How to sprout story ideas

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First published on http://www.mediauodate.co.za in November 2015

How do you know a writer has been smacked by the proverbial ‘block’? Their screen is left blank and a brew of used coffee cups is left in their wake. The main reason writers block often strikes is that a strong enough story idea has not formed, leaving writers’ index fingers fixed to the backspace key or avoiding the work altogether.

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By Remy Raitt

And this goes for writing across the board; fiction, media work, advertising and even academia. Without a solid story idea, it’s incredibly hard to produce a piece of well-formed and compelling content.

Author, copywriter and columnist, Paige Nick, says developing story ideas is a habit you need to train yourself into. “I work in three different types of media; advertising, columns and books, and they are all quite different, but I still draw on the same sorts of experiences and similar techniques, each just uses a slightly different muscle. It’s like walking up a hill, but backwards, you’re still walking, you’re just using a different skill to accomplish the walk.”

These techniques differ from writer to writer, and yet many wordsmiths rely on the same sources to sprout excellent ideas, which in turn become excellent pieces of writing.

Stay connected

“A lot of ideas are garnered from what’s trending and taking up a lot of mental space online and in the public opinion, or using topical issues as ‘hooks’ for other, more ‘evergreen’ issues,” says Your Familyonline editor and freelance feature writer, Samantha Steele. She says her first port-of-call is usually the internet.

“I am a voracious online reader and consumer of social media, and it is through reading that ideas will come, and also through awareness of what issues bother you, and what issues bother or interest your friends and family and deriving ideas from there,” she says.

Bury your nose

Steele stresses that reading is an essential part of any journalists’ job; “reading will sow the seeds for ideas to grow at a later stage,” she says. Deputy lifestyle editor of The Myanmar Times, Brice O’Connell, couldn’t agree more. “Magazines from around the world, especially neighbouring countries, give us loads of ideas for new features or small stories,” he explains.

Or get your chin wagging

“As a creative person, you have to fill your tank all the time, this is done by being out in the world,” says Nick. “All the knowledge inside of you is finite and if you use it all up, you’ll be empty. We are social commentators; so we need commentary,” she explains. And although writers aren’t typically known as the most social of sorts, Nick says, conversations or even eavesdropping can make excellent sources of story ideas.

Take with two hands

Writers, particularly journalists, are often inundated with pitches from readers or PR practitioners. O’Connell says the majority of his newspaper’s stories are born through contributions. “There are so many great organisations and representatives here that we never lack a good story source,” he says. Steele says she experiences this too, although often the ideas that are delivered need a little bit more spit to make them shine. “As one becomes better known as a freelancer, and as your work starts to speak for you, people begin to approach you,” she says.

“PRs are in constant contact with dozens of mails a day and though ideas come from there for the website which needs constant, short articles, it is rare that a strong freelance features idea will.”

Nick says the most important thing is to always be on the lookout. “I’m always stealing from life, I’m the ultimate thief,” she says. “And through this process I’m always building a couple of columns in my mind all at the same time.”

Breathe, then begin

Nick goes on to say the best incubator for story ideas is a relaxed mind. “Instead of stressing, just sit down and write. It often comes to you then. If you procrastinate, nothing can actually start happening. If you just start it, you can stop obsessing.”

Are you a writer? How do you come up with story ideas? Tell us in the comments section below.

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Saving your sources

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First published on http://www.mediaupdate.co.za in October 2015

Good sources are the foundation of a good story. That’s why it’s vital that journalists keep comprehensive lists of both their used contacts and potential sources. Hard copy source lists are often seen as the reporter’s bible, while social media platforms and online lists have become indispensable resources too.

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By Remy Raitt

In her book Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method, author Carole Rich says a good reporter cultivates sources in several ways; in person, with records, and using online resources. She says it’s never too early to start a list of sources, for example, people you may have spoken to as a student reporter might make excellent sources of information for a story later on in your career.

Why source lists matter

Deputy group editor of Rekord Newspapers, Corne van Zyl, says keeping an up-to-date source list is crucial. “Not only does it provide a range of sources to speak to for a story, which ensures that a story is complete with all the necessary comments from all angles, but it is also a source of possible stories, as junior journalists are tasked to phone the list of sources weekly to check for possible stories.” She says this ensures their editorial team stays on top of all the news relevant to their readers, while also keeping relationships with their sources strong.

