As part of an ongoing series on recent graduates who have gone into online journalism, Dave Lee talks about how he won a BBC job straight from university, what it involves, and what skills he feels online journalists need today.
I got my job as a result – delightfully! – of having a well-known blog. Well, that is, well-known in the sense it was read by the right people. My path to the BBC began with a work placement at Press Gazette – an opportunity I wouldn’t have got had it not been for the blog. In fact, I recall Patrick Smith literally putting it in those terms – saying that they’d never normally take an undergrad without NUJ qualifications – but they’d seen my blog and liked what I was doing.
I met Martin Stabe there, and worked closely with him on a couple of projects – including the Student Journalism Blog on their site.
Martin knew Nick Reynolds – social media executive at the BBC – and when he heard a blogger was needed for the BBC Internet Blog, my name was passed on. That door into the BBC then made it much easier to progress upwards to the newsroom.
My job is to write news and features for BBC News Online, based on output from the BBC World Service.
There wasn’t much in my course [at Lincoln University] which directly relates to the skills I use now – much has been learnt on the job – but there is a certain level of law knowledge, ethics and general good practice that has proved to be invaluable – and that came from my studies.
Of course, it’s always worth stressing that my blog was able to succeed because of my flexibility to write about my studies and people met via work at my university. So while studying didn’t perhaps give me the practical skills for my day-to-day job, it certainly has helped me be a good journalist in other, less measurable ways.
It’s hard to predict how my job will develop in the future. Within the BBC, it’s pretty crucial when making sure we share our best stuff – it’s not good having two sets of BBC journos (or more…) running after the same stories and sources. Jobs like mine help solve that situation.
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Well good job getting employment in these adverse times; but I’d love to know if you actually undertake any newsgathering yourself of the camera-toting and walking old school variety?
There’s always has and will be a place for armchair journalism where one sits and examines rather than walks about digging up stuff. But in practice every journalist should do both in varying proportions depending on specialization, talent and so on. We can exclude most redtop/tabloid crowd here and focus on quality press and magazines.
Basically you get your material off the BBC World news wire which is itself partially recycled from other wires like Reuters… and reword it for the domestic reader. You don’t appear at all active in personal newsgathering yourself? You say your studies helped you be a ‘good journalist’ in other ways…such as?
Were online journalism to end up symbolizing sitting on one’s backside and relying on the wire plus cannibilizing then frankly it is just old media in its crumbling state glossed up as something new. Your NUJ card and a friendly, polite attitude can get you quick interviews with many folks – and knowing the lay of the land can assist in speedily getting good shots. The fact local community spirit lessens with each passing year, and self-centered screening off of oneself by gadgetry passively increases does not mean that old school journalism is not possible or needed – any journo who makes uses those things as excuses to stay indoors is a poor one, and usually part of the obstinate mentality that values quantity not geniune value…
On the contrary; old school stuff is one of the most vital things we need to encourage to get some life back into the diseased trade. I said the other night that the best journalism approaches being artistic in its brilliance; art commonly casts aside the monetary businesslike hunger for profit and serves as quality to a great deal of people. Margins do not enter the equation as it’s all idealistic passion and expression – that’s the idea anyhow. When this stuff got results in decades past it was revolutionary and made ructions, sometimes ending up a net benefit for the majority in Britain.
Fortunately there are people who’ll always value the old ways, where cheap and easy don’t get a foot in the door. So after the turd of stagnation impacts with the fan of economics you’ll find they’ll be people still doing the real thing and scraping by with it. The rest will just be crying over their freebies.
Pete @ dirtygarnet.com
You’re right – a lot (90% or more) of my work does consist of that: taking efforts from BBC Global News and making the best of it online.
I’ll be a bit of a pedant about the agency stuff, because the only stuff I work with is original BBC journalism as they agency stuff is dealt with by shift work and rotas – but I take your point.
I think it’s important to put my position into perspective. I’m fresh out of university, and as I mention in that post above, I have been incredibly lucky to find myself here in the BBC newsroom.
It is a daily source of frustration – as any of my colleagues can tell you after a night chatting with me after work – that I don’t have the opportunity to create original journalism every day, or even every month.
But you see – as a graduate/new journalist – a lot of this effort is about patience. Did I expect to turn up to the BBC and be told “Hi DAVE! Go out there and report!”? Of course not. I’d be foolish to think I could. The reporters that work here are among the best in the world. I am constantly staggered by the quality of what they produce. I’m not that good – yet.
Instead I have to spend a little time observing, learning and soaking up experience. As I type, I’m sat within arms reach of the World desk. During the day, I can observe them and how they work – admiring some of the world’s greatest journalists go about their daily work.
What’s important is that I’m here. And slowly, I can make a difference. I’ve played an important part in helping the World Service do better online, as well as other parts of the BBC such as Sport.
Granted, my current role sees me pushing other people’s journalism rather than my own – but as I do this I am being trained, I’m networking and I’m developing as a journalist.
I’m 23. The people I work with are often ten years older or more. Quite frankly, I’m taking my time to make sure I make the best out of being dealt a great hand.
That said – I’m not sitting around waiting for it to happen. If you get a moment, take a look at http://www.theolympicborough.com – a hyperlocal blog site which I set up recently. You’re right – my press card gives me a ticket to get out there and interview people and get some real journalism work out there … which is precisely what I’m doing.
Stories I’ve discovered in the few short weeks of running that blog have already been sold to various parts of the media for several hundred quid. That’s not bad going.
So while my ‘official’, full-time work is armchair journalism to a point – it’s journalism which can and will lead to bigger and better things.
