There’s a best way (Mistake #55)

A freelance journalist colleague of mine, Janet Murray, is offering an apprenticeship to a young person with an interest in the business. She has today written about it in the Guardian, and you can find out more here.

Most of the comments and tweets I’ve seen about this initiative – the first of its kind, Jan thinks – have been positive. One blog post I read, the journalist and novelist Emma Lee Potter’s, was a little more circumspect. She made the point that an apprenticeship with a working freelance might not be the best way to train a new journalist and that it’s perhaps not the ideal direction journalism training in general should be taking. She adds:

“… it’s the buzz of working in a busy news room, seeing a variety of experienced reporters in action and crafting a great story from an initially unpromising interviewee that teaches you how to be a journalist.”

I commented, first because I don’t think it matters whether or not this is the best way to learn the trade – it’s an alternative way, which might suit a particular type of individual – and second, because there really are lots of ways into journalism (or into the writing business in a wider sense). Emma agreed with this second point in her response to my comment, but it struck me later that it was perhaps worth a post here too.

So: you can go to journalism college, you can do work experience, you can do a correspondence course (raises hand), you can just fall into it or get a bizarre lucky break of some kind, you can write and write and write and send it all in speculatively until someone notices, you can have an uncle who nepotistically puts in a good word for you. I’m not commenting on the rightness or wrongness or betterness or worseness of these, either practically or morally or anyhow else, just giving some of many examples.

I understand, though, those who champion the way that worked for them. It makes total sense. ‘It worked for me and it can work for you’. And the classic newsroom route which Emma clearly believes in is one which favours the cultivation of traditional journalistic skills and methods which many feel are being abandoned in this era of PR puffery. In many senses, I think it should be championed too – just not to the exclusion of others.

I came to the business relatively late (late twenties) and did it the way I thought best for me at the time. Nobody advised me and I knew nobody who was a writer. Was my way the best for me? I followed one route out of several possibles – so on the basis of statistical chance, probably not. But I can’t know because I can’t live my career again.

Publishing is constantly changing – and with it changes the advice, and the endless reams of do’s and don’ts. This blog is full of it. Hundreds of other blogs are full of it. People now have what I didn’t have back then, so, so much of it, and I wonder sometimes whether the sheer diversity of options and opinions ever causes confusion and paralysis among those on the early rungs of the ladder. Does it?

I hope not, and I guess my message here is that everyone’s route to success – however you define that – is unique. It’s very tough for someone to know which will be better for you, and which nuggets of wisdom you should accept from the increasing army of people kindly offering them, but be wary of any well-intentioned dogma on the issue that’s out there. Some roads will be rougher than others, and some you’ll discover to be dead ends, but there are many which eventually lead to Rome. Just don’t dither at the crossroads too long before trying one out.

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