A basic how to

Bulelwa Dayimani, a writer at Ndalo Media, says journalists should update their source lists every day. Both her and Van Zyl favour using electronic and hardcopy lists, which saves them time looking for contact details when deadlines are looming.

In her book, Rich commends international news journalist, Mark Potter, for his method of saving source information. She says he cross-indexes his list of sources in three ways; by name, occupation and location. “If he wants to contact an FBI agent he previously interviewed in Detroit, but whose name he may have forgotten, he looks up the agent’s name under ‘FBI’ or ‘Detroit’,” she explains.

When creating a source list it’s important to include as much information as possible. Dayimani says she always includes the person’s full name, title, the institution they work for or where they are from and every possible way of reaching them; cell phone number, landline and email address.

Keep them close

Once you start bulking up your source list it is important to back it up. Both Van Zyl and Dayimani say they hold onto the information for as long as they can, and with a good back-up system, journalists need never lose a single number or address. Email accounts can crash and address books can be lost, therefore it’s important to back up your source lists regularly. Saving them on a secure external drive, or even in several locations and in hard copy format will allow peace of mind, especially when it comes to contact details for sources who aren’t easy to find online.

Keep growing

Another useful tip of Potter’s that Rich shares in her book is “sponsorship”, which is basically a referral system. “He gets someone who knows him to sponsor him, or recommend him to new source, or he introduces himself to a new source by referring to a contact the source might have known,” she explains.

This will consequently grow your pool of sources, which means more variation, views and opinions for future stories.

Using social media platforms to make contact is also an invaluable way of growing your source list. International experts and people on the ground are only a tweet away, just remember to get their direct contact details too, and add them to your source list immediately so that next time you can rather just pick up the phone and call them directly.

Do you keep a source list? How has it helped your journalistic career?

What’s the deal with data journalism?

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First published on http://www.mediaupdate.co.za in October 2015

Data journalism is not a new concept. It is however, still a daunting one for many. Operating high-tech systems, coding, and number crunching aren’t skills you’d find on a traditional journalist’s CV. But according to experts, if journalists want to stay relevant they should be looking seriously toward the digital world of data.

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By Remy Raitt

“To find a job as a journalist is extremely difficult; lots of journalists have been laid off and are unemployed,” says former Utrecht University journalism, politics and new media lecturer and owner ofD3-Media, Peter Verweij. “A strong position in the market comes with multi-media skills and/or data skills; being a fine writer is not enough.”

Data journalism; the basics

At its core, data journalism is the process of building stories out of data. Verweij says finding stories in data enables the journalist to dig deeper and provide more background. He uses this story by The Guardian’s Datablog as a good example. “This story is adding to background analysis and enhances the quality of reporting,” he says. By accessing numerical data from data basis, journalists are able to build stories that dig deep and investigate issues over long periods of time, relatively quickly.

The process

In an article for The Guardian Datablog, Paul Bradshaw explains how to be a data journalist. The first step, he says, is finding data. “’Finding data’ can involve anything from having expert knowledge and contacts to being able to use computer assisted reporting skills or, for some, specific technical skills such as MySQL or Python to gather the data for you,” he says.

Gathering this data is known as ‘scraping’. “Some data is available in public databases and can be downloaded,” says Verweij. “Sometimes it is on a webpage and then you have to get it out of the programming language of the web .html. That is scraping. But with data in .PDF you have the same problem.” He says, for this reason, data journalists require more skills than their traditional counterparts, in particular; “working with figures (spreadsheets), a bit of programming and visualizations”.

Once the data has been gathered, Bradshaw says it needs to be interrogated, which requires “a good understanding of jargon and the wider context within which data sits”. Next, the data needs to be visualised into a table or graph of sorts, after which the various clumps of data need to be mashed in order to get an overall understanding of the information.

How it’s been received

“Media, and newspapers in particular, in the western world have to find a new business model; to attract more subscribers,” says Verweij. He says data achieves this by “offering deeper background; enhanced reporting and interactive data visualizations”.

In a South African context, Senior Knight Fellow at the International Centre for Journalists and data editor for Code for Africa, Chris Roper, says currently “there’s more data porn in newsrooms in SA, which is the pretty graphs and pictures types, and very little actual data analysis and sustained production of data tools”. He says the local media has pulled off “some cool one-offs” but the complete lack of full-time data journalists in the country directly affects the production of data stories.

