How to get a head start in journalism

September 22, 2021

Image by Marjory Collins: newsroom of the New York Times newspaper; a work of the U.S. federal government in the public domain

Arjan Arenas attends some Guardian masterclasses and reports back on what he learned

Are you interested in a career as a journalist? Want to learn more about the field, and the best ways to get ahead in it? Want to speak to some professionals and find out how they got where they are? Then I can’t recommend Guardian Masterclasses highly enough.

The paper runs a series of brilliant courses for newcomers to the world of journalism, which are particularly useful for young people but open to all. Every area of journalism under the sun is covered so whether you want to be a features editor, a political columnist, a photographer, a lifestyle editor, or anything in between, there’s something for everyone.

The Masterclasses first came to my attention when Exposure very kindly gave me the opportunity to go to three of them. Having spent most of my summer so far busy with working from home – the brilliant flexibility of which meant that, happily, I’d be easily able to take part in the Masterclasses – I was thrilled to be able to learn more about what it takes to be the best journalist possible, as well as what different areas of journalism there were to work in and what each one would entail.

Coco Khan ran us through what makes a good news feature

I was especially excited to speak to professionals working for the Guardian, who I was certain would offer plenty of useful advice and insight on how they got into journalism and what they’ve learned there. I wouldn’t be disappointed.

The first workshop was on writing features (the long articles in a newspaper or magazine which offer different perspectives on a current issue or event). This is the area covered in the masterclasses which I was most familiar with, and was delivered by Coco Khan, a commissioning editor and columnist at the Guardian, some of whose articles I’d read before.

After giving us a quick run-through of her background and career – she grew up on a council estate in east London, didn’t formally study journalism, and freelanced for loads of different magazines before getting an article of hers published in the best-selling anthology The Good Immigrant – she ran us through what makes a good news feature.

In an infectiously enthusiastic tone, spouting advice at the speed of a machine gun, Coco highlighted that writing a feature does allow you to be more colourful and personal in your writing, but it is still journalism and must be professional. She also advised that a good feature should inform readers about its subject, why it’s relevant, and why it matters, and should be as accessible to any and all readers as possible.

Being true to your voice is absolutely essential to good writing

Perhaps the best piece of advice she gave in her workshop to any budding writer, journalist or otherwise, is that no writer is born with their voice; it takes a while to find it, and it can change over time. However, being true to your voice is absolutely essential to good writing.

The workshop ended with a fun exercise where we were put into groups and planned our own features based on popular fairy tales, targeted at different papers and magazines.

The second workshop on podcasts and audio journalism was delivered by sound designer Axel Kacoutié, who came across as far more relaxed than Coco, but no less enthusiastic. His takeaway quote was that “If a picture speaks a thousand words, then sound design paints a thousand pictures.”

He gave plenty of advice on how to create soundscapes, including music, sound effects and editing audio to make everything seem smooth, and explained how the organisation of music and audio to induce emotion and feeling, and making people a part of a moment. It was a brilliant insight into an area of journalism previously I knew virtually nothing about, and offered a wealth of useful advice for anyone interested in going into journalistic sound design.

You can relate to interviewees more clearly when you can see them, rather than simply reading their words

The third and final workshop was on current affairs documentaries, and came courtesy of video producer Leah Green. As she explained to us, she got her start on student radio, before completing a master’s degree in broadcast journalism and going into local BBC Radio, then turning her hand to documentaries.

As well as outlining the process of pitching and then making a documentary, she made clear to us the differences between it and a TV news report; whereas the latter is a short, to-the-point summary of the bare facts of an issue or event, documentaries delve deeper, and more subjectively, and as I observed, follow the presenter on a personal journey of understanding.

Leah argued that you can relate to interviewees more clearly when you can see them, rather than simply reading their words, and encouraged us to look out for work experience opportunities wherever we can find them.

Overall, the Guardian Masterclasses brilliantly explained all kinds of different facets of journalism and how to get involved. If you’re at all interested in journalism, how to get into it, and how to do it well, sign up now.

Funding from The National Lottery Community Fund, distributed by CommUNITY Barnet Giving has helped us with this work. Thanks to National Lottery players for making this possible.

Arjan Arenas studied history at King’s College London, then completed a master’s in the history of international relations at the London School of Economics. He has worked with Exposure since January 2018, and is particularly interested in history and politics, as well as books, film and television. Outside of his work with Exposure, Arjan has written reviews of films and television programmes, as well as theatre productions in London’s West End.

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