My first journalism job: what I’ve learned in a month

Four weeks ago, after almost a year of job applications, I started my first, real journalism job. The past month has been a bit of a whirlwind. Aside from all the practical things, like learning how to navigate the custom CMS and realising that you can’t schedule tweets with images in Tweetdeck, here are some of the life lessons I’ve learned during my first month on the job.

Not everything you write will be published

One of the first things my editor asked me to write was a quiz about food waste. “Make it really funny,” she said. “It has to be hilarious.” I thought about this for some time, put together a quiz that I had tried desperately to make witty, and sent it to her – all the while thinking: “Seriously though, who can make food waste funny?” Not me, it turns out. Stuart Heritage, on the other hand, is a dab hand at making the driest of subjects completely hilarious. (I’ve read his version of the quiz probably more times than anyone and still find myself chuckling.)

But there, something that I had put real effort into was passed over in favour of something else. And it won’t be the first time. It’s really crucial not to take this personally, and the sooner you can come to terms with it, take it on the chin and move on, the better. I have learned – although I already had a inkling – that I’m not a funny writer. And that’s perfectly okay. I have other strengths like… umm… I’ll have a think about this.

Sleep is really, really important

When I was working in pubs and applying for journalism jobs, sleep was just this thing you did after you’d given up scouring job sites for the day, or after you’d come to end of the available episodes for a particular programme on Netflix. It didn’t really matter when you went to bed, how much or how well you slept because, really, you could very easily have a nap on the sofa in the middle of the day if you felt like it.

In retrospect, my sleeping patterns during that time was horrendous. I worked in the pub in the evenings, arrived home well after midnight, probably watched something on TV ’til 2am, and finally hauled myself out of bed the next day at 11am. My days rarely got going before the rest of the world had eaten lunch.

Maybe it’s the shock of having a normal, real, day-time job. Maybe it’s joining a big project a few weeks before launch. But I have never appreciated the value of a good quality, 8-hour sleep as much as I have in these past few weeks. Lattes with an extra shot can only keep you going for so long, and you absolutely cannot be firing on all cylinders if you’re burning the candle at both ends. And I think the same truth is applicable for job applications. If you want your work to be at its best, then you have to have some decent rest. There you go, a nice little motto…

Criticism can come from anywhere

Sadly, I have also learned that there will always be someone, somewhere who has something negative to say about the work you’re doing. I’m working on Guardian Live Better: an online project focused on sustainability, funded by Unilever. The idea of an international corporation funding a project which encourages people to be ‘green’ has attracted some criticism. And although bloggers and columnists have questioned the partnership, rather than the actual content I help to produce, it is hard not to take such comments to heart. Sometimes, I feel as though I may have already compromised my journalistic integrity at the very start of my career.

But the content I produce is editorially independent from any sponsors, and living in a way that is respectful to our environment is something I cared about long before I got this job – I am keen to share ways to do this to a wider audience.  I can also take some comfort in the knowledge that it is largely accepted that sponsored content will become more and more commonplace as the future profitably of journalism grows increasingly uncertain. Besides, it’s important not to dwell on these sorts of doubts for too long, or I’d never get anything done.

What is slightly harder to come to terms with is the criticism from people you know personally; who question your suitability for the role you have taken on. The key lesson to learn here – and it’s good to learn this one early on, too – is that these people are not worth your time, focus or energy. The only people you should surround yourself with are those who congratulate you and wish you well.

It’s all worth it in the end

How patronising are those seven words? Yeah, I know. I was on the receiving end of so many of these types of phrases for the best part of a year. ‘It’ll all be worth it in the end.’ ‘Something will come along eventually.’ ‘The perfect job is just around the corner.’ I’ve had them all, and those comments were followed by a strong desire to punch whoever had said them in the face. But, actually, they were (dare I said it?) right.


All your hard work is not for nothing. You are not putting this much effort into your  journalism courses, NCTJ qualifications,  job applications, internships and work experience placements for nothing. As Dev Patel’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel says: “Everything will be alright in the end, so if it is not alright, it is not the end.”

This post originally appeared on Wannabe Hacks.


Development data challenge

The Development Data Challenge is a two-day event organised by the International Aid Transparency Initiative, an organisation which strives for global development data to be made public, as quickly and as easily as possible. In recent years, more and more of this development data has been made available, so the idea of the weekend was to interrogate it to answer questions about global development, and then present findings in interesting ways.