Have you ever seen ‘Almost Famous’? It’s a dramatization adapted from the director’s early career as journalist in the early 1970s depicting the run up to his first big article published with Rolling Stone after touring with his camera and notepad. He was 16.
Just because youngsters then were free spirited baby boomers as opposed to the sheltered ‘Peter Pan’ generation that represent the incumbent youth now isn’t an excuse for citing age or inexperience as your motive for delaying doing old school stuff. The barriers to entry as noted aren’t much; what’s to stop diversifying in that direction with a D200, notepad, backpack, sandwiches and a thermos?
The BBC examined your original blog. So did I yesterday. There aren’t really any pictures you took yourself there, with the images mainly being acknowledged stuff from Flickr and the like. There also isn’t much by way of interviews with ordinaries, or in-depth news that would match my conceptions of old-style news as a freelance hack.
The ideals you have are great, and that you’ve sold the blog posts is excellent work. Your work is very inclined to the cultured and contemplative opinion piece on already-broken news rather than old school gathering and balanced evaluation; but your stuff is in demand where you work. Small wonder that the BBC offered you a position there rather than in a different department as they sussed where your predilection is – bit superfluous to point out that they didn’t want you doing old school gathering in the great outdoors after so such abundant demonstration of your style.
I will check out that website, although I’m firmly for cheap and minimalist Olympics in these hard times and may need to firmly caress my whiny tentacles against an article or two there. You will rue the day you gave me that URL. 🙂
Do consider broadening towards gathering stuff outside even if just occasionally; if you got your own unique news/photo and opined on it it could potentially be far better than joining the chorus of officebound journos in analyzing establishment news that’s all over the place.
You are obviously busy so I’ll shut up now.
-Pete @ dirtygarnet.com
I think you’ve misunderstood my point entirely, and your hasty critique of my career as a working journalist is as insulting as it is inaccurate.
With my Olympic blog, I’m not selling ‘blog posts’. I’m selling news – news gathered by good, solid reporting. Old school, you’d probably say.
My personal blog is/was a place for observation and critique, and to that end it was perfect for what I wanted at the time. Indeed – your one-month-old blog does exactly the same thing.
Why you’d expect to find original interviews on a personal blog about me I’m not sure. Have you edited a newspaper/website/anything before? If you have, I’m sure you’ll know how important it is to know what your audience is after. I seemed to get it pretty spot on when my blog was named one of the best in the UK for student journalism.
You have to remember, Pete, that while I was blogging, I was also gathering experience with the Guardian, Sky News, Press Gazette, the Evening Standard, our local paper the Hunts Post and the BBC.
Not to mention the award-winning student newspaper I set up and edited while I was at university. A newspaper that had nearby newspapers ringing me to ask what the latest was with students – not the other way round.
What you have done is taken five minutes to see a sample of my work and make your assumptions based on that. It’s similar to looking at a chef’s lunchbox and assuming all he can produce is sandwiches.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that I am actually a very accomplished journalist, both with new media skills as well as old.
But what I do recognise is a good opportunity when I see one, and right now that opportunity is in the biggest, most powerful newsroom in the world.
Tell me I’m wrong.
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Was there one unified ‘point’ in your first post? It looked more like a laundry basket of critique and reasoning against carrying out old-style journalism plus a regurgitated promotional tract straight off the BBC careers website.
Do you know I spent over an hour skimming your blog, plus your BBC Online material? I find your assumption that I spent “five minutes to see a sample” a pretty insulting and arrogant remark. Far more so than anything supposedly insulting I unintentionally levied against you.
I’m confused that you say that your original blog was ‘personal and about me’ and ‘a place for observation and critique’. So why not have interviews? Interviews are fantastic as you put questions and criticisms to a person, fleshing out stuff that mightn’t see the light of day. I really don’t understand how you divorce critique and interviewing when the two go hand in hand as the BBC demonstrates every day; interviews are easily obtained if firmly polite and tactful. It could easily have reconciled with all those personal tidbits and allusions you commonly made.
How many good length interviews have you conducted in your entire career? I ask because you misjudged my response by a long shot; and frankly your reply with its excessive listing of qualifications and showboating sentiment came across as cocksure; your opinionated, hyperbolic conclusion complete with grandstanding told me more about your attitude and ambitions than evidence of solid, tangible journalistic merit. All I saw from your allegedly talented self was a stream of verbiage with little by way of substance to back it up. Not even a handy link to examples of your past work in other press.
You termed ‘insulting’ what I meant as friendly albeit slightly condescending advice interspered with compliments and encouragement. Don’t you think that’s harsh or inappropriate? That you might want to read it over with the tone I had in mind? Assume good faith and all that? The best journalists keep cool, and idiots like Boulton or others lose it and start spouting off, damaging themselves. I’ve seen it happen in public to one or two bullying, arrogant and egoistic high-up journalists who’ve been baited towards anger by another who keeps his or her temper.
I’m sorry for not having put more hours into researching you, I have to feed myself by working same as anyone; and examining another journalist at length detracts from my busy life. I can’t ‘remember’ much of your other work as I never saw it in the first place. I’m not a high flyer; I’m a low-paid freelancer, and I’d like you think you empathize that time to allot for this sort of reading is limited.
That you aren’t demonstrating much by way of respect starts to make me wonder why I read up on you in the first place. You come across a bit differently from the affable friendly face you put on on BBC Online and your blog – that is why this reply of mine is insulting, as insults tend to beget themselves.
I wish you luck in your endeavours, and will check out your Olympics blog at length soon. Maybe I should do you an interview to go on it?
-Pete @ dirtygarnet.com
Excellent post – I thougt it was informational. It was extremely helpful!