Ten steps to journalistic success – with Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee, Guardian columnist since 1998, visited Harlow university centre in Essex for a Q&A with journalism students.

Stevie Martin, freelance student, looked for details on how to follow the right career path.

After fifty years of journalism at Anglia Ruskin in Harlow, it only seems fitting to highlight the semi centennial with such an inspiring and successful host.

If you don’t know already, Toynbee – otherwise known as Mary Louisa Toynbee – has been a highly talented and respected writer since the late seventies.

Once settled, she launches into her first tip…

1 – “Read the papers!

Not just one, a variation of them…when an editor asks you what’s been interesting you lately in an interview, what are you going to say? It shocks me how many journalist students don’t keep up to date with current news.”

2 – “Know basic politics, foreign affairs and powerful newspaper names – Like Rupert Murdock, who owns around forty percent of the media of this country and did a good job of intimidating David Cameron and others with his dominant character.

If you only like to read the fun articles in the paper, force yourself to read the more political ones – see it as homework.

As well as this, keep a check in on what the American President is doing and whether or not they’re going to allow a nuclear weapon into another country…”

3 – “Be prepared to make your own decisions on dishonest work.”

Journalists have done intrusive things to get a story in the past, for example “ordering something to the address of a house where a big story is taking place, and – once the doors opened – the reporter puts the foot in the door of someone who, before a week ago, was a nobody – but now has people camping out on their front lawn.”

Other reporters have also been known to “push large cheques through the letterboxes of these peoples houses – as much as a hundred-thousand pounds – simply to entice them. “

You have to decide how far you are willing to go to get a story.

4 – “Get your foot in the door with one special piece. Working for the Guardian, I know that freelance journalists can submit their work online.

This should be the exact length requested, should keep them reading all the way through and should be punchy, quick and interesting…don’t offer something until you absolutely know its quite grabby.  You’re lucky, as a young person, as it will make you stand out because there aren’t many young freelancers who do it – (apply online).”

5 – “Have an area of expertise, but don’t let it restrict you forever. 

For me it was the benefit system, as I learned the ins and outs of it in depth and was able to use this later on in my career.

If you love photography or have knowledge in a subject that isn’t widely explored, use it!

When I first started out my expertise was in work place situations, as I chose to move to a council estate and work any minimum wage job offered. At the time, I felt I did not have enough life experience to be a serious journalist.”

6 – Don’t be driven by money, as its “very hard to hold body and soul together as a freelance journalist.” It can be very rough for those starting out, as “journalists in the past have been manipulated into writing false articles” and damaged their reputation as a result.

“There is a kind of madness in those newsrooms, and it’s kind of an addiction…you’re only as good as your last story and its up to you to decide how addicted you’re willing to get.”

7 – “Keep a fresh perspective.”

Don’t worry about seeing everything like other journalists, a big reason most young journalists are hired is because of the perspective they have.

8 – Don’t see the profession through rose tinted glasses.

“I think the world of the internet and twitter has made journalism nastier.  It’s speeded up the cycle of spite. Any young person – a new rock star, for example – can be glorified and then be trashed a few months later.

There is a side of journalism that is malicious, and I think the internet has developed this appetite for spite. Every single time I write, someone’s commenting below saying things like ‘she’s a terrible writer’, though I think this is just a right-wing obsession, to slate others work.”

You should also “go out and see what’s happening on the ground, as this is where you will find the most important stories. Talking about integrity and the five percent in this country who make the most money really brought this home for me in the early days.”

9 – “Remember that we’re not just writers or reporters, we’re entertainers” – and be solid in the knowledge that, if you use your area of expertise to capture people’s attention, you’re doing a good job.

Focus and remember that you can and should “show people something amazing with your work”.

10 – “Be hopeful, as the broad media is growing as the recovery takes off and we have some of the most impressive and famous journalism in the world in England,so be proud of your skills and don’t ever think people will see you as anything other than a master of your subject. Our reputation as British journalists is rewound.”

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