As a journalism student it can often be a daunting prospect to have to face the big bad world of Irish media. Stories of in-crowds and closed shops make starting points hard to find while sources and leads can often be even more difficult to find. It can seem at times that you’re stuck in a catch-22 situation; you need sources to get a good job but you need a good job to build sources.
Online media is without doubt a liberating resource to a start-up reporter, columnist or even presenter. Once you have an ounce of ability you will find some site to carry your message and get your name out there. With the right amount of enthusiasm you can acquire a respectable portfolio of work in reviewing or commenting. The growth in podcasting has also offered wannabe radio presenters the chance to verbally strut their stuff to a potentially gigantic audience.
The question many may ask themselves, however is ‘what does this mean in the long run?’. It’s understandable to question the strength of an online portfolio, especially when compared to one based on more traditional media such as print or television. It’s all well and good to have written 20 review pieces for somerandomsite.com but anyone can do that. Right?
Arguably, yes. Any random surfer can work their way into writing for a site of any description be it through persistance, timing or something else. The thing many people forget, though, is that this is true for all types of media; new, old and in between. There is no journalistic job out there that demands a qualification because journalism is such a unique industry. Where other careers may rely on individuals whom are highly trained in, lets say a specific computer programme, Journalism only needs the individual to have a good grasp of their language and all its tricks and traits. Naturally a qualification helps but it doesn’t guarentee a thing, either.
Forgetting about the ease of writing for a website for one minute, what else does it do for your future career? Well with your work you can now proudly call yourself a published writer. It might sound like a bit of a white lie, but it’s true. You can also proudly point your status out to potential employers. What do you think they’d prefer to hear; “I wrote this about a film I went to see once just so I could put it in my portfolio” or “I wrote this for somerandomsite.com while I was a Film Reviewer there”? It may not be the finest publication in existance, but it is a publication nonetheless.
Finally, ignoring the advantage such work gives you, the opportunity to practice your skills is priceless. If your dream is to review movies, music or TV for a living you’re not going to get there by writing reviews for yourself. You won’t get there by giving a detailed and eloquent analysis of the film/song/show to a friend of yours. The only way you will perfect your abilities is by writing for someone or something other than yourself. This will give you a chance to get to grips with your failings and deal with them. Even if you write a bad piece you’re unlikely to get a reply of “This sucks, don’t bother me again”, you’re more likely to get something even remotely useful like “This is ok, but it could be improved in the following ways…”. The experience will also be useful for learning about differing house styles, a very important part of writing. You may have a style that suits you but it doesn’t quite fit the magazine you’re working for at the moment. Do you quit? Demand they change their entire format? No, you tweak your style for them. It’s not selling out, it’s adapting to demand. It doesn’t mean you have to write a less or more critical review, nor does it mean you have to write a dumbed down version of your work, it just means you have to target it in the right direction. House style and target audiences can often seperate the movie/music/tv buffs from the critics as it demands that you think in a less personalised way. You must not look at the question as “is this a good film/song/show?” but rather “would my reader be interested in this film/song/show, and how can I best explain to them why the will or won’t?”. It also encourages you to think in context; not to wonder if the piece is bad by your standards but instead how it looks against its peers.
Now, it’s all well and good for reviewers and comment writers. It’s easy to review something like a film, you just have to go to your local cinema. It’s easy to write a comment piece on something, you just get typing. Reporting online is probably the least student friendly. The reason is that it seems to have all the trappings of traditional reporting; you don’t have the contacts or sources and so you don’t have your own story. Also, there seem to be fewer sites which offer chances to upcoming reporters as news sites are usually much more professional and established. So what can you do?
The best way is to make a name for yourself where you can and blogging is the key. You’re not expected to be first in the world with a story but if you can keep your eyes peeled you and your blog could become notorious for posting some of the big stories before most other places (or even just writing better than most other places). This can be from other blogs, from breaking news sites or even from stories you have pieced together from existing stories. If people know your site to be the best place for the type of news they want, they’ll be back every day. They’ll also know your name. Of course, you’re not expected to lift other peoples work and pretend it to be your own, instead you would link to their work or at least credit them. All you’re doing is presenting the story in your own words or with your own alterations; you may decide to slant it, balance it or spin it, it’s up to you and what you want to be known for. That is really what news is about; a story breaks and each part of the media takes the information they get, interpret it in their own way and gather whatever else they can. The culture of super-fast news seems to have blinded many people to that, they seem to assume that if you don’t get their first you shouldn’t bother at all.
The truth is that online media is not going to get people jobs who would not have gotten them before. Sure it has created new jobs, but they are only being filled by people who deserve them. It’s not as if all the real journalists are busy with real media and so the dregs of the barrel are thrown to the computers. Online media will, however give more people more of a chance. It might be a chance to earn a reputation. It might be a chance to build up some confidence in your abilities. It might be a chance to practice. It might be a chance to call yourself published. Whatever opportunity it has for you is up to you. Blogs, podcasts and site after site have given people like you the chance to be the media; it is however your ability and your willingness that will decide if you can achieve the most out of that chance.