ARTICLE FOR “MEDIA” (Thursday liftout) IN “THE AUSTRALIAN”
Clippings the only proof
Do journalism graduates have job skills? Simon Townsend says the answer is easy: “No clippings, don’t bother to apply”
Degrees, doctorates and diplomas have nothing over a fistful of clippings that prove a journalism applicant can create publishable articles.
That’s what print journalists do: write articles suitable for particular publications.
If students do several years of journalism studies, they must make time to get published somewhere outside the comfort and ease of their own institution’s publications or website.
If not, they are either not keen (solution: move on) or they are untalented (solution: no solution).
I started at 16 as a cadet reporter on a country weekly without even having the results of my Intermediate Certificate. (For the youngsters, that was a Year 9 qualification of the 1960s.)
Yes, I’m one of those grizzled journos who’s bemused by journalism education in universities where theory reigns supreme.
After 44 years in media, I find great joy these days in a side job of tutoring in freelance journalism at a private college.
What’s so real and so satisfying to me is the pressure put on students to quickly create articles, submit them and get published before finishing the course.
I relentlessly drive into my students’ brains that editors aren’t interested in their life-tales, childhood poetry and look-alike, sound-alike CVs.
Editors want interesting, well-written, mistake-free articles targeted right between the reader’s eyes.
In Media recently veteran journalist Mark Day asked if journalism graduates have the skills editors need.
The answers from a cross-section of executive journalists were a mixture of: “ . . . sort of . . . some do . . . some don’t . . . at least they’ve learnt to study . . . they haven’t read basic textbooks . . . they think it’s glamorous . . . some can’t even spell . . .”
And as Day wrote: “[Can] any form of schooling adequately teach those parts of the profession that are innate: a news sense that allows individuals to ‘sniff’ a story, doggedness and a refusal to take no for an answer, curiosity, passion and commitment.”
Journalism should be no different to other prized professions: prove you already have skills or bugger orf. Don’t bother applying to be a 747 pilot unless you’ve already obtained some kind of pilot’s licence. A movie director? Not unless you’ve already produced something that can be viewed on a screen.
Sorry, what’s that? Oh. You were too busy studying the theory of gravity, too busy passing exams on film critique in Poland in the 1920s . . ?
There are thousands of publications in Australia and ALL of them need contributions from freelancers. The rejection note may read “Our budget does not allow us to accept freelance contributions at this time, but thank you . . .” etc. But all editors, finding the right articles sizzling in their hands, will take them.
This rejection note is nicer than saying: “What a load of codswallop, sonny. Have you never bothered to study our publication to understand what we need, girlie? Ever heard of syntax, boyo? Is your spellchecker disabled, you nong?”
* * *
I have conducted 4,000 auditions of aspiring television reporters. These were open cattle calls for my show Simon Townsend’s Wonder World! (Ten, 1979-87) and for some other shows. I was always keen to look at graduates of media courses. Some reached the finals, but not as many as should have.
They could do a stand-up to camera, just as uni taught them. But throw them a curved ball, give them the opposite of what they expected and they failed at thinking on their feet.
They could do a staged interview, just as uni had taught them. Be polite and ask intelligent questions. But they failed at listening. My favourite unfair test was to have the play-acting interviewee drop in the phrase “which is why I killed Mum” and keep on talking to see which graduates even heard it, let alone picked up on it.
The fastest way to speed up the auditioning was to warn all these budding television journalists: “If you repeat the interviewee’s answer back at him, you will be immediately eliminated.” I could quickly cut 50% of auditionees via this cruel but efficient method.
What on earth were the university media courses teaching these kids? Which way to brush their hair? They certainly hadn’t taught them listening skills.
* * *
My print journalism students are either looking for part-time work as freelancers, or are looking to use freelancing as a way into full-time jobs. I never stop telling them: “get published”. Without a fancy university degree you’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way by getting published.
And keep reminding yourselves of the universal, immutable, everlasting rules of good writing. Or even some of my favourites:
Your opinion may be welcome but your sermon isn’t. Redraft, rewrite, edit and re-edit. Don’t state the bleedin’ obvious. You are not required to write a Walkley Award winner. Show, don’t tell. Don’t generalise but use specific images. Forget self-expression and communicate. Distrust adjectives and adverbs, love strong verbs. Graze your dictionary and thesaurus just because you love words. Your mum’s opinion will never help you.
Write in the active voice, not passive. It’s Elle Macpherson, not MacPherson, Beazley with a z and Freeman is Cathy not Kathy and such errors are SINS.. This is a hyphen – and this is a dash —. Use as few words as possible, not as many as pop into your head. Rarely tell stories in chronological order. Use effect and affect correctly.
People don’t pass over, they die. Write about people firstly, topics secondly. Your emails should be as well-written as your articles. It’s Esky with a capital E and Coca-Cola with a hyphen. The exclamation mark should be used maybe three times in your entire career.
Use a 12-digit calculator and avoid the unquestioning reporting of Bob Hawke’s vow to plant a billion trees in five years. It took days for journalists to realise that was an impossible 547,645 plantings a day.*
It’s “its” sometimes and it’s “it’s” other times, but get it right. Having your letters to the editor published is not journalism. Feel constantly starved for information and suck it up from radio, free-TV, pay-TV, publications and the internet. It’s “lay” sometimes and “lie” other times.
Online, read one article a day from each Times in London, Los Angeles and New York. On the back of your hand write Nike’s motto: Just do it. Put the word only in the right place in a sentence (putting it in the wrong place is journalism and advertising’s most consistent error).
Researching is merely researching, it’s not writing. Manage your fear of rejection: it never goes away. Sewerage is not sewage but some journalism is. It’s easy to avoid sexist writing. Don’t lie to editors. What’s an “expensive” meal and is it still expensive if Bill Gates pays? You must love accuracy and that starts with perfect spelling.
Finally, develop a winning phone manner because on the phone is where you’ll spend a great part of your career.
And so on. I’ve got a million of ‘em. After all, it isn’t rocket science. It’s just journalism.
* The calculation depends on whether the 5 years has either one or two leap years (it can’t have nil or 3). Four years of 365 days = 1,460 days plus one leap year of 366 days = 1,826 days in a five year period with one leap year. So 1,000,000,000 divided by 1,826 = 547,645.12. Or, three years of 365 days = 1,095 days plus two leap years of 366 days = 732 days = 1,826 days in a five year period with two leap years. Thus 1,000,000,000 divided by 1,827 = 547,345.37.