Last Updated on July 17, 2023, 7:16 pm
By Tom Hill, Course Director, Up To Speed Journalism Training
Professional journalists need to be able to turn their hand to any branch of the profession whether it be print, online or broadcast. All of these craft skills are taught on Up To Speed’s digital journalism fast-track at the Bournemouth Daily Echo and I will cover them in future blog posts. However, for the next few days I want to concentrate on the so-called “soft skills” all reporters need to possess.
It is easy to start your life in journalism with a strong desire to write only about the people you know and the issues of interest to you. That is natural. We are all more interested in what happens in our own lives than in the lives of others. However, to succeed as a journalist you need to write stories that are of interest to large audiences or groups of readers. To do this you need to become a different person and to turn your attention to the lives of others instead.
You need to be curious about other people and to develop a genuine fascination for what makes them tick. You need to develop skills in talking to people to enable you to winkle these stories out of them and to discover a nose for news that will allow you to evaluate which of those stories will be of interest to the widest possible audience of your publication’s readers.
A common question to be asked when you are a journalist is, have you interviewed anyone famous? Sometimes these interviews can be the most memorable ones, but they can also be frustrating, especially if you are confronted by an impatient prima donna with a PR team in tow. The most rewarding interviews are often with so-called “ordinary people” with fascinating stories to tell.
I was talking to a friend called Peter Jackson the other day, who must have interviewed many celebrities during his time as editor of TV Times, The Sunday Times Magazine and Elle. The story he told me last week was quite different, but no less remarkable.
“When I was a young reporter I was given the job of interviewing interesting people in the small town where I was working and, despite my protests, the editor insisted on calling these pieces Jackson’s Jaunts,” said Peter.
“Well, I’d done all the obvious people and had run out of ideas. So, I headed off with my notebook and pen to see what I could find. In the end I found a man putting up a billboard poster and convinced myself that I could get something out of this if I tried. He told me all about the challenges of the job, quipping that it wasn’t a good idea to step back and admire your work when you were up a ladder. I wrote it all down and then he let slip that in the war he had been on the ground when the first atomic bomb was dropped. He had been a prisoner of war and was swept out to sea by the tsunami that followed. The man had washed up on a beach several miles down the coast, but he had survived when 140,000 people hadn’t. I knew then that I had a great story.”
Earlier this year, cancer finally claimed the life of a frail 93-year-old man in Japan. If you had bumped into the slightly deaf former schoolteacher last year, would you have thought to strike up a conversation with him? If you had, you would have stumbled across a remarkable story. Last year the director of Avatar James Cameron flew to Japan just to talk to him. The reason is that “Lucky” Yamaguchi was the only man known to have survived the atomic bombs at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
People often ask where all the news in the newspapers, or on google news, comes from. Sometimes, it is the simple reporting of events, but in most cases news comes from curious journalists talking to people, finding out what makes them tick and telling their stories.
In the next post, I’ll discuss ways in which reporters can break the ice with new interviewees and contacts.
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