Here's an article I wrote in September 2003 headlined "modern journalism":
I was interested to hear Andrew Denton’s interview last night with veteran White House press corps member Helen Thomas.
I empathised with her comment that it’s hard to start writing opinion pieces after years of straight reporting.
It also made me realise that I’m in the older generation of (former) journalists who believe newspapers should mostly report rather than moralise.
Nick Higgins, who’s a few years younger than me, successfully juggles opinion writing with reporting on the Border Mail. He observed on Saturday that the only thing worse than an old person saying how good things were in the old days is a young one!
I guess at 36 I’m old or young depending on the reader’s age. I feel qualified though to comment on changes in the profession of journalism.
Generally I think standards have deteriorated over the past 20 years. I blame the training system, which today churns out hundreds of university graduates with limited practical knowledge.
Newspapers today contain more commentary and so-called analysis than reportage.
I finished year 12 in 1984 and fiddled around for a couple of years before committing myself to a newspaper career. A cadetship was the accepted entry mode, but I couldn’t get one.
I resorted to the next best option and was fortunate to gain admission to the RMIT journalism school in Melbourne, one of only about 40 students in the intake.
After one semester I was offered a cadetship on a country newspaper and said farewell to academic life. Since then there’s been a total reversal in training from on site to on campus, similar to what’s occurred in nursing.
I don’t think change in this instance is for the better. I’m a better writer for having been exposed to sharp-tongued editors, cynical sub-editors and aggressive newsroom rivals during my formative years.
It’s better to have hourly and daily feedback on your work than it is to wait for an assignment to be returned every few weeks.
What disturbs me is that many of today’s editors came through the university system themselves. There are fewer from the “old school”.
The good university graduates need to have bad habits knocked out of them pretty quickly when they land a job. That’s not going to happen if the people who edit their work have bad habits themselves.
The following isn’t from any manual, but the golden rules of reporting for me are:
1) Summarise your story in less than 25 words in the opening paragraph.
2) Finish the main points of your story within the first five sentences.
3) Write your story so it can be cut from the bottom.
4) Never write an opinion that isn’t attributed to someone.
5) Avoid redundant words.
6) Never assume (or you make an ASS out of U and ME).
My nine-year-old daughter has to complete a weekly project in which she needs to summarise a newspaper article and read it to the class.
I told her to read the first five paragraphs, but when I checked her examples I was appalled at how little information was conveyed in these critical opening words by experienced metropolitan reporters.
It remains a fact that if you haven’t captured your reader’s attention from the outset then you’ve lost him forever.
I’ve noticed for several years that many journalists fail to attribute opinion and often give their own opinions, especially in political reporting. This tendency is more apparent on the broadsheets (eg The Age).
The standard of journalism on small country newspapers has become poor due simply to bad writing. For this I blame the employers, who continue to get away with paying sub-standard wages for the same work; a situation that doesn’t exist in any other industry.
Getting back to my original point (this is my Blog so I’m allowed to wander and rant), I’ve found it hard to break good habits.
My goal now is to rediscover a childhood talent I had for creative writing. Newspapers knocked creative writing out of me.
Adjectives were banned unless they described a crime suspect.
Letting loose in this Blog may stir some latent creative ability.