What a rapidly changing industry! Less than 10 years ago a regional weekly newspaper hack could go out into that week armed with a clutch of £20 notes to tour the local drinking establishments in the hope of first wetting then loosening the tongues of potential 'snouts' (informants) wishing to spill the beans on the high and mighty. The following morning the sozzled hack would awake in the vague recollection of extracting a great 'scoop' from contacts he had befriended that day. Then, squinting through the foggy hungover haze into the contents of his shorthand notebook, the squiggles would emerge into words like invisible ink to refresh his memory of the story. At the end of the week on press day, the story having made the front page, the hack would return to the pub with his colleagues to share in the success of the scoop. Yes, how times change! The reality today is vastly more desk-bound duties (and little, if any booze on expenses), with stories received from public relations departments of huge companies, celebrities or sports stars via emails and the odd telephone call. But if some of the art is still there, it remains an asset to have the gift of a great eye-catching headline or intro. But the onus, more than ever, is to bash out as many stories in as little time as possible, while retaining the accuracy (some critics call this 'Churnalism').
Who can I work for?
While traditional newspapers (both local and national) are taking a huge dip in both staffing levels and circulation, new media outlets – such as websites and blogs – are growing in strength. Other avenues include TV and radio and news agencies such as P.A.
Where and when can I work?
Anywhere in the world – you might be a war correspondent for the BBC in the Middle-East or covering the rugby World Cup in New Zealand, or, closer to home, an inquest in your local coroners' court or a council meeting at the town hall. A long-standing partner will never ask their journalist other half 'What time will you be home tonight?' because they know it is an intangible. You might be planning on a reasonable finish, say, at 5.30pm, but that fire at the old people's home or murder in the woods is no respecter of fixed home times. The job is never finished until it's done.
What can I earn?
Junior journalists' pay is notoriously low, ranging from £14,000-£20,000. More experienced journalists can earn £15,000-£40,000, depending on position or whether they're working for local or national newspapers. High-level reporters or editors on TV and the nationals can earn over £100,000, but even some of the more famous national titles now will pay little more than £100 a day for a normal freelance shift.
What are the benefits?
Almost euphoric satisfaction when a story hits the jackpot (ie, bringing a corrupt figurehead to justice after a long investigation into their wrongdoings). A brilliant gallows sense of humour (especially on the subs' desk) – though this is sadly and rapidly dying out. A sense of kudos when your friends, family and community see your name atop a story you've crafted.
Are there chances of promotion?
Local newspaper juniors become seniors become sub-editors become deputy editors and editors. You may join the nationals or branch out into TV or radio or specialise (armed forces, trade journals, magazines, corporate communications, etc).
What will I be responsible for?
As a reporter keeping tabs on the local courts, ringing the 999 services to see what has happened, attending council meetings, collating gossip, listening to local industry; a sub-editor will design, fact-check, copy-taste and write headlines); a news editor or editor will oversee the content of the paper and its general feel and usually dictate what goes where in order of prominence.
What qualifications do I need?
Some firms welcome a degree in journalism or media studies, 'Old School' editors might prefer to take off the street and train up a young 'wannabe' hack who is well versed in the university of life. A happy compromise can be attending a one-year NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) short course where you can learn all about the arts needed to be a journalist – the one at Harlow spawned no less a journalistic legend than Piers Morgan!
Do I need any experience?
Not essential. Prospective employers might be impressed with previous writing experience on, say, contributing to or editing your school newspaper or uni rag mag or doing your own blog.
What attributes are needed?
Doggedness. A nose for being nosey. A gallows humour. An ability to take your brain out of your head at times – you will be dealing in the trade of human misery so much at times (murders, child abductions, fatal road accidents, etc), that you need to balance empathy with detachment). A furious work ethic. An ability to turn round stories under great pressure. And a thirst, just in case you find yourself on one of those publications which can still enjoy a drink after a hard day's slog…