3 Thoughts from an Outsider in Journalism
I am not a classically trained journalist. I studied English Literature in college and then worked in a range of sectors, from banking to outsourcing to publishing, before stumbling into journalism.
In the old world, where newsrooms were closed to those who were not trained in its grammar and techniques, this may have been a disadvantage. But in the new world, where journalism is all about connecting the dots and making sense of disparate ideas and not just breaking news, my “outsider’s view” of things often helps me think of new ways to interpret the day’s headlines or identify hidden nuances in a story.
I can’t claim to be an expert on the future of journalism since my own journey has only just begun. What I can do is to share with you a few practical tips that have helped me negotiate this exhilarating profession, at a time of complex, profound changes wrought by technology and social media.
Here are 3 tips for everyone who wants to become a journalist. They are obviously not exhaustive and you need to customize them to your field of work, but I have found them to be valid in most situations. Hopefully, they will help you in your journey too.
1. UNDERSTAND YOUR AUDIENCE AND WHAT THEY WANT FROM YOU.
It all begins here. Developing a clear understanding of your audience is the #1 home truth in journalism. Ask yourself, “Who is my target audience? Why should they pay to read me? What’s in it for them?” Far many too many writers think it is not their job to understand the market they are operating in. That writing ought to exist for writing’s sake. That’s a suicidal attitude when competition is so intense. Getting a granular image of your audience and then tailoring your stories to suit them is the difference between self-indulgent writing and writing that has impact. Being guided by the image of the reader at every step is one of the best ways to keep a story sharp and tightly focused rather than meandering into needless explanations and asides.
2. RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH.
Research can be a big casualty of the fast turnaround times expected of journalists today. But there’s no way you can get into a story — whether a 200-word blog post or a 4,000-word feature — without understanding your subject inside out. The best researchers are also great editors: They go to great lengths to find new, undiscovered material for their stories, but they don’t get carried away and cram in everything they have found.
While researching a story, allow yourself to look at unconventional places and sources and ask lateral questions. If you are writing on the rise of the non-English Internet, it’s worthwhile to ask why certain “English” TV news anchors are increasingly resorting to talking in Hindi on their shows. It adds a whole new layer to the story: What television (old media) is learning from the Internet.
Or maybe you are writing on the rise of the product merchandising business of companies likes Disney and Marvel. It may be worthwhile to link it with the shrinking open playspaces in cities, which is compelling more and more kids to spend time indoors. It’s the kind of connecting-the-dots that no bot can ever compete with.
3. GOOD STORYTELLING IS ALL ABOUT CONVERSATIONS.
Why should readers keep coming back to you? Thanks to Twitter, it is highly unlikely that they come to you for news. What value can you add to their life then? The answer is this: Readers today are bombarded with information, and they need someone to help them make sense of it all. But more important, they come to you for the quality of your storytelling and for your ability to have authentic conversations with them. Ultimately, good stories are not just products that have a utility. They are about engagement; they need to have an emotional core.
If you are a business writer, don’t let your stories become like the myriad stock analysts’ reports that any reader can buy off the shelf. Flesh out the human side of the business. Help readers get a close view of the people running the business. Describe characters and their actions and motivations in real-life situations, don’t just throw numbers that a simple Google search can yield.
Borrow stylistic elements from other genres: If you are writing about a sector that no one knows much about (say, explosives), can you write your story like a travelogue or an adventure piece? If you are writing on an obscure scientific discovery, can you think of some elements from thrillers? If you are a lifestyle writer, you need to cajole your reader into trying out whatever lifestyle choice you are suggesting (whether it’s shopping or wellness advice). Talk to them like a friend, not like a lifestyle guru.
A technique that helps conversations is the use of the first person in your narrative. Don’t shy away from using “I”. It immediately signals authenticity and tells the reader that they are being talked to by a real human being, not an algorithm or a number-cruncher.
The key to the best stories is the art of conversation; don’t talk down or presume to lecture. No matter what your genre, a casual, “real” style that mirrors real-life conversations is in; writing that takes itself too seriously and is delivered from a high perch is out.
Tanmoy Goswami heads the desk and events at Fortune magazine’s Indian franchise, based out of Delhi. His interests include startups, the media and publishing industries, science and society, and women’s issues. Tanmoy has been a finalist at the IE Business School Asian Journalism Prize. Before joining Fortune India, Tanmoy headed the editorial team at India’s largest custom publisher in Mumbai. He holds a master’s in English from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University. These days, Tanmoy is working on a book on startups, soon to be published by Harper Collins.