Sunday, March 01, 2015

Viewpoint: So you want to be a journalist?

Earlier this week I received an email from a journalism student asking if he could write for our motoring magazine, writes Brian Byrne.

I get quite a number of such requests, most of which I politely reply to as not having the editorial space or financial wherewithal to accommodate them. Both reasons true.

This time, though, Thomas's query prompted me to say a bit more. Having replied, I thought it might be of interest to other young people locally who have a yen to get into journalism.

A bit personal, maybe. But life, and career, are personal. To all of us.

Dear Thomas,

Apologies for not getting back to you earlier, but it has been a busy week, compounded by not having the use of my right hand for a few days after a small operation on Monday. Thankfully I'm now back to being able to type again with two hands, and work.

We don't use external people on our magazine or website, except for fellow members of the Irish Motoring Writers Association from whom we occasionally commission articles. While we are looking at a significantly expanded website over the next few months, I'm not in a position to commission any extra material at the moment. But I will keep your email on file with a view to contacting you if I feel there is an opportunity.

On the more general matter of gaining journalism experience, by far the best way is to actually submit articles rather than merely look for work. This is how I got going in the business some four decades ago, and it has always been the advice I gave to people who asked me how to get started in journalism. Most editors and publishers will read a submission, but don't have the time to respond to a letter like yours which requires a reply and further correspondence before any actual material is produced. A would-be journalist who is pro-active in submissions has a much better chance of actually getting space in a publication, print or digital. Sure, at first many of those submissions will not succeed, may not even be acknowledged, but in the end some will find a home.

As I said, I have been in this game for four decades, though I came to it late after careers in plumbing and heating, pub and restaurant, and a number of other avenues which included funeral undertaking. Still, at the age of 70+ I've had, and more importantly am still having, a most fulfilling life in journalism. It has, and does, bring me into contact with wonderful stories and people, and has, and does, bring me to many different parts of the world. The caveat is that I'm not retiring anytime soon, in one sense because I don't want to. But equally, if I did want to, I still need to work because journalism is not a career in which most of us get rich, and I'm not an exception to the rule. I wouldn't like to be starting out as a freelance today, though.

I suppose that last is a warning that it has become ever more difficult in this craft to create and maintain a living. Too many people being churned out by the different colleges in generic 'communications' programmes, for an ever decreasing number of paid full-time jobs in the industry. Though I suppose in all my years in it, I was only permanent and pensionable for three or four, about half of my RTE time through the 80s, and returned to freelance by choice even though my bosses at the broadcaster wished me to stay. There are too many people, too, prepared to work for nothing today in order to gain experience, a situation which even RTE exploits along with everyone else

Anyhow, that's nothing to do with your own future. There will always be opportunities for people who really want what they aspire to doing. Thing is, there's no short cut. If you want to be a fiction writer, write fiction, and SUBMIT what you write. If you want to be a journalist, write journalism, and SUBMIT it. If you like feature writing, write features and SUBMIT them. If you want to be a photojournalist, take news photographs and SEND THEM IN with appropriate commentary. There's a common thread in those last four sentences. Do it. Don't ask somebody to ask you to do it. I've done all of those. I've also done magazine design. I've done broadcasting. I've done digital/web. I never waited to be asked, I just taught myself to do them, and got on with it. Mostly in ways that managed to give me a living for myself and my family.

Seven words. 'Do it and they will use it.' Maybe not as sexy as 'build it and they will come'. But the principle is the same. And like the 'Field of Dreams' movie, it likely won't happen overnight. Or even overweek or overyear. But keep doing it and it will happen.

Sorry if this has gone on. I started out just to 'thank you for your interest, but ...' . Somehow, though, your email triggered a bit more thought about how I came to be where I am. And to the fact that you maybe deserve more as a response to your email. So if what I've said is a help, I'm glad. If not, disregard it as the meanderings of a septuagenerian who still believes he is 30 (the age I began writing ... and I still haven't cashed that first cheque I got from RTE for a four-line poem which was broadcast).

Feel free to contact me again if you think I can help you travel further in the direction you want to go.

With best wishes for your future,