But, Roper believes data journalism has a bright future in South Africa. “It’s going to be much bigger, much more sustained, because media houses are going to see the revenue opportunities in data journalism, not just the editorial possibilities,” he says.

Why it matters

If information is power then data journalism offers a lot of clout. “Data journalism, and the civic society tools you can build with data, is one of the great weapons ordinary people have to preserve democracy in Africa,” says Roper. “We need more of it.”

Roper says that South Africa is one of the eight countries that were founding signatories to the Open Government Partnership, and the lead chair at the moment. “Code4SouthAfrica is busy building an open data portal for the SA government, so I’m hopeful that we’ll achieve open data fairly soon. Of course, monitoring the authenticity of that data will be key,” he says.

Where do you see data journalism heading? Let us know below.

Figuring out your freelance rates

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First published on http://www.mediaupdate.co.za in September 2015

One of the trickiest parts of working as a freelancer is figuring out what you should charge. Working out your worth is not an entirely subjective process; as experience, the client and the type of work you undertake will all affect the monetary outcomes of each job. 
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By Remy Raitt

“Hustling is the nature of the freelance game, do it with swagger and you’ll go far, hustle with a false sense of authority and you’ll last five minutes,” says freelance writer and stylist Candice Meiring-Basnett. Here are some things to consider before you send out your next quote.

Do your research

Before you begin crunching numbers find out what your peers are charging and what industry overseers, like the Southern African Freelancers’ Association (Safrea) are recommending. Currently, Safrea writing rates vary between R2 and R3.75 per word, but double and triple if written for PR or advertising usage respectively. Copy editing rates recommended by Safrea fall between 35c and R1.75 per word, while hourly photography rates fluctuate heavily depending on the type of work done.

Samantha Moolman of The Writer’s College Times suggests calling up publications you would be interested in working for and enquire about their rates, this will help you get a sense of what people are paying.

Although Safrea provides useful guidelines, these rates will not be 100% appropriate for all freelancers as the experience and qualification of the freelancer as well as the type of publication, expectations of the work and constraints faced will all factor in.

Figuring out your first time(s)

“For newbies I would definitely recommend coming in at a competitive rate until you have a built up a strong portfolio,” says Meiring-Basnett. “Do the ‘everything for nothing’ jobs to start as the experience is priceless. These days I find students coming straight out of varsity charging phenomenal fees with only their university projects in their portfolio. Don’t be one of those guys. Always remind yourself that crappy paying jobs may lead to other work.”

This doesn’t mean those starting out should let clients take advantage of them. If you are aware of what your peers are charging you can work around these rates to find a happy medium that everyone can agree on.

Rate yourself

Figuring out your worth is essential for setting up your rates. Previous jobs – both permanent and freelance – your portfolio, your network and the varying types of services you can offer must all be considered. And still, as Moolman says, “it’s the perpetual paradox of the workplace: if you ask for too much, a client or employer will ask a more affordable writer to do the job. If you charge too little, you may be perceived as inexperienced.”

Once you’ve figured it out, you can create your own rate card. “The rate card works well for me,” saysMeiring-Basnett. “If some clients can’t afford it we enter into negotiation but the rate card definitely sets the tone. Some freelancers prefer to not use a rate card but I find using one less confusing and more above board. “

Ensure your rate card includes all the services you offer. For example, your pricing for magazines, newspapers and online will all differ.

You also need to decide rates for different billing methods, namely; per word or photograph, hourly and daily rates, and project rates.

Safrea says it’s imperative to charge additional hourly rates for meetings, interviews, and project management and coordination. If you travel using your own car while on the job they recommend using AA rates to charge for the kilometres driven.

It takes time and a bit of trial and error to work out your worth. As long as you remain honest and patient, take a few chances and avoid selling yourself short you’ll soon start sending out invoices both you and client are chuffed with.

Are you a freelancer? How do you go about billing?

 

The influence of media internships

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First published on http://www.mediaupdate.co.za in September 2015

A newsroom is an unforgiving environment, and quite frankly a terrifying place for a recent graduate to find themselves in, because although journalism degrees equip students with the theoretical knowledge of the industry, real-life experience is what enables them to slide right into the media machine.

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By Remy Raitt

Internships, especially the paid variety, are hard to find in the South African media landscape, but those who do scoop them up agree they are what truly prepare them for a career in the industry.

