Interview: What does it take to become a journalist?

For this blog we have former journalist, and part-time media officer for English with Ease, Ellen Creighton, giving her thoughts on how journalistic writing is taught in schools, and giving her tips to budding writers about how to follow their passion. Creighton? You may ask. Yes, for this first interview we are staying close to home as I discuss with my wife her reasons for completing her post grad degree in journalism, and why after all of the fun scooping news, she decided to trade it to work in schools.

Ellen, why don’t you start by telling us what your own plans were when at school.

Honestly, Jill, my love was for music. I loved playing in the bands, and I always looked forward to my instrumental lessons. At that time, I really wanted to be a peripatetic woodwind teacher as I played the saxophone, clarinet and piano. Most of my free time was used practising.

So, being a journalist wasn’t top of the list?

No, not when I was a teenager (or a young child; I wanted to be a zookeeper then!) but when I was studying music at university I went to a careers talk by the head of a journalism college in London. We were given a test and I was selected to attend an open day there. I went along but didn’t think much of it. Then a couple of years later I was thinking about what to do for a job and I decided to apply for the college. The rest is history.

What would you say was a high point in your career?

I was working on a local newspaper so I didn’t break any massive stories but what gave me a feel-good feeling there was really being a part of the town’s community. Journalists don’t have any special powers. Except in very rare circumstances they can’t go to places that normal people cannot go to – but they have the time and the skills to investigate the news when other people don’t. Reporting for the paper meant I had time to sit in court cases and council meetings, to speak to the people who lived in each town and village about what was important to them (even if it wasn’t ground-breaking) and to be the first with the local news. In journalism college, we were told that journalists are the eyes and ears of the public and that really is the case. Anyone could go and sit in court, but journalists have the time to do so and they also use shorthand to write it down super-fast. Then all the readers get to know the interesting and parts, without sitting through all the waiting and dull sections!

What was your favourite thing to write about?

I loved writing features. These are the longer pieces in a newspaper that are about a general topic of interest rather than something that has just happened. They are less time sensitive so you can spend longer on them and go into much more detail. Mine were focused on the local community so I visited a nearby independent jeweller and had a go at making my own earrings and necklace out of clay, had a preview pancake tasting session at a garden centre, went behind the scenes in not one but two churches, was given a taste of the art of crochet and even dressed up as a firewoman! It was great fun, so it definitely hits the top spot.

You even started training as a teacher, but decided that wasn’t the path for you. What made you decide to pursue other avenues?

Sadly, the newspaper industry was badly hit by the economic downturn and cutbacks meant we lost a fellow reporter, our photographer and our receptionist, to name but a few. There was less time to leave the office and create high quality stories. I decided it was time to move on.

How has having a range of jobs helped in various roles?

Every experience you have adds to your bank of knowledge, and journalism was no exception. I’ve worked as an administrator, which has been excellent practice for my computer skills, being able to write shorthand will always be useful and even helping out at a children’s music school as a teenager added to my ability to work with children. This term I’m giving my journalism experience a specific role in school by running a journalism club. I’ll not just be teaching the children to write though; they will also learn how to find the news and I’ll even have my own young editor to help me in the decision making.

What advice would you give a student who wants to be a journalist when they grow up?

Firstly, immerse yourself in the news. Watch the news on TV, listen to it on the radio, read the newspaper. There is lots of appropriate material out there for younger pupils. Think about how the news is said or written. Even if you’re not thinking about it, though, reading, watching and listening to lots of news will make you subconsciously aware of the style of the news so you’ll be able to create your own news. It’s the same as with reading and writing; the more you read the better you’ll be at writing. Secondly, concentrate on improving your writing. Journalists don’t have much time so you need to be able to write without thinking too hard or looking up spellings and that comes with practice. If there is a school newspaper, make sure you are writing for it. This will get you into the newshound mindset – there is news everywhere if only you seek it out.

If you are thinking about starting a journalism club, or want some specialised resources to use with your class, then check out our seven-lesson pack. Want to get started now? Then download our free Hilarious Headlines game, which provides 104 cards worth of fun.

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