How to get ahead in consumer journalism (2007)

I wrote this for our ‘We Go Deeper’ behind-the-scenes slot when we were advertising for a writer on Death Ray. The hilarious ineptitude by which we went about this process is a story in itself, and was only really matched by the hilarious ineptitude of some of our applicants. but we’ll leave that for another day. This piece, which appeared in Death Ray 4, was my way of ‘helping’ folks who might think a career in magazines is for them. Mostly, when people ask me about it, I try to put them off, because I believe lots of people think it’s easy, and it isn’t.

By the way, the lessons below still hold true. My brother Ralf (Haley 5) later got a plum job working for Manchester United’s TV station as a video editor; but only after he and Tristan (Haley 3) spent a few months going round Europe together making a film about Ralf’s attempts to get a professional football trial to showcase his filmmaking abilities.

You may notice that this is similar in some respects to my article ‘How NOT to Write Comics’. That’s because I like bullet points.

The Write Stuff

How we all got into this crazy old world of writing about aliens, and how, perhaps, you could too.

In our very first issue we advertised for new staff members. The response has been massive, which suggests a lot of you think working on magazines is very cool. It is, but the truth is jobs like this don’t come up often, and they’re tough to get. So I thought I’d drop a few hints on how to break into the fortress of fun that is consumer magazine journalism.

  1. There is no one way in. Matt [Bielby] was involved in school and university papers before getting a job with Emap (he refused to say when, but they still had typewriters). Jes [Bickham](1) sent in a few reviews to N64 on spec, leading to a full-time position. Lee [Hart] simply applied for a job on DCUK. I did work experience on SFX and was offered a job. Karl [Jacques] claims he was raised by artistic wolves who allowed him to play with their crayons, but I think he’s fibbing.
  2. It’s all down to you. The three essential qualities a consumer journalist requires are: deep knowledge of their subject (or ability to rapidly gain it), a good dose of writing talent and a winning way with people – you will be working in a tight team under pressure and dealing with dozens of other people, from reviewers to film stars. Persistence, patience, humour and enthusiasm help, a big ego does not.
  3. Education versus experience. Most journalists have degrees, though not necessarily in Media Studies or Journalism. In fact, I’ve found that people with these qualifications often overestimate their own abilities, as there is a big gap between being taught and the real world. It’s better to build up experience on non-pro publications and work placements.
  4. Work for nothing. My brothers, all four of whom are in the media too, know this well. Garth(2), number two in our family(3), left his old job as an overpaid IT consultant, did a BBC apprenticeship and then a lot of unpaid work before he got any money; Tristan  who is a film cameraman, also worked for ages for nothing [he also sent out 1000 CVs, I remember now]. But getting work experience is not easy, Ralf , who has just graduated, recently had to battle 500 other applicants to win a placement. That’s right, just like applying for a job, but you don’t get any money!(4)
  5. Building contacts is the name of the game, and working for free helps you make them. We get to check you out, you get a bundle of free advice and training in exchange for making the tea. It looks great on your CV and you will meet people who will give you a nice reference. Who knows, if you impress someone, paid work might be forthcoming.(5)
  6. It’s all in the presentation. You’d think people would be careful with their use of English when applying for a writer’s job, but no – bad spelling, no punctuation, emails written in lower case and hilarious malapropisms abound. Read the magazine you are trying to get into! You’d be amazed by how many people don’t. Also, some folk labour under the misapprehension that journalism is a haven for people that like to mess about all day. It’s not. To be fair, I don’t think educational institutions prepare people for work, so my advice is, if on placement or given a job, don’t behave like a tit.
  7. Congratulations! You have become a journalist! Long hours and low pay await you! Thrill as your first piece of copy is demolished by a sub-editor! Delight as rage-filled net forums compare you to a child-snatcher for saying you don’t like Babylon 5 much! There’s lots that’s great about this business, but, like all jobs, it is a dirty one in some respects.

Still, somebody’s got to do it.

1 Jes’s brother Al is also a journalist.

2 Garth writes the odd piece for Death Ray. He now works freelance for the BBC.

3 Guy no. 1! Grrr.

4 At least they had it easier than Aidan (no. 4) has. He wants to be a screenwriter. If you think journalism’s a tough gig to crack, try *that*. Sheesh!

5 Sorry, we’re not taking work experience on Death Ray yet. We have no spare desks.


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