I’m not an international development expert, nor can I do fancy things with HTML or coding, but I have a decent interest in both areas so I thought I might as well go along (the event was free!) and if anything, it would be a fantastic opportunity to network.

In the weeks leading up to the event, people submitted questions they wanted to be answered. These ranged from; “What is the average salary of an ex-pat aid worker compared to that of a local aid worker?” and “How much aid money is lost in admin processes?” to “How reliable is this data?” There were about 70 questions in total so our first task was to whittle these down to a select the most interesting, and then choose the ones we thought we could tackle in groups, with the data we knew (or other people knew) were available.

During the discussion, one attendee brought up the question of the extent of media influence on aid donations after natural disasters. Does more news coverage increase donations? Or does the fact that more people are donating money increase news coverage? Or are other factors involved, such as the number of people affected by the disaster?

I touched on this age-old question during my MA programme, and I know studies have been done to assess the quantity and quality of press coverage of natural disasters. There is even a theory about it. But how does this affect aid donations? And what about broadcast news? Those are questions I wanted to answer.

It took my group (which grew steadily across the weekend) quite a while to work out just how we were going to answer this question, where we were going to find the information, and how we were going to include everything we wanted to. In the end, we decided to cover five big natural disasters of the last ten years: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the 2010 Pakistan floods, the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the 2011 East Africa drought.

Then came the tricky part; finding comparable data on the amount of aid donations for each disaster and working out the total number of people affected. This took a huge chunk of our time and I can’t even remember the processes we went through, but eventually, we found the financial data through the Financial Tracking Service and relied on official reports from aid organisations, such as the Red Cross, for the total number of people affected.

For me, this exercise confirmed some things while disproving others. I thought that the more a natural disaster was televised, the more money would be donated – regardless of the number of people affected. The Pakistan Floods case study proved this, but the Japanese earthquake and tsunami did not. (Then again, the Japanese government was telling people not to give them any money.)

And there are so many other factors that contribute to why media organisations cover what they do – see the Galtung & Ruge theory – and why people donate to some causes and not to others – see Susan D. Moeller.

Most importantly, I think my group really started something that groups at future hack days can continue with. I’m glad we had something to show for our hard work (at around 3pm on Sunday when we were still trying to find financial data, it looked like we might not have anything to present!) and as I thought, I had many interesting conversations and met some fascinating people.

April Fool’s in the news

This morning I woke up to a report on BBC Radio 4 describing how pensioners may soon be expected to prove a certain level of fitness in order to claim their pension. One suggestion was to install treadmills in post offices around the country – elderly people would have to walk for three or four minutes on the treadmill before they would be allowed to pick up their pension.

The report then included some vox pops. Young people seemed to be fully supportive of this idea. One girl said that if police officers have to prove their fitness, then elderly people should too. Another said something along the lines of: “Old people have worked hard for their pension so they should make sure they stick around long enough to enjoy it.”

In my still-sleepy state, I thought: “Are these people mad?!” My own grandparents are relatively fit for their age but many older people struggle with health problems. And besides, why should they prove their fitness to claim money they’ve worked their whole lives for?!

And then I looked at my phone and saw the date: April 1st. Good one, Radio 4.

While April Fool’s Day has long been an opportunity for people to play pranks on each other, media organisations have also taken on the tradition and, over the years, have produced some rather humorous reports.

Today, the Guardian has an article about Downing Street calling in Shaun Ryder, lead singer of the Happy Mondays, to be a special advisor on social class, and to help banish ‘Pasty-gate’ by launching a T-shirt campaign entitled ‘We’re all eating this together’. The newspaper also conveniently has a photo gallery of celebrities wearing a range of t-shirts from the campaign (with apologies to Sport Relief 2012).

But maybe the best is the 1957 report by Panorama, which told us that an unusually mild winter had resulted in a bumper spaghetti harvest on the Swiss-Italian border, and the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil. The video sparked a barrage of questions to the BBC, with viewers asking how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. The BBC replied: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato juice and hope for the best.” Apparently, only a select few journalists at the BBC knew about this package before it went on air. And no doubt the voice of Richard Dimbleby gave viewers a confusing sense of authority. It seems totally ridiculous now, but would you have believed it at the time?

So, while the rest of the year may seem all doom and gloom. April Fool’s is a great opportunity for journalists to show their humorous side. I just hope other people get the joke!