Top 8 Things Journalists Find Difficult

ONCE upon a time there were reporters. Their job was to sniff out good stories or chase stories assigned to them by their editors. Once they had a good story, they would ask questions, investigate, research, verify and test every column inch of their work before it was ready for publication. They would sift the wheat from the chaff and scoff at press releases and advertorials and cliches for fear that their editor would lambaste them. They would not trouble themselves with headline writing for fear of rubbing a chief sub-editor the wrong way. And they would dare not entertain the notion of taking a quick snap to illustrate their story for fear of evoking the wrath of the accomplished photo desk. Everyone knew their place and the reporters went about their relentless tasks with vigour and excitement. As the media landscape changes, we see media jobs shrinking, publications and empires folding and reporters are stretched to be a one-stop shop of journalism excellence. It has been a difficult transition. The customer is dictating the frequency, type, style and format of news and reporters are struggling to keep up. Here are the top 8 things journos find difficult (in ascending order).

8. Publishing systems. Gone are the days of journalists filing 20 pars over the phone from the pub. Sure, some manage to get away with it — good writers who have earned their stripes — but generally reporters are now required to grapple with a publishing system which seeks to fry the brain. Most are not built with the journalist in mind. They are often off-the-shelf multimillion-dollar packages which are great for the business, but need ongoing “fixes” to meet journalists’ needs. They fall over, they’re buggy, they hate the network that they’re chucked onto and need support teams (who are often not journos) to keep them relevant. Every journo will tell you the previous publishing system they were on was better. And every journo who’s been there a while will tell you that right at that point when all those forms and fields and containers and metadata start making sense, the business goes out and buys a newer, shinier publishing system and the process starts all over again.

7. Readers (aka customers). Journalists are writers at heart. We create. We are artists. But we’re required to have thick skins. Every writer loves a good review, a kind word, a message of support — especially from the reader. Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet and digital journalism, feedback has been pretty intense. Trolls are a pain. Criticism is one thing, but poisonous hatred spewed on Facebook pages and comment sections really do make journos wonder why they bother creating debate and presenting opinions and delivering information and entertainment to the masses. Being a moderator teaches you a lot about the world. Newton said it best: “To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.” And the same goes for news stories and comment pieces. The opposite reaction, however, has never been as fierce since the advent of the internet — as readers become quite fearless behind their screens. Letters to the editor of old could be screened. Story comments can still be filtered — but spare a thought for the poor moderator (often a journo asked to fill in) who has to sift through hundreds of bilious posts. Facebook pages require a steel stomach to try and stem the flow of anger or negativity. For the most part, readers are necessary, but it is not the job of the reporter to understand them. And I doubt they every will.

6. Grammar and Style. There’s house style. Then there are reporting desks who have their own rules and preferences which go against that. Then the desk changes its mind. Then a new journo comes in and makes further changes. Then the house style changes. So reporters get a new style guide. Then that’s replaced by an A4 print-out to stick on their desks. Then HR says no paper on the desk, so it becomes a screensaver. Then the business changes your screensaver. Then the journos are calling across the floor, “What’s the style for Morsi again?”, “Is Silverchair with a little ‘s’”, “Where’s the symbol for Prince?” Let’s face it. Journos will never get style and grammar because everyone has their own Kryptonite words and phrases. The best we can manage is to have a living, breathing sub-editor in the office who people use an Oracle for this sort of thing. In my day, it was @buck_ers.

5. Switching Off. Any journalist who works outside of business hours knows: there’s no such thing as business hours anymore. Getting a call or a text or an email or a Facebook message from an editor or a colleague is commonplace and confirms two things: 1) the news cycle never ends and 2) the journalist never switches off. Sure, they take holidays and pretend to disconnect and give the impression that they don’t care. But it’s all for show. Deep down, they’re thinking up better headlines, looking for stories (always looking) and working on ways to win a Walkley Award. We are machines — the Terminators of social networks who will stop at nothing to break news and get noticed. When we’re not at work, we’re writing, or checking our news-feeds or reading up on the latest industry developments. It’s what we do and we do it best. It’s what’s made Australia’s No.1 news website.

4. Specialisation. Because reporters are asked to be writers, sub-editors, editors and photographers, these days it’s hard for them to be good at one thing. So, as is often the case, they are simply mediocre at everything. Getting writers to hone their craft in a particular area is becoming less valuable to a business model that wants content pushed out to as many people on as many mobile devices as possible. The focus has shifted away from building a niche audience and growing a community around good writers who know their stuff — who are experts in their field and have the contacts that go with it. Breaking stories more often comes from who you know than what you know. Building relationships requires trust and tact and a long-term focus that is a luxury for journos today (and the Australian cricket team). Our attention spans are shot thanks to Twitter and a 24-hour news cycle that constantly distracts and drops it like Snoop Lion dropped his previous moniker. Oh, look! A squirrel! How can journos be good at one thing again when they are asked to write AND layout a page AND push through a few comments AND get coffees for the desk?

3. Trusting sources. Just as journalists have found it difficult to forge a career built on consistency of message, so to they have struggled to find people and organisations they can trust to help them deliver the news. With all the content creation and curation at play on the web, who do you trust to have the best and most accurate news? Twitter is a dog’s breakfast without saved searches and lists. Too many times journalists have been burned by fake stories and unreliable accounts, yet the reader wants accuracy and speed in reporting? I once posted a status update on our Facebook page about an incident that had happened a mere half-an-hour earlier. First comment: “old news.” You can’t win. If journos had better contacts, they’d be able to trust their sources more. If more media organisations worked hard to present the news accurately we’d be closer to rebuilding that perceived lost trust among readers.

2. Security. Thanks to the global financial crisis and the shift from a ‘content is king’ model to a ‘customer is king’ one, no journalist feels completely safe in their position. As bloggers have risen to the ranks of journalist, the industry has imploded and suddenly everything has been laid bare to the reader. The mystery, the mystique of journalism has faded. So journalists have become jaded with their chosen profession. Standards have fallen. Writing has suffered. Jobs have been jettisoned. Newspapers have been cannibalised. The ones who have survived have adapted — they talk the language of the reader, they are strong enough to bear the brunt of a rabid audience, they are flexible and dexterous enough to multitask and they consistently deliver. They are shaping and improving all the time. But they know at any point in time their job could be gone. Rather than live in fear of that, they have embraced it; seen it as some sort of incentive. The best media companies are hiring these journalists and are riding the wave. Job security is like the great Australian dream — nice to have, but it is no longer the be all and end all.

  1. Life goes on. Too often, I’ve seen newsrooms completely consumed by a story. Journos and chiefs of staff and editors scramble to squeeze every angle out of a news development. Meanwhile, in the real world people are just not that interested. They want the news in small, bite-sized pieces, bullet points. When they want more, they’ll seek it out. When it becomes too much, they’ll switch off or look for something else. Taking time off away from the newsdesk (preferably six weeks) reminds you that news events act as markers to our lives but rarely do they effect us in such a way as to completely stop and re-evaluate who we are as people. Families will be families regardless of what is going on in the world — and what matters to one person draws thousands of other “who cares?” cries from the masses. Cutting through that realisation and getting the markers right is what makes a good editor and some do it better than others. Journalists who can rise to that level make the best editors. But never lose sight of the fact that life goes on, everything changes and the most important thing in life is your health. Without it, how can you possibly chase that latest scoop you’re working on?
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Editor’s Note: This article was not subbed to save money. Actually it was not not subbed to save money, it was simply not subbed. To save money.