“The feedback we inevitably get back from our graduates is that they have learned more in the first three months working on the job then they did in their three or four years studying,” says head of the Media24 Academy, Adam Cooke. “And I think there’s definitely some truth in that, having worked with degreed and non-degreed people.”

Academia + experience = excellence

“I feel cadet schools are enormously valuable,” says Jonathan Ancer, who ran the Independent Cadet School between 2010 and 2014, “they offer a bridge from the classroom to the newsroom.”

Each side of this bridge offers young journalists a great deal and while it is possible to succeed in the industry without a formal education Cooke believes a degree is advantageous as journalism falls in a professional and skilled sector. “The things you learn in the course of doing a degree would take a lot longer to learn in the workplace, things like ethics and laws,” says Cooke. “So we do see the schooling graduates do beforehand as very important.”

Go-getter ground zero

When a rookie reporter begins their first job a lot of expectation is placed on them. “Graduates arrive on the job and are expected to produce,” says Cooke, “to just hit the ground running because everyone else on the job is working at full tilt.” He believes an internship softens this transition.

Abrie Burger who was accepted into the Media24 Academy in 2010 and now works as a news reporter for Son agrees. “My internship prepared me for the industry,” he says. “When you start in a permanent position, the last thing you want is to struggle with the basics. Journalism is already a pressured industry and you don’t want to still figure out how to write intros or do your interviews. I saw my internship as a crèche or grade-R that would prepare me to handle the real pressures of journalism.”

Making the most of mentorship

Ancer says that if internships are implemented properly, graduates aren’t left to sink but rather given the support needed to swim. “Internships shouldn’t be seen as ‘cheap labour’ either but rather the interns should be offered mentorship,” he says.

Burger says speaking with people like Debora Patta was extremely encouraging and helped quell nerves and define expectations. Cooke says the current Media24 Academy structure pairs each of their graduates with a mentor for their year with the school. “When you’ve got a good mentor the internship is invariably a success.” He says graduates who aren’t paired with a winning mentor also learn a lot; resilience in particular.

Lessons learnt

Building source lists, meeting deadlines, honing skills and producing real work are all takeaways from an internship. But Burger says they offer much more than that. He says the Media24 Academy calmed his nerves, gave him an honest look into what to expect from a career in journalism and taught him how to adapt to varying mediums of the profession.

Do journalism internships offer graduates the kick start they need? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

A tour through travel journalism

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First published on http://www.mediaupdate.co.za in August 2015

Travel journalism seems like the dream job. Amazing adventures, luxury accommodation, sponsored flights and top-class cuisine. But, at the end of the day, it’s still a job; there are deadlines to meet, editors to appease and writers block to banish.

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By Remy Raitt

Still, the pros certainly outweigh the cons and consequently, it’s a competitive career choice. “These days, where anyone can be a blogger and take good photos, the competition is ridiculous,” says freelance travel writer Carrie Hampton.

Getting in there

Former Travel24 writer turned freelancer Nadia Krige caught a lucky break getting into the industry. Through a Media24 internship, she was placed at Travel24, who offered her a full-time job after her cadetship. “Obviously it doesn’t work out so easily for everyone,” she says. Like Jill Starley-Grainger says in an article for The Guardian, blogs can be a great ‘in’ into the industry. Krige agrees; “These days the best way to get into travel writing is to have a blog you update regularly with quality travel stories and photographs.” She says you don’t have to be jetting off to Europe and unearthing the Amazon to do this. “Travel need not be across continents for it to be meaningful,” Krige says. “The most amazing stories could be waiting in an obscure local ‘dorpie’ less than 100km away from your home.”

Niche is nice

“As a rather recent entry to the freelance travel writing market, I have come to realise that it’s really important to have a niche or a pet project that people associate you with,” says Krige. Hampton agrees. She personally specialises in safaris, giving her an expert edge.

Hampton suggests picking something you care or know about; a region, country, activity or a specific genre like budget travel or high-end escapes. Blog, tweet and Instagram it, and in time people will associate you with your niche, prompting editors to approach you to cover the topic for their title.

Craft it with style

Travel writers have to be able to craft a story. Hampton says a creative flair is also essential, with great journalists finding the balance between “facts and fun”. “Travel writing is very different from other forms of writing and I think a good travel article is more akin to a short story; it should be a complete narrative which comes to a satisfying end.”

