There is no way I would have been able to do this task without the skills acquired in my Print class with Lydia Polzer. I was consequently asked to apply copy and photos to the ‘48hr City trip’ pages which was challenging but exceedingly rewarding in the end.

Another task I had to do was to filter internship applications and feature pitches. This, more than the actual writing experience in some ways, taught me a great deal about how to gain freelance work or future work experience. I was seeing it from the other side for once. Boy-o-Boy!

Many people applied for work experience with a one line email and no CV attached! But worse than that, most people hadn’t tailored their application, even their email, to the specific publication. Get with the program people.

Our tutors tell us to always do this and now I see why. If not, it makes you look slapdash and uncommitted, which aren’t ideal qualities for a new journalist…

When these applications came though I didn’t even forward them to the editorial assistant. On the other hand, there were some brilliant ones and I did my best to make sure these people gained a placement in the future by forwarding them to him.

Similarly, some writers would send in feature pitches that were far too long-winded and overladen with detail or, at the other end of the spectrum, contained only a few lines. I learnt that the best way to pitch was to keep it short but not too vague. So 5/6 sentences, include a few photos in the body of the copy if you have them and make sure it is something appropriate for the target audience.

Reflecting on why I started this course, I was brought back to one of the first books I read in October. When I first read Jon Smith’s Essential Reporting, specifically the section on ‘What you Need’ (2007, p.3-5) to be a journalist, I thought I fulfilled most of the criteria, or at least wanted to by the end of the year. My two work placements have cemented in my mind where my strengths and weaknesses lay, in which areas I excel and where I can improve.

One of his criteria is curiosity. I have often been told I ask too many questions. In fact, I usually have to hold myself back upon meeting new people for fear they may think I am a spy (aha, I wish). I’ve always been curious and am happy to have embarked on a career where curiosity is not only an asset but a prerequisite.

“You have to be inquisitive about everything, constantly, asking questions about the world around you. What happened? Who did it and why? What happens next” (Smith, 2007, p.3). Inquisitiveness is definitely one of my defining characteristics; it makes me who I am. I think not being afraid to ask questions, whether that be about an assignment in class or your task on a work placement, is essential in a good journalist.

Asking questions throughout my placements at Bang and Food and Travel magazine enabled me to absorb as much information as possible and therefore learn as much as I could in the time allotted. Occasionally it could be slightly awkward asking basic questions at the beginning because you assume the other members of staff think you are wasting their time. However, I kept reminding myself that they were in my shoes once and that it’s better to ask and do a task correctly than be shy and get things wrong. Trust me.

Other qualities Jon Smith considers important in a journalist are courage and self-belief (2007, p.3). One event when my courage was seriously put to the test was when I reported alone from the red carpet on the second day of my placement at Bang. I had never even used a dictaphone before! It was a total baptism of fire. I had to compete with other journalists for interviews in the pen, learn the names and histories of all the A-List guests attending the red carpet event and try to speak to as many as possible.

When I look back to that night, I think the team must have been mad sending me in to report. I was only there because the person who was supposed to cover the event couldn’t go at the last minute. An intern wouldn’t usually be given the responsibility or freedom, so I consider myself extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity. I am grateful for the trust they placed in me and I think that partly came down to the enthusiasm I showed when I was asked to do the job that morning.

The experience taught me that even if you feel unsure – put on a smile, suck it up and don’t over-think it. As I heard in a Matt Damon film We Bought a Zoo, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery.”

If you believe in yourself, others will believe in you. How people react to you is all about the energy you give off. Tone of voice, body language and eye contact are all defining factors for whether a person will trust you or not. If you act awkwardly, as though you don’t think you should be there, they will be inclined to agree.

Yes, there have been many occasions during my work placements when I was nervous, anxious and unsure, but that doesn’t mean I showed it to my colleagues or let it affect my performance. You just have to be brave, and if you’re not that’s OK, just come in the next day with a can-do attitude and offer to make everyone a cup of tea or coffee. The little things make all the difference in an office.

When I was working at Food and Travel, it was their last two weeks before going to print. Safe to say, things were exceedingly busy and often stressful. I brought in biscuits/chocolates to lighten the mood on a few occasions and while I acknowledge this seems like a pretty random thing to include here, I found this perked everyone up, made us work better as a team and helped form bonds. In a team of journalists, you need to be able to communicate and trust your team (something I also learnt as Deputy Editor of LaunchPad magazine), so that you can learn from each other and pool your resources together.

On both my placements I also made sure I wrote down the name of every person I met quickly so as to avoid awkward name-slips mid-week. By confidently calling people by their name from the beginning (another small detail), they know you are on the ball.

More advice I would give to future students while on work experience would be to go around the office and offer to make drinks at least once or twice to members outside your department. By getting to know the advertising, sales, production or design teams, your job in editorial will be much easier down the line when you will undoubtedly need to communicate with your other, less familiar colleagues. Spreading your name around also means you have a higher chance of being remembered. And being remembered – or connected – is vital in this industry.

I have learnt more than I could have imagined over the past year. I now know more about myself as a writer, student and woman, and where I will fit into the ever-changing, ever-tricky world of journalism. Classes have been vital and enlightening. But nothing can replace being thrown in at the deep end of a working organisation. The lessons were different, quicker perhaps and more harsh, but we all need a bit of tough love from time to time.

Works Cited

Smith, J. (2007). Essential Reporting. London: Sage Publications. [Print].

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2 thoughts on “Advice from a Journalism Intern: the fun and the pitfalls

  1. Hey Jessy, I really enjoyed reading this! Your placements seemed like really great experiences, I wish you all the best in your job hunts and I hope all goes well for you in your journalism career 🙂

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