Krige says another way travel journalism differs from beats like news is that the writer has to have their own opinion. “You actually have to be a little bit biased – I mean, people read travel stories to find out what you thought about a place or an experience, otherwise they could just have stuck to the brochure or the official website.”

She recommends pitching and writing listicles too. “While pieces like ‘10 best beaches in the Western Cape’ are no doubt useful, I think people always enjoy something a little more personal.”

She says besides that, and the ability to pack a bag in record time, travel journalists should possess all the other mandatory skills found within the broader profession; great grammar and spelling, correct facts, social media skills and ability to pitch and execute interesting, informative and entertaining stories.

Krige and Hampton agree that the perfect travel story will transport readers to faraway places. Krige suggests using genuine personal experiences, a touch of humour and links to real-world topics like politics or current trends.

More skills make an easier sell

The ability to write, take great pictures and handle social media will put an aspiring travel journo in good stead. Hampton says being able to adapt is crucial. She says the advent of the internet forced her to move with the times; “I didn’t grow up with social media but I’ve had to learn and embrace the changes.”

But the most crucial part, according to Hampton, is passion. She says a strong desire to pursue the profession will help overcome obstacles and motivate you to get out there, see the world and then share your stories.

Are you a travel journalist? What are your top tips?

Would you consider beat journalism?

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First published on http://www.mediaupdate.co.za in July 2015

A good journalist should be able to write about anything, but some of the best out there have chosen to zoom in on a specific area and report on it with ardour and authority. Beat journalism offers those in the industry a niche voice and the ability to submerge themselves in a topic that interests them. 
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By Remy Raitt

Whether its business, fashion, politics or sport, beat reporters are required in all sectors of the industry. And it’s rewarding. Health24’s Carine Visagie says through her work she is able to help readers. “Translating difficult science into simple concepts that everyone can understand means that I’m helping to empower people with life-saving knowledge,” she says.

Finding your beat

Visagie recommends specialising if it’s possible. But how do young journalists find their niche? Freelance journalist Liam Brickhill is, among other things, a cricket reporter for ESPN. He says a life-long love of the sport helped to spur his decision. “It’s easy to write about something you’re passionate about,” he says.

And if there isn’t one particular field that grabs you, explore. Writing for a multitude of subjects will help young journalists figure out what areas they feel most comfortable in. And once a beat has been identified, practice and pursuit may turn into a fruitful career.

The benefits of a beat

Writing on a single topic allows journalists to become experts on the subject. Brickhill says that it can offer a rewarding working life, “provided your beat is something that really interest you”. And once you’re comfortable in the beat Visagie says spotting and writing stories becomes a cinch. “Certain topics become so familiar that you don’t even have to do much research to write them. You also get a chance to build up a solid list of contacts – people with whom you develop great relationships over the years,” she says.

Stacking up sources

Sonya Smith says in article for the Society of Professional Journalist says that although finding quality sources doesn’t happen overnight, the longer you pursue the subject the more they will trust you. A sold contact list offers journalists quick story turnaround. And, once trusted, sources will approach journalists with the latest news, instead of the other way around.

Develop a voice

“I think it’s important to remember that even within a particular niche or beat, there’s room for original voices,” says Brickhill. “In fact, if you’re going to get yourself noticed in a competitive field, bringing a unique perspective to a subject is vital. It’s a cliché, but you’ve got to be yourself.”

Off beats

Visagie doesn’t see a lot wrong with beat reporting. “Just a tad of boredom,” she says. Brickhill says by only covering one topic you run the risk of pigeonholing yourself. “Perhaps it’s similar to an actor being typecast – once you’re known for playing one sort of role, it’s hard to break out of that.”

Breaking out

That said both Brickhill and Visagie have had success in covering topics very different from their specific beats. Visagie has occupied roles with the food journalism industry and worked in an online editorial position covering architecture, décor and design. Brickhill covers music and festivals in between his cricket reporting. Visagie recommends occasionally busting out your beat. “Don’t get stuck in a rut,” she says, “changing beats will energise you and help you to stay sharp.”

What it boils down to is covering things that interest you and your readers. “Journalism is a vocation,” says Brickhill. “If you’re going to spend a lot of time and effort in a specific area, you better love it.”

Are you a beat reporter? What does specialising offer a journalist?